Ben Affleck appealed to Henry Louis Gates to keep an unsavory detail from his past a secret, according to an email from the lastest crop of leaked correspondence from the Sony hack.
The Oscar winner requested that the PBS documentary series Finding Your Roots, hosted by Harvard scholar Gates, not reveal that he has a slave-owning ancestor. The information never appeared on the program.
Gates, however, said in a statement that Find Your Roots didn't censor the slave-owner details. Instead, producers opted to profile more interesting stories in Affleck's family tree.
"For any guest, we always find far more stories about ancestors on their family trees than we ever possibly could use," Gates said in an emailed statement to The Associated Press. He said finding slave-owning ancestors was very common in the series, and noted Ken Burns and Anderson Cooper were two guests with slave-owner relatives.
In Affleck's case, "we decided to go with the story we used about his fascinating ancestor who became on occultist following the Civil War. This guy's story was totally unusual: we had never discovered someone like him before," he said.
In a leaked email exchange, Gates asks Sony chief Michael Lynton for advice on how to handle Affleck's request.
"Here's my dilemma: confidentially, for the first time, one of our guests has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors –– the fact that he owned slaves. Now, four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners, including Ken Burns. We've never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He's a megastar. What do we do?" Gates wrote last July.
Lynton replies that it all depends on who knows that the information was in the documentary already. "I would take it out if no one knows, but if it gets out that you are editing the material based on this kind of sensitivity then it gets tricky. Again, all things being equal I would definitely take it out," he wrote that same day.
After going back and forth, the two seem to decide censoring the information is a bad idea, with Gates deciding that if the public learned of it, "It would embarrass him and compromise our integrity. I think he is getting very bad advice," and adding, "Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand."
A PBS spokeswoman said that though the network was not part of the email chain between Gates, Sony and Affleck, "It is clear from the exchange how seriously Professor Gates takes editorial integrity."
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(Photos from left: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images, ndrew H. Walker/Getty Images for Whitney Museum of American Art)