Ben Affleck’s great-great-great grandfather Benjamin Cole owned 25 slaves, according to the deleted segment of “Finding Your Roots” that Affleck himself requested be squashed. Cole, a wealthy Savannah, Ga. land-owner, was also sheriff of Chatham County.

Last week, e-mails from the Sony hack, published by Wikileaks, revealed that Affleck asked Henry Louis Gates, the academic and host of the PBS show “Finding Your Roots,” to refrain from including the portion of the show that talked about his slave-owning ancestor. Gates e-mailed Sony chief executive Michael Lynton to ask for advice on how to proceed.

[Even PBS isn’t immune to Hollywood’s big PR machine — or the influence of Ben Affleck]

In the segment, Affleck reveals that he has a house in Savannah, but Gates doesn’t press him about whether it, or the land where it sits, was inherited or whether Affleck bought it. Affleck, who grew up in Cambridge, Mass., says that he had “no idea” he had southern roots.

Director and actor Ben Affleck apologized on Facebook for asking that a PBS documentary on his ancestry exclude a relative who had owned slaves. The cyber attack on Sony Pictures brought the omission to light. (Reuters)

The cut segment opens with a voice over referring to Affleck’s ancestor Almon French, the occultist who ended up taking the place of prominence in Affleck’s episode of “Finding Your Roots.”

Here’s the transcript (via the Independent):

AT THE SAME TIME THAT ALMON WAS TRYING TO OFFER THE BEREAVED SOLACE… ANOTHER OF BEN’S ANCESTORS WAS LIVING 800 MILES DUE SOUTH. WE LEARNED THAT HIS LIFE HAD ALSO BEEN FUNDAMENTALLY AFFECTED BY THE CIVIL WAR—BUT FOR VERY DIFFERENT REASONS.

THIS MAN WAS BEN’S THIRD GREAT GRANDFATHER, BENJAMIN COLE, AND HE WAS LIVING IN SAVANNAH, GEORGIA AT THE TIME.

COLE WAS ONE OF SAVANNAH’S MOST PROMINENT CITIZENS—A WEATLHY LAND OWNER AND THE SHERIFF OF THE ENTIRE COUNTY.

AFFLECK: That’s amazing. I got a…we have a house in Savannah.

GATES: Really?

AFFLECK: Yeah.

GATES: Did it ever occur to you that you had deep roots there?

AFFLECK: No, it didn’t. It didn’t at all. I had no idea I had any southern roots at all, so this is remarkable.

COLE OWNED A LARGE FARM IN GEORGIA AT A TIME WHEN SLAVE LABOR HAD MADE THE STATE THE CENTER OF THE SOUTH’S COTTON KINGDOM.

WE WANTED TO SEE IF WE COULD LEARN HOW BEN’S ANCESTOR FELT ABOUT THIS PECULIAR INSTITUTION.

AND FOR THAT, WE STARTED WITH THE 1850 CENSUS.

GATES: This is the slave schedule of the 1850 Census. In 1850, they would list the owner of slaves in a separate Census.

AFFLECK: There’s Benjamin Cole, owned 25 slaves.

GATES: Your third great-grandfather owned 25 slaves. He was a slave owner.

THESE HOLDINGS PUT BENJAMIN COLE AMONG THE SOUTHERN ELITE.

ONLY ABOUT 10% OF ALL SLAVE HOLDERS OWNED 20 SLAVES OR MORE.

AFFLECK: God. It gives me kind of a sagging feeling to see, uh, a biological relationship to that. But, you know, there it is, part of our history.

GATES: But consider the irony, uh, in your family line. Your mom went back fighting for the rights of black people in Mississippi, 100 years later. That’s amazing.

AFFLECK: That’s pretty cool.

GATES: That’s pretty cool.

AFFLECK: Yeah, it is. One of the things that’s interesting about it is like we tend to separate ourselves from these things by going like, you know, oh, well, it’s just dry history, and it’s all over now, and this shows us that there’s still a living aspect to history, like a personal connection.

By the same token, I think it’s important to recognize that, um, in looking at these histories, how much work has been done by people in this country, of all kinds, to make it a better place.

GATES: People like your mother.

AFFLECK: Indeed, people like my mother and many others who have made a much better America than the one that they were handed.

The angle about Affleck’s slave-owning forefather wasn’t just a side-note. Originally, it would have helped shape the entire trajectory of the show. Here’s the original opener:

IN THIS EPISODE, WE PIECE TOGETHER THE LOST FAMILY HISTORIES OF ACTOR BEN AFFLECK, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST BEN JEALOUS, AND ACTOR KHANDI ALEXANDER.

THEIR ROOTS HIGHLIGHT A UNIQUELY AMERICAN PARADOX: EACH DESCENDS FROM A PATRIOT WHO FOUGHT FOR OUR NATION’S INDEPENDENCE—BUT EACH ALSO DESCENDS FROM AN ANCESTOR WHO OWNED SLAVES.

And here’s the opening that made the broadcast that aired in October:

IN THIS EPISODE, WE PIECE TOGETHER THE LOST FAMILY HISTORIES OF ACTOR BEN AFFLECK, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST BEN JEALOUS, AND ACTOR KHANDI ALEXANDER.

THEIR ROOTS LEAD TO ANCESTORS WHOSE LIVES WERE SHAPED BY THE TWO DEFINING WARS IN OUR NATIONS HISTORY. THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION AND THE CIVIL WAR.

PBS and WNET, the New York public television station that produces “Finding Your Roots,” in conjunction with Gates’s Inkwell production company, are conducting an internal investigation into the removal of the information about Cole and how it came about.

“During our many years of producing genealogy programs on PBS, we have always tried to function under the most rigorous scholarly and production values,” Gates said in a statement to Richard Prince, who writes the “Journal-isms” column for the Maynard Institute. “We regret not sharing Mr. Affleck’s request that we avoid mention of one of his ancestors with our co-production partner, WNET, and our broadcast partner, PBS. We apologize for putting PBS and its member stations in the position of having to defend the integrity of their programming. Moving forward, we are committed to an increased level of transparency with our co-producing partners. We respect PBS guidelines and understand our obligation to maintain editorial integrity at all times.”

PBS ombudman Michael Getler slammed PBS and Gates in his Tuesday column, accusing PBS of being “asleep at the switch”:

On the broader points, it seems to me that any serious program about genealogy, especially dealing with celebrities, cannot leave out a slave-owning ancestor. It also seems clear from the emails that Gates knew the stakes involved in terms of PBS credibility yet went with the advice from the Sony executive to squelch the factoid about a slave-owning ancestor and try to keep it quiet. And, although Gates said that he and his producers decide things about the program, there is no evidence so far that this issue of cutting that segment and explaining what led up to it was presented to one of those producers, WNET/Thirteen in New York.

So Gates, aside from the decision he made – and it looks to me like a bad one – also, in my opinion, violated the well-known “no surprises doctrine” for public affairs programming and many other things by not informing PBS about these demands by Affleck and exchanges with Sony. The emails make clear that Gates understood the serious journalistic and credibility issues at stake, and the risks should this become public.

As for PBS, they just struck me as asleep at the switch when this broke. It was pretty apparent from the leaked emails what had happened and to put out a statement that said essentially nothing and very quickly looked pathetic, as if they were hiding something.