Article by Emma Christiantelli | esPResso Staff Writer
Last September, Oscar-winning actor and director, Ben Affleck, appeared on an episode of PBS’s new genealogy series, “Finding Your Roots.” The program examined Affleck’s family history, dating as far back as the Revolutionary War. After filming, Affleck urged the producers to delete a reference to an ancestor who had owned slaves and PBS complied. However, a hacked Sony email about the censor recently surfaced on WikiLeaks and is causing backlash toward Affleck for his decision.
On Tuesday, April 21, Affleck took to social media to address the situation. He released a statement on his Facebook page in which he tried to apologize for requesting the omission of the fact that he had a slave-owning ancestor from the Finding Your Roots” episode. “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,” Affleck posted to his Facebook wall. Saying that the thought left a bad taste in his mouth, Affleck explained, “I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed.”
His post goes on to acknowledge his regret of the omission. “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.”
It should be noted that other celebrities, including Derek Jeter, Anderson Cooper and filmmaker Ken Burns, were also interviewed on “Finding Your Roots” and had an easier time dealing with the subject of their slave-owning ancestors than Affleck did. No requested omissions, no necessary apologies.
Covertly requesting the omission of the detail was certainly an error in judgement on Affleck’s part; however, not wanting to be associated with a slave-owning ancestor wasn’t the worst crime. Stephanie Graham, a public relations major at Marist, agrees: “There are worse things that could have been uncovered. Affleck was proactive during the crisis by releasing a clear statement, which in turn upheld his integrity. In terms of PBS, the series’ producers must reassure its viewers that this sort of editing will not occur in future episodes to maintain their credibility.”
Affleck’s expression of regret on Facebook can offer public relations practitioners a valuable lesson in response rates and sincere apologies. Affleck seems honest and genuine in his statement; he acknowledges his initial decision to censor the detail about his ancestor and explains why he did it. However, despite his statement of regret, Affleck never directly apologizes. Instead, he sheds light on a larger issue: what it means to grapple with our country’s history of slavery.