But on a much more serious note, in comments on an earlier blog post, a television producer expressed concern that I had implied that America Unearthed and Committee Films, the company behind the show, were engaged in “nefarious” activity in accepting public financing in the form of production rebates.
Their expenses are relevant only because they requested that taxpayers reimburse them for some of the money spent. But even there, my concern is less for the taxpayers’ well-being than for the irony of asking for government money for the purpose of accusing the government of suppressing their work. Specifically, Committee Films asked for government money to reimburse them for episode one, which featured Wolter accusing the United States government of trying to stop production on the show by closing access to a Native American mound site in Georgia.
The actual money that goes into television production is largely kept an industry secret, and almost nothing is officially known about most programs’ budgets. The reason that I posted the program’s budget documents is twofold: First, the documents are public record, and taxpayers have a right to know how their money is spent. More importantly, I feel that it’s important to see the big money that goes into making programs like this to understand the heavy financial incentive the producers and stars of such shows have for telling untruths for profit. There is big money involved at every level, from the network to the producers to the talent, and many people are making cash hand over fist telling the public things that are demonstrably untrue.
And that’s where I did find a bit of nefariousness in America Unearthed and its financial documents. The producers asserted that the show began production of the pilot on June 26, 2012, after the scenes explicitly stated to have been shot for later episodes on June 20, 2012 (the summer solstice) were already complete. I don’t really care how or whether this affects their reimbursement, but it gets to an important point: The show is fundamentally dishonest in its presentation of the events it purports to depict and this is troubling for a show that claims to be presenting “truth.”
America Unearthed plays fast and loose with the order of events depicted:
- It shoots multiple takes of scenes for dramatic effect. In S01E08, the show mistakenly included two different takes of Wolter swearing while delivering a dramatic statement about a conspiracy against him, each in slightly different wording but with the same intensity. Many documentaries do retakes, but typically this is for direct-to-camera host presentations, not the actual events it claims to truthfully depict. I won’t lie and say that it’s never done, but it is ethically questionable to pass off staged retakes as spontaneous events.
- It shoots new material, sometimes months after the fact, and inserts it into scenes shot earlier to heighten the drama. In S01E07, shots of a Minnesota airport shot in November 2012 (by the date shown on Wolter’s computer) were inserted following an interview in North Carolina shot in the early summer of 2012 (confirmed by the participants). Wolter pretends that November shots immediately followed those of the summer and speaks as though he had just finished the interview moments earlier. The show presents this scene as though he was still in North Carolina (complete with summer clothing, in November!). There is no defense for this. It’s just lying.
- It stages phone calls and emails, scripting the interactions and paying little attention to the continuity errors that result. In the scene mentioned above, Wolter is participating in a staged phone call with his wife, who tells him about “today’s” news, dated May 2012, in an email dated November 2012. In S01E02, Wolter participates in staged phone calls and text messages with an unseen correspondent in an area that many have reported receives no cell service. Again, the stagecraft here is not in keeping with the ethical obligation of nonfiction filmmakers to depict events truthfully.
- It depicts Wolter’s trips across America and to the British Isles out of sequence to heighten their dramatic effect. Wolter does not fly back and forth to Britain every week. Shoots were obviously planned to minimize travel time and were then edited into a presentation sequence. Every show does this (see Destination Truth, for example, which clearly does not fly back and forth to L.A. twice a week) but few try to pass it off as representing reality in an objective sense.
As I said, most nonfiction series are guilty of some of these sins from time to time, but very few documentaries are as blatantly manipulative as America Unearthed. And I think the reason for that is that America Unearthed isn’t the documentary series it claims to be. It’s a reality show, like Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The program’s manipulation of events and the timeline is exactly like the heavy-handed editing and blatant falsification of reality television, appropriate for an entertainment program, but not one that claims to be a truthful documentary.
America Unearthed is not really the story of the sites it explores but rather is increasingly a reality show about its hero, Scott Wolter, and his noble fight against a vast, dark academic-government conspiracy out to stop him from uncovering the “truth.” The producers clearly see the show as a conspiracy thriller, a globetrotting reality procedural in which each episode’s “investigation” is a piece in a master narrative, a weekly installment hung upon an overarching story of the anti-Wolter conspiracy that is meant to keep viewers coming back week after week. The increasingly frequent callbacks to earlier episodes confirm this intention to serialize the narrative. In its crude way, it is something of a masterstroke, investing a disconnected, episodic series with a serial narrative.
But it doesn’t change the truth that America Unearthed is a reality show, not a documentary series, and facts are shortchanged in service to storytelling with little use for honesty or truth. The small but significant lies done in service of entertainment call into question the honesty of the entire enterprise: “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much” (Luke 16:10).