PBS And WNET Have A New Integrity Problem

[ Posted Thursday, April 23rd, 2015 – 18:40 UTC ]

Apparently, Ben Affleck's distant relatives once owned slaves. Now, in the history of this blog I don't think I've ever started an article by dishing celebrity dirt, but this story unfortunately goes a little deeper. Because I didn't learn that fact on PBS. I learned it as the spark which set off yet another integrity problem for both New York's WNET and the Public Broadcasting System in general.

The full story, dug out of the Sony emails that were recently leaked on Wikileaks, is that Ben Affleck appeared as a subject on the PBS series Finding Your Roots, which digs into the ancestry of celebrities and presents the findings as (at best) infotainment. I don't watch the show personally, because I found it to be pretty shallow and sensationalistic, which is decidedly not what I tune in to PBS to see. That's just one man's opinion, I should point out. The show seems to be doing quite well without my viewership, so I realize I may be in the minority in that opinion.

The show is hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr. What happened, as the Sony email leak reveals, is that Affleck (for whatever reason) asked Gates to edit out the segment of his interview where the slave-owning ancestors were revealed. What happened next is, at this point, anyone's guess. When the show aired, the segment was indeed edited out.

The segment isn't all that controversial or anything. I mean, Affleck didn't defend his ancestor's viewpoint or anything of the sort. The site Gawker just published a transcript of what was cut out. Decide for yourself:

AFFLECK: God. It gives me kind of a sagging feeling to see, uh, a biological relationship to that. But, you know, there it is, part of our history.

GATES: But consider the irony, uh, in your family line. Your mom went back fighting for the rights of black people in Mississippi, 100 years later. That's amazing.

AFFLECK: That's pretty cool.

GATES: That's pretty cool.

AFFLECK: Yeah, it is. One of the things that's interesting about it is like we tend to separate ourselves from these things by going like, you know, oh, well, it's just dry history, and it's all over now, and this shows us that there's still a living aspect to history, like a personal connection. By the same token, I think it's important to recognize that, um, in looking at these histories, how much work has been done by people in this country, of all kinds, to make it a better place.

Pretty tame stuff, really. I mean, it's one of Affleck's distant relatives, after all. But at some point, Affleck decided that it wasn't a "personal connection" he wanted aired to the rest of America. So he complained, and asked that it be removed. That's his right, I should add.

But such complaints aren't supposed to influence editorial decisions at all. Whether they did or did not -- and at what level -- still remains murky at best. Right after the initial Daily Mail article (which broke the story) appeared, both Gates and PBS issued statements which might be charitably described as "unsatisfactory." Even the PBS ombudsman called them a "weak response" and "not credible."

Gates, in his statement, said that he "and his producers" made the editorial decision to cut the segment. One of those producers is one of the PBS flagship stations, WNET/Thirteen, based in New York City. In the second PBS ombudsman column, the station was asked directly whether they had been aware of the slave-owning Affleck segment. They responded:

Yes, the segment was in both the rough cut and the fine cut, was the subject of discussion between [WNET/]Thirteen and KMP [Kunhardt McGee Productions]. On April 22, 2014, Thirteen Executive Producer Julie Anderson sent notes on the rough cut to John Maggio and Dyllan McGee, questioning whether there was a danger of repetition in including slave-owning ancestor stories in three separate celebrity profiles -- Anderson Cooper, Ken Burns and Ben Affleck -- and recommending that they not air in sequence. On the same day, KMP Executive Producer Dyllan McGee responded: "I think your point about spacing them out in scheduling is right and I reiterate what John said that these are milestones in our histories so we will see these stories again and I would argue that it's the different way we hear them is what makes it so interesting -- we are hearing familiar history for a completely different perspective and unknown story."

They also answered an emphatic "NO" when asked if they were aware that Affleck had demanded the segment be removed. In the third ombudsman column, Gates and his executive producer issued an apology to PBS for not informing them of the Affleck demand. PBS is still conducting an internal review, which has not been concluded yet, so one assumes there will be future ombudsman columns to address the results of this review.

Forgive me if I find WNET a little less than credible. It's a pretty big stretch of the imagination to believe that WNET independently asked Gates to remove the Affleck segment because there "was a danger of repetition in including slave-owning ancestor stories in three separate celebrity profiles." In other words, they didn't know of Affleck's request, they were meeting with Gates and the other producers, where nobody brought it up, and then -- completely independently -- they decided that three segments with slave-owning ancestors was too much, for purely artistic reasons, and then decided to cut, quite coincidentally, the Affleck segment (rather than one of the other two).

All of that would be pretty hard to believe even if WNET had no history of being accused of improper influence in editorial decisions in the past. Unfortunately, they do. The saga of the cancellation of the funding for the documentary Citizen Koch revealed that David Koch was actually a member of their board. Koch is not only a conservative icon, he's also a big philanthropist, and had given over $23 million to PBS over the years. But, as the extensive New Yorker article which broke the story pointed out, Koch apparently was dangling a multimillion-dollar donation to WNET just as the decision to kill Citizen Koch was made. This, if true, is nothing short of crassly selling out all claims to editorial independence and integrity for both WNET and (by extension) PBS. I wrote a little rant about it, at the time, after viewing the film in question at the Netroots Nation conference.

