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NBC Perpetuates Roots Cover-up
By Angela Zemla
February 11, 2002

In a recent special celebrating the 25th anniversary of the epic miniseries "Roots," NBC continued a long media tradition of refusing to acknowledge the plagiarism and fabrication perpetrated by Alex Haley, author of the book on which the miniseries was based.

The anniversary special, "Roots- Celebrating 25 Years: The Saga of an American Classic," perpetuated the myth that Haley chronicled the history of seven generations of his family, going all the way back to his purported African ancestor Kunta Kinte. Contrary to popular belief, historians and journalists discovered years ago that much of Haley's genealogical research was falsified.

Journalist Philip Nobile, who examined Haley's private papers for a 1993 Village Voice cover piece, has written, "In fact, virtually every genealogical claim in Haley's story was false. Haley's account of his African fieldwork, particularly his encounter with the griot -- the heart and soul of Roots, was complete fiction. Documents and tapes in Haley's University of Tennessee archives… reveal that Haley's family history was fabricated from the beginning."

Historical experts who have checked Haley's work agree, with one noting, "About 182 pages have no basis in fact."

In addition to Haley's fabrications, large parts of the book, including the plot, main character, and sometimes even whole passages, were taken from Hal Courlander's 1967 novel, The African. When Courlander sued him over the issue, Haley was forced to acknowledge his plagiarism and pay Courlander $650,000 to settle out of court.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that Roots is not the historical document it claims to be, however, many still treat it as such. The Pulitzer Prize board has refused to reconsider taking away the Pulitzer that Haley was awarded for Roots in 1977, and when the BBC produced a documentary in 1997 to expose Haley's work all U.S. networks banned the show.

Likewise, the news media, instead of setting the record straight, continue to treat Haley as a hero. Most articles fail to even acknowledge Haley's deceit and plagiarism, and the few that do always find excuses for dismissing the seriousness of the charges. For example, Askia Muhammad wrote in a recent MSNBC article, "Maybe Alex Haley did make it all up. I don't give a damn. He was a great, great story-teller, no matter where the stories came from, and I wish I could grow up to be half as good at it as he was."

The media's general unwillingness to recognize Haley's deception for what it is, however, may have less to do with their respect for the man and more to do with the fact that he has become an African-American hero. While it is perfectly acceptable to criticize the mistakes of men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, it is political incorrect to mar the reputation of a man like Haley, no matter how strong the evidence is that he acted dishonestly.

There is no question that Alex Haley was a captivating storyteller, or that his writings have inspired millions. However, the fact remains that instead of acknowledging that his work, while powerful, was fiction, Haley lied and tried to pass it off as historically factual. It creates an unfortunate double standard to say that Haley's deceit does not matter simply because, as the NY Post's Eric Fettmann puts it, "It's heart is in the right place," but others who plagiarize and falsify their writings should be held to a higher standard because their books were not transformed into epic miniseries that millions of people watched.

Angela Zemla is an intern at Accuracy in Media.

For questions or comments, please contact Intern@AIM.org.