PBS’ punishment of Henry Louis Gates unfair to viewers | Proportionality on Blog#42

Proportionality eluded PBS when the decision was made to suspend a beloved professor of African American studies’ important work on that network. In a world where serious historical shows are in scarce supply and programs on African American history even more so, it is very disappointing to see that the viewers will most likely be punished for what is, in the end, not a whole lot, especially when compared to NBC’s two media lapses.

In the grand scheme of things, how did Gates’ transgression compare to Brian Williams’ in severity, frequency and potential damage to content and the PBS brand? As compared to Chuck Todd?

While I certainly agree that Professor Gates’ handling could have been more principled – telling Affleck it’s either the truth or no segment – no real harm was done except to a few PBS execs to whom he didn’t give the deference they think they were due. Some internal rejiggering could have been done to ensure the bosses are kept in the loop, without suspending the show. A public warning could have been issued; after all, it isn’t as if Gates is in the habit of doing these things.

When pitting the perceived slight, and the weight of the actual ethical breakdown, against the loss to the general public, it seems to me our collective loss is far greater.

Finding Your Roots Is Suspended by PBS Over Ben Affleck Story – The Root

June 24 2015

The third season of the ancestry-research program Finding Your Roots, hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., has been suspended by PBS after a determination that an episode of the program featuring actor Ben Affleck violated the network’s standards.

In a strongly worded statement, PBS announced that the network is “postponing the scheduling of the third season of Finding Your Roots pending the production team’s implementation of staffing and other process changes that will significantly enhance the ability of PBS and WETA to oversee the editorial development of each episode on a timely basis, and to ensure that the problems that arose in episode 204 will be avoided in the future.”

PBS also noted that a commitment to the fourth season of the program will be delayed until “we are satisfied that the editorial standards of the series have been successfully raised to a level in which we can have confidence.”

Episode No. 204 featured the genealogy search of Affleck, who, it was later revealed, had requested that the program be edited to remove a reference to his slaveholding ancestor. This request was discovered, PBS notes in its statement, only after a series of emails were uncovered between Gates (who is also chairman of The Root) and Sony Chairman William Lynton. In those emails, Gates sought advice from Lynton about how to handle Affleck’s editing request.

When the program ultimately aired in October, there was no mention of the Affleck slaveholding ancestor. PBS said that the revelation of these emails months later, after Sony was hacked by WikiLeaks, “marked the first time that either PBS or WNET learned of this [Affleck] request.”

Gates issued the following statement after the PBS announcement:

I want to thank PBS for its thoughtful internal review. I sincerely regret not discussing my editing rationale with our partners at PBS and WNET and I apologize for putting PBS and its member stations in the position of having to defend the integrity of their programming. Throughout my many years of producing genealogy documentaries, I have always operated with rigorous ethical standards. Even so, we have been working with PBS and WETA to create new guidelines to increase transparency going forward.

My career has been dedicated to improving race relations and intercultural understanding in our country. We are very excited about the third season of “Finding Your Roots” and look forward to uncovering and sharing many more incredible ancestral stories with our viewers.

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