In cable television, as in politics, there is no shame, no depths that the purveyors of conspiracy theories won’t plumb in the endless quest to wring out just a little more money and power. The History Channel, though, must surely notice that the brand of anti-science, anti-fact, antisocial conspiracy that they have spun for years now has not only poisoned out democracy but is also getting some relatively heavy pushback. The question, of course, is whether they care. That answer is almost certainly no. In the nihilist marketplace of fracturing media, holding on to a small but loyal army of extremists is more important than either civic responsibility or mass appeal.
Consider this rather extraordinary review of an anodyne retread of the format of the old Fact or Faked show from the Syfy channel, now reused for History’s The Proof Is Out There, which premiered last night, its title shamelessly piggybacking on The X-Files. This is the traditionally conservative New Hampshire Union Leader writing about it in its typically milquetoast what-to-watch TV column:
The proliferation of cable series offering “proof” and credulous speculation about ghosts, aliens, Bigfoot and mermaids is hardly a new phenomenon. It’s hard to say if such programs help create or merely reflect a kind of popular selfishness and soft-headedness that encourages people to treat science and evidence as mere “opinion.”
And that’s the column about what’s on TV!
Meanwhile, down in Georgia, a former treasure hunter who appeared on History’s Curse of Oak Island conspiracy-cum-male-bonding series, J. Hutton Pulitzer, the ex-business partner of ex-History Channel host Scott F. Wolter, testified to the Georgia state senate about his “evidence” for voter fraud claims. Pres. Donald Trump made reference to some of the same conspiracy theories in his controversial Saturday phone call pressuring Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to overturn the certified results of the presidential election. Raffensperger’s office issued an extraordinary statement condemning Pulitzer:
In another election disinformation filled hearing, a small group of Republicans in the Georgia State Senate featured the claims of failed inventor and failed treasure hunter J. Hutton Pulitzer as a star witness. In his presentation, Hutton Pulitzer, formerly J. Jovan Philylaw, claimed without providing any evidence that he had “hacked” a poll pad. He then went on to claim that meant that the entire voting system was compromised even though the poll pad, like the poll books which they have replaced, are never connected to the rest of the voting system.
For years, supporters of cable TV disinformation and fake history shows criticized me for arguing that these programs had consequences that stretched beyond cable TV and paperback books.
But does cable TV learn? Of course not. Discovery Communications, the parent company of the Science Channel, the Travel Channel, and other purveyors of fake science and paranormal programs just launched Discovery+, a streaming service that will feature new pro-paranormal and paranoid anti-government conspiracy programs. They are also going to air this month a retitled version of American Runestone, a Swedish pseudohistory series about the Kensington Runestone, once again featuring Scott Wolter as an “expert,” that at least one Swedish newspaper condemned last year as supporting historically racist Eurocentric narratives.
As long as these shows capture somewhere between 500,000 and one million viewers in a country of 300 million people, it doesn’t matter how much damage they do. They’ve turned a profit, can get shunted off to Discovery+, Netflix, Hulu, or some other streaming service to live on forever.
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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