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After omitting details of Ben Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor, ‘Finding Your Roots’ is suspended by PBS

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. (Video: Reuters)

When Ben Affleck volunteered to be featured on the PBS genealogy program “Finding Your Roots” last year, he was hoping to find “the roots of his family’s interest in social justice.”

Researchers did turn up plenty for the actor-cum-activist to be pleased about: a mother who was a member of the Freedom Riders, an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War.

But they also found Benjamin Cole, a great-great-great grandparent on his mother’s side. Cole was a sheriff in Chatham County, Ga., in the 1850s and ’60s, according to historical documents uncovered by Family History Insider. And he was the “trustee” of seven slaves.

An attempt to cover up that unwanted detail has led PBS to suspend the show, citing Affleck’s “improper influence” on programming.

“Finding Your Roots,” which was due to start its third season, is a typically PBS show. Executive produced by Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., it’s understated, bookish, set to a gentle soundtrack of twanging acoustic guitars and lightly probing in a way that’s neither too harsh nor provocative. It’s as much of a safe space as there ever was for a celebrity looking to burnish his progressive credentials to reckon with his own family’s checkered past.

But Affleck was “embarassed” by his slave-owning ancestor, he wrote on Facebook. “The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.”

So he asked the show’s producers to leave Cole out of the final cut of the program, and they — after some debate — agreed. When Affleck’s episode was broadcast in October, it contained no mention of Cole or Affleck’s Georgia relatives.

But once uncovered, this skeleton, buried for six generations, would not stay hidden. Hacked e-mails that surfaced on WikiLeaks this spring show an exchange between Gates and a Sony boss questioning whether to include the detail about the “Batman’s” slave-owning ancestor.

“We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found,” Gates wrote. “He’s a megastar. What do we do?”

In an initial statement in response to accusations of censorship and pandering, Gates said that Cole’s story was excluded in favor of other, more interesting aspects of Affleck’s history.

The program “never [shies] away from chapters of a family’s past that might be unpleasant,” he said, asserting that he maintained full editorial control over the show.

But on Wednesday, after conducting an internal review of the incident, PBS announced that the producers violated network standards by allowing Affleck to influence “the creative and editorial process.” The network added that it did not learn of Affleck’s request until it was published in the leaked Sony e-mails.

PBS will delay the next season of the show until its producers implement several staffing changes. They will be required to hire a fact checker and an independent genealogist, and will withdraw Affleck’s episode from all forms of distribution.

As others have pointed out, Affleck’s story is a case study in the coverup being worse than the crime. Plenty of other “Finding Your Roots” participants have found things they perhaps wished they hadn’t. Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter got his name from a slave-owner who likely raped his distant great-grandmother. Anderson Cooper’s ancestor was beaten to death by a rebellious slave. But Jeter doesn’t seem to have lost fans over the matter, and people are still watching CNN. Had his slave-holding ancestry been revealed in his episode, Affleck would have been fine in the eyes of the public.

Instead, he’s become the target of online vitriol accusing him of hiding from history to protect his own image.

“PBS America and Affleck show us that although Republicans aren’t perfect, at least they’re FAR more honest about their true opinions and intentions than lying Democrat HYPOCRITES like him — who perpetually attempt to hide the real truth, purely to suit their deceitful, self-serving agenda,” one person wrote on a YouTube clip from the show focused on Affleck’s civil rights activist mother.

Other comments — most of them laden with expletives — were even less generous.

Even those who sympathize with Affleck, like Salon writer  whose ancestor owned slave ships, fault him for the coverup.

“How does Affleck’s reluctance to discuss his personal connection to the slave-owning past make him different from 200 million or so other white Americans, who seem overwhelmingly and suspiciously eager to consign that entire topic to the historical oubliette, the category of Stuff That Doesn’t Matter Anymore and Maybe Never Did?” O’Hehir wrote. “The only responsibility [Affleck] inherits from his slave-owning ancestor … is the responsibility not to turn away.”