Thursday, June 25, 2015

Ben Affleck Kills PBS Genealogy (Sorta)

The New York Times reports that PBS has suspended Henry Louis Gates' Finding Your Roots television show, citing the controversy over Ben Affleck's successful efforts to keep his slaving-owning ancestors off the show.

One of my very first posts was about the initial controversy.

PBS wants the next season to be reviewed by an independent fact genealogist and a fact checker, and will not commit to another season.

I have mixed feelings about the whole situation.

On the one hand, none of these television genealogy shows highlights every ancestor of a famous person, because there isn't time.  I am not surprised that the choice of which line to review and which ancestors to discuss is one that sometimes includes input from the subject of the show.  I bet if we dug into the development of all of these shows, we'd find more creativity than we imagine.

On the other hand, Finding Your Roots typically examines issues related to the troubled history of the United States regarding slavery.  That Dr. Gates allowed slavery to be overlooked with Mr. Affleck is out of character with the show, and could reasonably be viewed by its viewers as a betrayal.

Genealogy often digs up unpleasant truths about ancestors. Some lied, some cheated, some drank themselves to death, some were criminals, and some were bigamists.  In other words, they were human beings.  They lived in a particular culture and world.  They represent the best and worst of us, sometimes at the same time.

Television genealogy shows are entertainment.  They are not documentaries.  They are not news programs.  They aren't even particularly educational.  They are about celebrities, they are interesting, and they may inspire others to search their own trees.

But they are curated entertainment, edited and packaged with narrative structure and with some story to tell.  Once we accept that to be the case, then we can enjoy them for what they are and not for what they aren't.