All three networks on Sunday and Monday blasted biased reporting and conflict of interest at PBS. However, the subject matter wasn't the taxpayer-supported outlet's liberal tilt. It was related to Ben Affleck and his appearance on Finding Your Roots. Apparently, PBS colluded with the movie star to cover up the fact that Affleck's ancestor owned slaves.
Good Morning America's Amy Robach trumpeted, "Well, Ben Affleck is getting some unwanted attention this morning. There's word the actor tried to bury his roots, hiding part of his family's past that he's not very proud of." CBS reporter Carter Evans explained, "But according to private Sony e-mails published last week by WikiLeaks, he apparently did not want the show to reveal that one of his ancestors owned slaves and asked PBS to withhold that information."
Good Morning America, CBS This Morning and NBC's Today all covered the story of Affleck's family tree and how it was portrayed on PBS. (Today reported on it Sunday and Monday.) However, only CBS and NBC bothered to go beyond the celebrity fluff and focus on the journalistic angle. Evans added, "Affleck has yet to respond and there's no clear indication whether the leaks will hurt the reputation of the actor or PBS."
Evans featured Hollywood Reporter editor Matthew Belloni to chide, "It doesn't make PBS, which has an enormous amount of respect, it has a great news brand, it doesn't make them look good."
Over on Monday's Today, guest Brian Balthazar judged PBS: "Some people are saying this is censorship and unfair." Co-host Kathie Lee Gifford agreed, saying, "That's the way it appears to me, too...You can't write your history."
GMA, unsurprisingly, offered a superficial take, glossing over PBS and instead focusing on the celebrity angle. Reporter Linzie Davis highlighted the networks' defense: "PBS is supporting Gates's decision, telling us 'he and his producers made an independent, editorial judgment to choose the most compelling narrative.'"
CBSNews.com explained what the leaked e-mails included:
But Affleck apparently asked executive producer Henry Louis Gates Jr. to withhold information about his slave-owning ancestor and emails suggest it created an ethical dilemma.
Last July, Gates emailed Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton to ask for advice.
"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.
It would be nice if bias at PBS (and other outlets) could get a hearing at networks when the subject isn't related to a movie star.
A transcript of the April 20 CBS This Morning segment is below:
NORAH O'DONNELL: This morning, Ben Affleck has not responded to troubling information from a set of leaked e-mails. The messages suggest the Oscar winner wanted to censor a documentary on his family history. That's all coming up.
HENRY LOUIS GATES: You are descended from a patriot.
CARTER EVANS: In a 2014 episode of the PBS documentary series Finding Your Roots, Ben Affleck learned a great deal about his family tree. But according to private Sony e-mails published last week by Wikileaks, he apparently did not want the show to reveal that one of his ancestors owned slaves and asked PBS to withhold that information.
MATTHEW BELLONI (Hollywood Reporter executive editor): Hollywood people do that all the time. You know, they realize the power and influence of their participation in something and they use it to leverage a particular type of coverage.
CARTER EVANS: In an episode that aired, Affleck learned about a relative who was a soldier in the Revolutionary War.
AFFLECK: This is a big surprise and really exciting. I'm really proud of it.
EVANS: But Affleck apparently asked PBS to withhold information about his slave-owning ancestor. An e-mail suggested it created an ethical dilemma for PBS. Last July, the show's host, Henry Gates Jr., E-mailed Sony entertainment CEO Michael Lynton to ask for advice. "We've never had anyone try and censor or edit what we've found. He's a megastar. What do we do?" Lynton responded, "It is tricky, because it may get out you made a change and it comes down to editorial integrity." And Gates later replied, "Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand." PBS says Gates reviewed ten 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 points out that other stars, like Ken Burns and Anderson Cooper both have slave-owning ancestors that were featured in the show.
ANDERSON COOPER: It's shameful. And I feel such a sense of shame over it.
EVANS: Affleck has yet to respond and there's no clear indication whether the leaks will hurt the reputation of the actor or PBS.
BELLONI: It doesn't make PBS, which has an enormous amount of respect, it has a great news brand, it doesn't make them look good.
EVANS: For CBS This Morning, Carter Evans, Los Angeles.
ROSE: Anderson handled it the right way.
O'DONNELL: Yeah. You know, I'm not going to judge Ben Affleck because of something that's in his family's history. Yeah, I mean, he's done so much work for charity.