CBS News "Sunday Morning" Broadcasts Puff Piece on So-Called "White City," Fails to Note "White City" Myth Is a Modern Invention
It was a strange weekend. On Saturday, a fringe blog alleged that H. P. Lovecraft had “secret knowledge’ of that lost city in Antarctica that David Wilcock claimed existed last year. Rather than concluding that Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness influenced fringe proponents’ Antarctica claims, the blogger assumes that Wilcock is telling the truth and Lovecraft was secretly disclosing hidden alien facts. It’s a small-scale version of Helena Blavatsky’s old claim that science-fiction authors get secret truth-beams from the spirit world, and a bit of a depressing one.
Yesterday morning viewers of the CBS News program Sunday Morning were treated to a puff piece celebrating the release of Douglas Preston’s new book The Lost City of the Monkey God. The CBS story, while offering some token counterpoints from archaeologist Rosemary Joyce, took at face value a series of claims from Preston and his colleagues that are, at best, partially true and quite misleading.
Lost City of the Monkey God is a nonfiction account of Preston’s two-decade-long involvement in the search for the so-called “lost” White City of Honduras, also known by the Spanish moniker Ciudad Blanca, and in modern times identified with the quasi-historical Lost City of the Monkey God invented in the 1940s. I reviewed the book a few weeks ago in advance of its release.
Journalist Lee Cowan interviewed Preston, who related what he alleged is the legend of the White City: “The legend is there was a great city in the mountains that was struck by a series of catastrophes, and the inhabitants thought the gods were angry at them, and [they] left, leaving all their belongings behind,” Preston told CBS, paraphrasing his own book. This story does not exist in any academic literature prior to the middle twentieth century. The oldest recorded form of the story, presented by Eduard Conzemius in 1927 as a secondhand remembrance of a treasure-hunter’s tale from c. 1905, spoke only of “the ruins of a very important city with white buildings of a stone similar to marble, surrounded by a large wall of the same material” (my trans.). The legend as known in those days was that the Devil guarded the city and did harm to those who entered, though there was a clear difference of opinion on the matter. Conzemius said, “All the Indians say that they do not know of it and that it is all a myth, but the other residents of the coast affirm that they do not want to show these ruins to others for fear that then they would die.”
Cowan also followed Preston in alleging that the lost city had “tantalized” explorers since the 1500s. This is untrue. It has tantalized since the 1940s, before which no one much cared. In the 1500s, Hernan Cortes wrote about cities in the area, but they were neither abandoned nor lost and decidedly not white. It isn’t the same thing.
CBS also failed to question whether the site that Preston and his team found was in fact the White City of modern myth.
The opposing point of view from Joyce focused primarily on the difference between archaeology and pulp-fiction Indiana Jones adventure. Questions of whether the White City has an independent reality were swept under the carpet, leaving viewers with the impression that the city truly is the reality behind the myth, a claim that Preston was never able to satisfactorily establish.
Overall, the CBS story was mostly fawning, with no real criticism and no detailed evaluation of his claims. This has been the case with most of the media coverage of the rollout of Preston’s book, which was released this week. Nevertheless, the praise and obeisance paid him haven’t quelled his disappointment that archaeologists have not been as universally impressed by his work as the media.
Preston has been quite vocal in his deep upset that several archaeologists—including some who gave interviews to him for his book—disagreed with the expedition’s conclusions about the site, particularly questions about its size and about whether it is truly the White City. On Reddit, Preston posted a most remarkable statement in which he sounded very much like Graham Hancock or Scott Wolter:
I have never in my life encountered a more irresponsible and unfounded response to a discovery as has occurred from a small group of American archaeologists who have been working in Honduras. I cover this crazy controversy thoroughly in my book, but it has been personally disappointing to me to see these particular academics behave the way they have done. The team that explored this site included six eminent degreed archaeologists (Honduran and American) as well as a dozen other PhD researchers, and academic papers have already come out. There were indigenous Tawahka, Miskito, and Garifuna people as part of the expedition. The problem is that these particular academics were not included, and they feel aggrieved about that.
Ah, the classic “you’re just jealous” gambit!
In response, John Hoopes, one of the archaeologists who both criticized the claims made about the site and spoke to Preston for his book posted a response:
If professional archaeologists were aggrieved, it was not about not being included as it was because they saw the project for what it was: an exploitation of century-old pulp-fiction fantasy narratives about finding a lost civilization (the example of Shangri-La from James Hilton's 1930 novel "Lost Horizon is a recurring theme) in a remote, unknown valley. The "Lost City of the Monkey God" concept was introduced in a sensational story for a 1940 tabloid insert in Sunday newspapers, edited by A. Merritt (the author of classic pulp fiction short stories and novels) and illustrated by Virgil Finlay (a classic pulp fiction cover artist). The narrative may draw elements from 21st century science, but it draws heavily upon the Victorian era "lost world", pulp fiction genre. Think of one of the original "monkey god" lost cities, featured in the 1933 blockbuster "King Kong" and reproduced in subsequent King Kong sequels--also about a filmmaker heading into a dangerous jungle in search of mysteries. This is good entertainment that thrills and fires the imagination, but it is not science.
Preston did not reply to this (at least not as of this writing), but in the CBS story, his team member Steve Elkins did nothing to dispel the aura of pulp fantasy-adventure hanging over the whole project.
“Who doesn’t like a story that has some mystery in it?” Elkins told Cowan. “So let’s go and see what happens!”
And there you have it, folks, straight from the horse’s mouth: This adventure is a “story” full of romance and “mystery” first and foremost.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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