More Trouble For Henry Louis Gates

This story just continues to get jucier with each passing day. The website Gawker now has the original script for Ben Affleck’s episode of “Finding Your Roots.” Henry Louis Gates has maintained that the decision to focus on another of Affleck’s ancestors had nothing to do with the actor’s request to steer clear of his slave-owning ancestor. The release of the script and the timing of the changes render that explanation as untenable.

0423toonwassermanGates clearly has more explaining to do. Given when the edits to the episode were made it now becomes more likely that additional staff members with the show were aware of Affleck’s request and understood why the changes were being made.

The integrity of the show and Gates’s reputation as a public intellectual have both been jeopardized.

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16 comments… add one
  • A. Jackson Apr 23, 2015

    It does get worse and worse. Could Gates and others have become starstruck? The only program of this nature that doesn’t cater to celebrities is Genealogy Roadshow, also on PBS, and people apply to be on that show. Maybe that is the direction programs of this nature will have to go in the future.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 23, 2015

      I wonder what Gates’s reaction would be if the request was made by Sara Palin.

      • A. Jackson Apr 23, 2015

        Good question! As someone who tries to be fair, I would hope Gates would be consistent. I am not a fan of either, and would like to see more emphasis on ordinary people.

      • Eric A. Jacobson Apr 23, 2015

        Good point. I’ve been following this for several days, and am not so bothered as others seem to be, but nonetheless, I am curious as to:

        Why is Affleck embarrassed? He had nothing to do with his ancestor, and his ancestor was someone he never knew. It’s like the polar opposite reaction of the “heritage” crowd. Neither makes any sense to me.

        As for Gates, his actions seem silly to me. Either tell Affleck if he wants to be on the show he doesn’t get to cut any “dirty” stuff that might come up, or if Affleck (or anyone else) is allowed to make such a request tell the viewers that a certain discovery was held back at the request of the guest.

        As for Palin, I’m still chuckling. She just grates on me, but I think you’re right that Gates would likely not been so accommodating with her.

      • Bummer Apr 23, 2015

        Or Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reed!
        Bummer

  • wkerrigan Apr 23, 2015

    I’m just going to put this out there: should we even be reading and talking about these kind of leaks at all? When hackers are leaking information on the grounds of compelling public interest (e.g. people should know what kinds of information their government is collecting about them) leaking seems justified. But what compelling public interest is served in airing negative material about private citizens?

    • A. Jackson Apr 23, 2015

      Celebrities are not private citizens in the sense that they live in the public eye, they seek out attention, and often bad publicity is considered better than no publicity at all. Affleck is an actor, a writer, a producer, a director so I do not consider him a private citizen, any more than I would call people who live their lives on reality shows private citizens. Ditto Mr Gates. They are public figures IMO.

      • wkerrigan Apr 23, 2015

        So public figures forfeit all right to privacy? Or just some? And if just some, where do we make the distinction?

        • A. Jackson Apr 23, 2015

          They do pretty much forfeit the right to privacy when their actions involve their public work, as in the case of Gates, or they agree to participate in a television program about their ancestors, as in the case of Affleck. FYR is a program with a following…and it has a subject, genealogy, which also has professional standards. In Gates case he violated a policy of PBS, the station on which his program airs, and he knew it was a violation. On the other hand, there are things that are strictly private, such as children. When Bill Clinton was elected president it was made clear to the press that Chelsea was off limits, and for the most part the media complied. Public figures are not just in government..

  • Brooks D. Simpson Apr 23, 2015

    Where are John Stauffer and Jim Downs when you need them?

  • Al Mackey Apr 23, 2015

    It was announced yesterday that there will be a companion book to the Second Season that will include the story of Benjamin Cole along with stories of other ancestors of guests that were not included in the aired episodes. Does the fact that there were other stories of ancestors not included in aired episodes have any effect on the outrage regarding not including Benjamin Cole in this episode?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 23, 2015

      No one is denying that choices must be made and that not everything can be included, but Gates admits that this was the first time that a guest requested that a story not be included. Given the story today in Gawker it looks like the changes were made after Affleck’s request. That, in my opinion, is incredibly troubling for the reasons that I have already expressed.

      • lunchcountersitin Apr 23, 2015

        The question is, do Gates and the producers have a “duty” to tell us things about a guest’s ancestors that the guest finds uncomfortable? I say no. Guests are volunteering to be on the show. if something is found out that is really troublesome to the guest and his/her family members, I think Gates and the producers should be respectful of that.

        What Gates and the producers do owe us is an engaging show about the family history of notable figures. The show with Affleck met that standard, IMO. Does anybody disagree? Perhaps the show would have been more compelling with the Affleck piece in it… perhaps. But did this show “need” the Affleck slave story to be engaging? No, it did not… in my opinion.

        On this same show with Affleck, there was a segment with Ben Jealous, the former NAACP president. Jealous is “bi-racial,” as we call it in America. The segment discussed how Ben’s white father was ostracized from his family, and lost a claim to the family fortune.

        Was that in good taste… to air all of that stuff about his family on television? I guess it’s “news,” and so it is “fair game” for the world to see. But if Jealous had said, “you know, I have relatives who might not be OK with this, I really need to see how all of them feel about this out of respect for their privacy, please don’t air that part right now”… I think it would have been right for Gates and the producers to observe that request. Assuming that the family has not yet reconciled over this history (and by now, perhaps they have), telling that story might have poisoned the waters, so to speak.

        A scholarly work could not be produced under such parameters/restrictions. The proper use of historical methods and scholarly judgment would not allow it. But for a show like this that is part entertainment, part education, this kind of flexibility is OK, I think.

        As I see it, this is show about people’s family history. It’s not the “Dirty Little Secrets” show or the “Dirty Linen” show. Of course there is something to be gained from getting the whole story, not selected parts. But the comfort level of the guest and the guest’s family should be taken into account.

        Of course, now the story has become “Gates-gate.” If Gates did simply observe Affleck’s wishes, he should have just said so. Stuff like this is hard to spin-doctor, as Gates and his folks are now learning.

        – Alan

  • John Gorenfeld Apr 24, 2015

    Hi Kevin,

    I wonder if Ben Affleck is also related to Robert Gould Shaw of the 54th regiment of “Glory” fame?

    Someone in the Gawker comments pointed out that Affleck’s grandmother, Elizabeth Shaw, was much franker in opening up about the family’s Confederate relations. She’s quoted as saying:

    “When I told her I was marrying a man named Shaw, from Boston, she said, “I know about those people. Led the Negroes in the Civil War; until that happened, we thought they were on our side.”

    She had to have be talking about Robert Gould Shaw, right?

    http://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/learn/archives/transcript_shaw.pdf

    (I actually found your blog while googling Robert Gould Shaw)

    • Kevin Levin Apr 25, 2015

      Hi John,

      Thanks for sharing the link and for stopping by.

    • Hugh Lawson Apr 25, 2015

      That interview is interesting due to its connection to the Affleck discussion: many southern people have moved north, and then stopped being southern; they pick up the local accent, and the thing is done. This has been going on for a long time. Besides that slavery was present all over the colonies. For both reasons, deep-roots-Americans in the Non-South may have slaveowning ancestors they don’t know about. There’s nothing strange about that. Many southern persons cannot identify slaveowning ancestors, because they haven’t done the genealogy required to find them.

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