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Today I wanted to talk a bit about the power of television. In a recent article in Vanity Fair, a former producer of The Apprentice, the reality television show that revived Donald Trump’s fading star, begged his fellow industry insiders to think about the consequences of their actions. Producer Bill Pruitt said that Trump’s election to the presidency made him realize that audiences actually take television programs seriously and buy into the fake storylines and cynical manipulations producers routinely use in the endless pursuit of profit. He cited the fact that The Apprentice purposely fabricated facts about Trump in order to create the illusion of success during a period when Trump’s businesses were failing. The image, however, overtook the facts.
It’s about a complex global system that uses the media to construct its allies and to sway the populace to move like lemmings toward the ballot box. We are masterful storytellers and we did our job well. What’s shocking to me is how quickly and decisively the world bought it. Did we think this clown, this buffoon with the funny hair, would ever become a world leader? Not once. Ever. Would he and his bombastic nature dominate in prime-time TV? We hoped so. Now that the lines of fiction and reality have blurred to the horrifying extent that they have, those involved in the media must have their day of reckoning. People are buying our crap. Make it entertaining, yes. But make it real. Give them the truth or pay the consequences.
I bring this up because of the endless arguments I receive time and again that television shows are simply entertainment and don’t have real consequences for the wider world. Even the producers of “crap” now understand that audiences are influenced by what they see. As I have said before, I don’t think that it’s entirely a coincidence that the History Channel and the defunct H2 network both aired “documentaries” that focused on Eurocentric interpretations or fabrications of history (e.g. America Unearthed), Biblical literalism (Search for the Lost Giants, various Bible shows), and programs that claimed non-white peoples have trouble piling rocks on top of each other (Ancient Aliens). These channels are owned by A+E Networks, parent company of A&E, the channel that brought you Duck Dynasty, a reality that show that launched a conservative business family into the national eye and into the heart of Republican politics, like a minor key version of Trump.
None of this is to say that A+E Networks has a specific agenda beyond making money. They also ran, for example, the recent anti-Scientology documentary series from Leah Remini.
I think that A+E Networks is slowly getting the message that ideas have consequences and that TV shows have an impact. When the network announced its newest documentary series Generation KKK, billed as a candid look at the lives of young Ku Klux Klansmen, activists blasted the network for providing a platform for racist propaganda. This prompted A&E to go into damage control mode, explaining that the series isn’t a reality show glamorizing the Klan but rather “documents activists working to expose and end hatred,” according to a tweet the network published in an effort to combat criticism. A&E uses that hashtag #ExposeHate for the show. The network’s general manager went farther and claimed that “the only political agenda is that we really do stand against hate.” At least explicit hate. More subtle forms of denigrating other cultures, however, are fine so long as you label them “entertainment” or “history.”
The problem, though, is that the medium is the message, and even though the show has the approval of the Anti-Defamation League, giving Klansman extended time to advocate their worldview inevitably encourages the audience to sympathize with them. The Daily Beast outlined exactly how the formula of reality TV creates an emotional attachment to the Klan in its viewers by drawing on viewers’ previous positive experiences with reality TV:
Yet in practice (at least on the basis of the first four episodes offered to press), Generation KKK is a reprehensible work—one that normalizes people, and beliefs, that deserve only vilification. While immediate online and social-media reaction to the show’s existence was harsh (see here, here, here, here and here, just for starters), it only skimmed the surface of the program’s true wretchedness. That’s because A&E’s newest series does something worse than just provide a platform for the KKK: It employs the formal format and devices of the channel’s other hits (Hoarders, Intervention) to transform its bigots into colorful characters, thereby placing them on the same plane as the rest of cable TV’s freaky reality stars. By situating them in a familiar faux-verité package, Generation KKK makes clear that these rancid people are just as suitable subjects for our entertainment as anyone else. In short: It legitimizes them.
[Update 12/24/16: A&E canceled the series on Christmas Eve after intense criticism and revelations thath the producers failed to disclose to the network that they made cash payments to the KKK for access, in violation of A&E policy and public assurances that no money went to the hate group.]
But such efforts to use the power of the media to sway beliefs aren’t confined only to conservatives, reactionaries, and racists. Liberals attempt to mirror the success of Eurocentric narratives with their own media. A case in point is the strange documentary Ancient Tomorrow currently being marketed on social media. The video-on-demand feature mimics the look and feel of America Unearthed but focuses on content more at home on Ancient Aliens.
Ancient Tomorrow follows eco-activist J. J. Yosh, a chemical engineer by trade, as he joins forces with model and actress Teejay Casado, who claims to be an archaeologist who believes in Atlantis, prehistoric super-civilizations, ancient super-technology, and other nonsense. Casado, described as the “lead archaeologist” for the team, took down her website just before the film was released. After looking at the Wayback Machine archive of it, I imagine the reason is because the “lead archaeologist” holds only a B.A. in archaeology from LaTrobe University. That makes her as much of an “archaeologist” as me, and I would never presume to lead a team to dig up anything.
Anyway, these two eco-warriors, who both specialize in promoting green technology and clean energy, have some other colleagues, a filmmaker and an “ancient philosopher” described as being a college dropout who specializes in making “iPhone apps,” and they march around the world to try to prove that all ancient pyramids were built on “vortexes” to serve as power plants intended to provide “free” and “clean” energy to prehistoric cities. All without any of the mechanics you’d think that electrical generators and devices would need to transport, transmit, receive, or make use of electricity. Amazing! To do so, they turn to Rosicrucian occult writer Stephen Mehler, who spouts his usual claims about ancient super-civilizations, 10,000-year-old pyramids, and other remnants of Theosophical fantasy. Casado, for her part, shows that she learned nothing in school by declaring that Mesoamerican pyramids and Egyptian pyramids are “eerily similar” and must have a common origin in a lost civilization. It sounds like her education came more from Graham Hancock and Ignatius Donnelly than university classrooms.
The saddest part of all of it is that the young adults (they seem to be a decade younger than me) think they are uncovering something new and revelatory, when they are simply repackaging old ideas from the Victorian era, as rewritten in the 1990s.
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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