Yesterday I examined a question of journalistic ethics surrounding Ancient Aliens, which purports to be a “documentary” series. The July 28 broadcast, “Aliens and the Old West,” featured a movie tie-in with Cowboys & Aliens from the History Channel’s corporate cousin, Universal Studios, but the program did not acknowledge this relationship or explain how closely the program’s producers and talking heads worked with the movie’s marketing campaign.
This raised questions about the objectivity of the program, and whether those involved purposely manipulated their supposedly scientific theories to work with the movie’s marketing machine. One piece of evidence in favor of that hypothesis is the program’s strange effort to reclassify Ohio and Illinois as “the Old West,” suggesting that producers purposely manipulated or altered a previously-planned program to conform to the movie’s theme.
I would like to discuss this a little more.
Of course, I have no knowledge of the internal workings of Prometheus Entertainment, the production company behind Ancient Aliens, so I do not know what really happened. As of this writing, Prometheus Entertainment has not responded to my request for information or comment.
Prometheus, as some readers may recall, also failed to respond in 2009 when I requested comment after they digitally manipulated material bearing my name to give a negative impression of me during the pilot episode of Ancient Aliens, unfairly associating me with others’ intemperate slurs directed against ancient astronaut theorists.
Founded in 1999, Prometheus Entertainment is the production company behind E!’s Kendra and the Travel Channel’s Food Paradise. It is explicitly dedicated to “docudramas” (reality shows) and “imaginative and informative non-fiction series”—pointedly not programs that are expected to conform to traditional journalistic or documentary ethics. Interestingly, however, Prometheus was the production company behind Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed (2007), another movie tie-in special broadcast on the History Channel.
As of this writing, ancient astronaut theorist Giorgio Tsoukalos still refers to himself as a “consulting producer” on Ancient Aliens, further raising questions about whether the ancient alien theorists on the program altered their views to conform to Cowboys & Aliens’ marketing needs, and whether Tsoukalos, as a “consulting producer” agreed to and approved any plan to use Ancient Aliens as a marketing vehicle.
According to the Center for Social Media, documentary filmmaking for cable television has raised concerns in recent years due to a perceived erosion of ethical standards as the number of hours of original program grows:
"…many of the filmmakers surveyed spoke of commercial pressures, particularly in the cable business, to make decisions they believed to be unethical. The trend towards faster and cheaper documentaries and the “assembly line” nature of work has proven challenging to filmmakers’ understanding of their obligations to subjects in particular."
Further, the Center found that most television networks have standards designed to place factual integrity above marketing pressures:
"The standards and practices share some common themes, as analyzed by project advisor Jon Else. They typically assert that an independent media is a bulwark of democracy, and that the trust—of both audience and subject—is essential. They eschew conflict of interest."
Now in most cases a stupid cable documentary about aliens would hardly seem worth staging a fight over about ethical standards. Few viewers likely expect the highest levels of journalistic, documentary, or scientific ethics from Ancient Aliens.
But this program claims to be different from mere entertainment programs. Its talking heads, including “consulting producer” Tsoukalos, claim that they are attempting to overturn scientific paradigms about the human past while acting in the interest of science: “We work along the same lines as conventional science does,” Tsoukalos wrote. “We approach our research objectively and without bias.”
Does that objectivity extend to Tsoukalos’ television work? How can viewers be sure that what they hear is presented “objectively” and “without bias” when the program Tsoukalos “produces” is involved in a marketing campaign for an entertainment product, one that has a vested interest in pretending that aliens really ran around the Old West?
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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