One last post on Gates-Gate, I swear. First, I encourage you to read our original story, in which the Sony email leaks showed that Henry Louis Gates Jr.—executive producer and host of PBS’ Finding Your Roots, a show that traces the ancestry of celebrities—had capitulated to a demand from Ben Affleck and censored a segment of the show revealing that one of Affleck’s forebears was a slave-owner. The emails with Sony CEO Michael Lynton leave no doubt that Gates knew the move would be ethically dubious, and Lynton even advised him against it in no uncertain terms. When explaining the decision later, before the Sony leak undermined him, Gates compounded the mistake by lying about his motivation, saying he was simply “focusing on the most interesting aspects of [Affleck’s] ancestry.”
Next, read yesterday’s post on the findings of a PBS investigation that resulted in the show being suspended. Among the demands that PBS made before continuing the third season, much less renewing the show for a fourth, were that Finding Your Roots hire an independent fact-checker and genealogist. Which confused me, because facts and genealogy weren’t the problem—Gates going against his principles to accommodate a celebrity was the problem.
But that seemed to be that, until today, when PBS ombudsman Michael Getler released his own report making the same point I made yesterday: The only obvious problem here is Gates himself.
“Gates..clearly knew the editorial and credibility stakes involved and the potential violation it posed of PBS editorial standards,” Getler wrote. “But after consulting with Sony executive Michael Lynton, Gates dropped that factoid from the program, without telling PBS or WNET.”
After summarizing the conclusions of the PBS investigation, Getler turned to Gates:
But there are two things that are still bothersome to me. One of them is something that a fact-checker and independent genealogist won’t catch. The problem with the main issue surrounding this episode ultimately was Gates’ judgment, not the facts. One of Affleck’s great-great-great grandfathers did own slaves. But the egregious error here was in seeking and then apparently letting advice from a commercial source (Sony) have some influence on a producer, and the producer appearing to act on that advice. That is deadly for public broadcasting.
Getler concluded by pointing out a factual inaccuracy from the episode involving Affleck’s mother, but his central point was that PBS essentially missed the point—and the point was bright and glaring. In my mind, there are three ways the network could have reacted to Gates-Gate that made sense, in order of severity:
1. Admit that Gates made a huge ethical error and blatantly ignored basic journalistic standards. Take an “everybody makes mistakes, but he has learned from them and it won’t happen again” approach.
2. Suspend Gates, with the same rationale as above.
3. Fire Gates.
All of these decisions seem legitimate to me, with nos. 1 or 2 being the most level-headed. But the lack of any real censure, and the misdirection with the genealogist and fact-checker demands, seems like an obvious attempt at lame whitewashing—which is exactly how Gates screwed up with Affleck. It makes you wonder whether integrity has really been restored at all.