NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Ben Affleck issued an apology Tuesday, amid accusations that he tried to censor the fact that he had a relative who had owned slaves when he was interviewed for the documentary series “Finding Your Roots.”
The Oscar winner, whose mother is a New York City native, was interviewed for a 2014 eisode of the PBS series. But according to private Sony emails published by WikiLeaks, he apparently didn’t want the show to reveal that one of his ancestors owned slaves an asked one of the producers to withhold that information, CBS News reported.
In the episode that aired, Affleck learned about a relative who was a soldier in the Revolutionary War, CBS News reported.
“This is a big surprise and really exciting and I’m really proud of it,” he said.
But Affleck apparently asked executive producer Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. to withhold information about his slave-owning ancestor and emails suggest it created an ethical dilemma, CBS News reported.
Affleck admitted in a Facebook post that he had not wanted information about the slaveholding relative included in the series.
“After an exhaustive search of my ancestry for ‘Finding Your Roots,’ it was discovered that one of my distant relatives was an owner of slaves,” he wrote. “I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.
“Skip decided what went into the show. I lobbied him the same way I lobby directors about what takes of mine I think they should use. This is the collaborative creative process,” Affleck continued. “Skip agreed with me on the slave owner but made other choices I disagreed with. In the end, it’s his show and I knew that going in. I’m proud to be his friend and proud to have participated.”
Affleck wrote that it is important to remember that “Finding Your Roots” is not a news program, but a program in which participants voluntarily provide detailed information about their families that leaves them vulnerable.
“The assumption is that they will never be dishonest but they will respect your willingness to participate and not look to include things you think would embarrass your family,” he wrote.
“I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story. We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing,” Affleck continued. “I am glad that my story, however indirectly, will contribute to that discussion. While I don’t like that the guy is an ancestor, I am happy that aspect of our country’s history is being talked about.”
Last July, Gates emailed Sony Entertainment chief executive officer Michael Lynton to ask for advice after Affleck asked to have the slaveholding ancestor kept out of the program, CBS News reported.
“We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?” Gates asked.
“It is tricky because it may get out that you made the change and it comes down to editorial integrity,” Lynton responded.
“Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand,” Gates later replied.
PBS said Gates reviewed 10 hours of footage for the episode and made an independent editorial judgment. In a statement to CBS News, Gates said the program chose to highlight other ancestors who had more interesting stories.
He pointed out that other stars like Ken Burns and Anderson Cooper both have slave-owning ancestors that were featured on the show, CBS News reported.
“It’s shameful and I feel a sense of shame over it,” Cooper said in the series.
PBS said in a statement to CBS News that it was not involved in Affleck’s editorial request.
“PBS, as distributor of the series, and WNET (Channel 13) were not told of Mr. Affleck’s request to Professor Gates and the producers of ‘Finding Your Roots’ and were not part of that specific editorial decision made by Professor Gates and his producers,” the statement said.