Can you imagine more depressing news than the apparent fact, reported in this profile of the program’s technical wizard, that America Unearthed has 26 episodes this season? That’s a full six months of it, roughly twice what Ancient Aliens averages. No wonder the shows are getting slower: They need to stretch material to fill the episode order. According to the article, they shot all 26 episodes over the summer, so you can be sure quality must be high churning out product at that rate.
One of the frequent arguments I’ve encountered in discussing fringe history is that the subject is entertainment, that it doesn’t have a real impact on audience beliefs, and that it simply opens the mind to possibilities. As much as I’d like to believe this, it also grossly overestimates the critical capacity of the average television viewer. Scientific research into audience perceptions has repeatedly found that audiences have a limited attention span and a limited ability to critically engage with topics, especially those outside their own personal or professional experiences.
In communication research, two primary schools of thought have dominated understanding of audience interaction with media. The first, that advocated by defenders of fringe history, is the “active audience model,” which postulates a rational and discerning audience that is largely immune to influence from media messages. The opposing school of thought is the “passive audience model,” which supposes that the audience is conformist, gullible, and susceptible to influence from media messages. Advertisers bank their existence on this latter model.
The two models are in tension since aspects of both reflect the real world: The audience actively chooses which media to consume, but within the media they choose to consume, they tend to be overly credulous about and susceptible to the messages that they receive. Thus, a media product becomes a kind of dance between the audience and the communicator, in which the communicator uses subtle cues to clue in the audience that certain messages are more important than others, while the audience fluctuates between active engagement and passive absorption of media messages, depending on comprehension and levels of interest.
An older article by Frank A. Biocca that discusses the history of the two models and efforts to synthesize them can be found here.
To this rather theoretical background we must add the appalling historical ignorance of most members of the TV-viewing audience. Recent surveys have found appalling results: Less than half of Americans can identify Herbert Hoover or Thomas Jefferson as former presidents, for example, and less than half of American high school seniors demonstrated even a basic understanding of history.
In Britain there was a flap in 2008 when a poll suggested that students weren’t sure whether Winston Churchill or Sherlock Holmes were real or fictional, and most Britons admitted to not reading history and to actively switching off documentaries in favor or entertainment. Although the poll was later challenged because it was conducted by a television channel, UKTV Gold, the network’s head explained that he saw the results as confirmation that media messages about “heroic” figures through the medium of entertainment play an important role in shaping public views about history.
Therefore it is unsurprising that we find that TV viewers easily mistake America Unearthed for a serious treatment of history and a legitimate investigation of historical claims. How else to explain the reaction of Jennifer N. Adams, a 34-year-old single mother who blogs about raising a daughter with autism? Adams is—and I am not making this up—currently studying anthropology with a major in archaeology and a minor in history. Even with this background, Adams’s views were easily swayed by the appearance of America Unearthed on a History-branded channel:
I love watching the History channel. Some of the shows on there always catch my attention, especially when it comes to talking about historical items in the museum, archeology, or historical exploration.
Adams does not distinguish between History and/or H2’s “serious” history shows and “entertainment.” Instead, after she started watching America Unearthed, she simply accepted its conclusions as a scientific investigation overturning outdated paradigms, particularly about pre-Columbian visitors to the United States:
These groups of people or societies are [not] known to have lived there, so history says, but with the evidence that’s being found today and the evidence that’s been looked at again from the past, says otherwise. Such as the Mayan’s built temples in Georgia, Egyptian tribes once lived in Oklahoma, the Knights Templar roaming in the Nevada desert. All of these groups of people past history says is inaccurate, but evidence being brought forth shows otherwise.
And this from an audience member actually studying history and archaeology! Jennifer also says that she turned in a paper for her sociology class’s religion in society assignment inspired by the Celtic sun worshippers of Oklahoma she saw on America Unearthed!
[Note: Jennifer N. Adams contacted me after this post was published (see comments below) to inform me that her comments above were not meant as an endorsement of America Unearthed and that she disagrees with many of Scott Wolter's conclusions.]
It reminds me of the anthropology students with whom I went to college who believed in Atlantis, ancient astronauts, and other evidence-free claims, as did somewhere between one-third and one-half of college students of my era, according to surveys conducted by archaeologist Ked Feder in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s.
On the other hand, experts with more experience in the field can see through fringe history easily. Professional archaeologist and rock art specialist Peter Faris awarded Scott Wolter his annual tongue-in-cheek Certifiable Rock Art Prevarication (CRAP) award for misuse of Native American rock art to support a Lost Tribes of Israel theory. In so doing, Faris took aim at Wolter’s “humble-brag” about being compared to Indian Jones:
I knew I was in for a good show when Wolter compared himself with “Indiana Jones.” I don’t want you to think that I totally reject everything Wolter says on America Unearthed. I can be fair and I couldn’t agree with him more about this comparison. Both he and Indiana Jones are pretense, running around through fictional situations in made-up sequences that pretend to be based upon archaeology. I think that they are very comparable.
Meanwhile, I’m still working on assembling material for my source book of “ancient texts” used by fringe history types. Below is a downloadable spreadsheet of what I have so far. If you have any suggestions about additional texts to add, I’m happy to hear them.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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