At the time, the PBS ombudsman had a rather weak response to the controversy (emphasis in original):

More to the point, however, is that what we may be dealing with here may be a form of self-censorship in which officials at ITVS, and maybe at WNET and PBS itself, become wary of the impact of another PBS-distributed film critical of a hugely wealthy and politically active trustee of two key PBS stations who had already donated $23 million to public broadcasting and was reportedly considering a new, very large gift. Self-censorship is frequently impossible to prove because it suggests you know what is going on inside a person's head. But the unspoken influence of money -- especially big money -- can be thought-provoking inside organizations, especially public ones that are always scrounging and live within a unique and uncertain fund-raising environment.

So, another case of "self-censorship" that sounds rather familiar, since it took place at the same PBS station. In the case of David Koch, the bigwigs at WNET decided -- solely on their own, without ever hearing a single complaint from Koch himself, mind you -- to ashcan a documentary scathingly critical of Koch. No influence, no pressure, and that multimillion-dollar donation simply had nothing to do with their decision. Fast-forward to today, and we have the WNET bigwigs deciding -- solely on their own, for artistic reasons, dammit -- to remove a segment from a show that purely by coincidence a big movie star had demanded be removed. No influence (that they had heard of), no pressure, and Affleck's demand had nothing to do with their decision, because they weren't even aware of it. Nothing to see here, folks, move along, in other words. For the second time.

The PBS ombudsman does have a point. PBS is not like any other broadcast network, because it is largely just a sum of their parts -- their affiliates in the network actually drive the programming, not some central organization (such as the way NBC, or CBS, or any other television network operates). As the ombudsman explains:

PBS is a complicated beast. Millions of people watch its television programs but my guess is that relatively few understand that PBS does not produce any of these programs. The Public Broadcasting Service is basically a distribution system for films and programs produced by independent filmmakers or by a handful of big member stations in cooperation with other producers.

Fair enough, but that just puts the spotlight entirely on WNET. This is not some station from a minor television market, it is one of the flagship stations for PBS (an argument could be made -- which I would agree with -- that WGBH in Boston is a far more productive and impressive PBS station, and thus is the true flagship in the PBS fleet).

Maybe WNET is telling the unvarnished truth. Maybe they had a hand in killing a documentary that was critical of a big donor and trustee of the station who was about to give megabucks to the station, all purely by coincidence. Maybe they came up with the idea of cutting a segment from a show that a world-famous movie star didn't like, purely by coincidence. Maybe the two ethical questions arose independently (and purely by coincidence, of course) at exactly the same station.

For me, that's at least one coincidence too many.

PBS is supposed to be the gold standard of editorial excellence. They were created to avoid conflicts of interest with big-money sponsors. That's the whole point of having public television in the first place, in other words. So these scandals aren't minor in any way, because they cut to the foundational raison d'être of PBS. If we can't trust the editorial decision process at PBS, then, bluntly, there is simply no reason for them to exist. This isn't just celebrity gossip, in other words, it is an existential crisis for WNET and PBS.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


3 Comments on “PBS And WNET Have A New Integrity Problem”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    Pretty tame stuff, really. I mean, it's one of Affleck's distant relatives, after all.

    Really tame, to be honest...

    But, as with many MANY things, it's not the incident..

    It's always the cover-up...


  2. [2] 
    TheStig wrote:

    My local PBS station was airing this spit-take-inducing blurb until last week:

    "Nazi Mega Weapons is underwritten by viewers like you."

    Very disturbing until your mind works out the grammar. Big Bird is one thing, the Atlantic Wall quite another.

  3. [3] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Public Television has national, state, and local components. Who provides the fodder for this complicated beast is very hard to determine. I'm unable find a pie chart (or rough equivalent) laying out the aggregate revenue stream (national + state/regional + local). Who is the public in public TV?

    It clear that about 20% of the money comes from federal taxes. Loyal viewers know PBS has regular pledge breaks, but local membership is small compared to overall viewership, about 5% where I live, and I suspect that is typical.

    As much as I admire the quality of Public TV (and public radio), I find this situation troubling.

    Federal taxes seem to cover about 20% of operating costs. Local stations get state and local government grants, you can look these up for your favorite station. In principle, you can look them up for all the local stations in all 50 states but who has the time?

    PBS viewers know all too well that there are regular pledge drives, but overall membership seems very small compared to's only about 5% where I live and I suspect that is typical. About 50 local businesses provide grants to my station, and they air brief commercials between programs. There are also acknowledgments of big private, corporate and philanthropic requests for your old car, any stock don't need and hey, how about giving us a bit of your estate when you shuffle off?

    PBS production standards have greatly improved over the last 30 years so. Compare old favorites like Upstairs Downstairs or Sherlock Holmes to their modern counterparts. The old standards like plays, the new stuff is movie quality. Somebody is paying for this, and I don't think it's the public. Thirty years ago there were no ads on public TV. The public hasn't received a raise in 30 years. Money talks and will walk if displeased.

    So, PBS, give us that pie chart. Make it available on the local station websites. PBS is virtually the only broadcast TV I watch. PBS aired material is a substantial portion of what I watch on streaming video. Your quality is truly the Gold Standard. That said, I want to know if I'm still watching Public TV or should you change your name to Plutocratic Broadcasting System?

    I had meant to put this rant together a few days ago, but good weather intervened and I did landscaping instead. Now, I'm heading off to The Home Depot again.

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