It looks like there’s finally starting to be a little bit of a backlash against the rampant fakery in cable documentaries, thanks to, of all things, extinct sharks. On Sunday the Discovery Channel aired a fictional pseudo-documentary on the megalodon, a prehistoric shark. Called Megaladon: The Monster Shark Lives, program claimed that the long-extinct creature was still alive, and a team of actors portrayed scientists and others commenting on the existence of the creature, sightings of the creature, and legends of large sharks. The documentary had a very small, poorly-worded disclaimer that “certain events and characters in this film have been dramatized.”
The program aired during Discovery’s annual “Shark Week,” and apparently the high-profile fakery spawned a backlash from viewers and the media alike, including a complaint in Discover magazine and outraged reaction on Twitter. The sanctity of Shark Week violated, the same people who have had no trouble with Ancient Aliens on A+E’s H2 network are shocked, simply shocked to find fakery and lies going on in cable television. Consider Wil Wheaton’s reaction: “Discovery Channel betrayed its audience.”
Now why is it that an hour of fiction on a shark produces international outrage, but a weekly series asking us to worship aliens or one claiming Jesus’ miracle kids are the secret rulers of America garner no such protests?
I’m also surprised that so few commentators are aware that Discovery is also the parent company of Animal Planet, whose two fake mermaid documentaries in 2012 and 2013 were among the channel’s biggest ratings successes. No wonder Discovery imported the technique to its main channel. Last night Discovery’s other channel, the Military Channel, showed a documentary that advocated the existence of the imaginary Vril Society, a fake Nazi-era occult group whose existence was promoted by ancient astronaut theorists like Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels. They also showed another hour on the Nazis’ secret meetings with extraterrestrials. These documentaries were intended seriously, and their makers believed them to be true or simply did not care whether they were true.
The problem, of course, is that Discovery aired their fake documentary in the middle of nonfiction programming and they did nothing to suggest it was anything but truthful. Sure, Animal Planet had done the same thing, but they made their mermaid show into an event rather than burying it amid similarly-themed truthful programs.
The selective media outrage, though, is disheartening. At the same time that Discover asked readers to protest Discovery, the Gannett newspaper chain published a lengthy new article on UFOs in which they gave Ancient Aliens star Giorgio Tsoukalos a platform to promote the youth appeal of fake science and the “Contact in the Desert” ancient astronaut-UFO conference:
“This is a really, really great conference to attend if you’re interested in talking in person to the people that have appeared on ‘Ancient Aliens,’” said Tsoukalos, an associate of “Chariots of the Gods” author Erich von Daniken. “I am always incredibly grateful to be not only invited to speak at these things, but also to go to them and meet people interested in these topics because, back in the early ’90s, the average age of conferences like this was in the 80s. Now there are young people coming and that to me clearly indicates a craving for knowledge — knowledge that clearly exists.”
I will generously assume he meant that the conference-goers of the 1990s were in their 80s, not the conferences themselves. So far as I know, he is also wrong, though conference-goers twenty years ago were largely in late middle age.
The article provides no balance, or even an attempt to suggest that ancient astronautics has detractors. Instead, Tsoukalos informs us—and this blows my mind—that he doesn’t care about the actual facts about the aliens!
Tsoukalos doesn’t necessarily believe we’ve had contact from Venus. He doesn’t want to know where the aliens are from because, he said, “That to me adds another level of speculation that actually turns off the general public to our ideas. I think it is better to approach the general public with just the idea that we’ve been visited.”
HE DOESN’T WANT TO KNOW! Surely the reporter must have gotten this wrong. There’s no way that anyone could possibly devote his life to the ancient alien idea and not care who the aliens are. Besides, Tsoukalos is on record on Ancient Aliens as supporting the notion that the aliens’ home world is in the Orion nebula. In fact, he told us that bird-headed men from Orion staffed a space station that orbited earth in the Babylonian period (Ancient Aliens S05E04, “Destination Orion,” January 11, 2013). Isn’t it a bitch having your every weird claim on record?
So, to recap: Suggesting the aliens came from a particular planet “turns off” audiences, but telling Ancient Aliens viewers that bird-headed aliens from the Orion nebula built a space station to monitor Babylon is perfectly fine. Conclusion: Ancient Aliens viewers are not the general public.
On the plus side, though, the White Mountain Independent published this editorial opposing the ancient astronaut theory in yesterday’s paper.
I am of the opinion that the ancient peoples of the world do not get the credit they deserve for innovation and intelligence. The ancient Greeks built self-propelled, steam-driven three-wheeled carts and other things that can only be described as machines full of gears that drove mechanisms. But alien visitors imparting that knowledge to them is just not fair to the human inventors of long ago who actually deserve the credit for thinking outside the box.
So, it’s not all bad. But the selective outrage in the media is strange. It seems that the bottom line is that cable TV can get away with lying outrageously about anything so long as it doesn’t infringe on the sanctity of … sharks? What makes Megalodon different from Mermaids, Ancient Aliens, or America Unearthed? I think the difference is that Megalodon was too easily debunked because the facts were too well-known and too easily verified. The other shows are harder to pick apart because they require historical background that the average viewer, even many educated viewers, don’t have. Megalodon was easy to attack and thus created a critical mass of outrage. Ancient Aliens and America Unearthed are false but are made by people who believe they are true (or don’t care) and therefore get a pass.
And as Tsoukalos notes, that free pass has helped the ancient astronaut theory influence a whole new generation via the Ancient Aliens TV show, bringing thousands upon thousands of young people into the fold.
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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