I’m traveling this week, and I’m currently trapped by a lengthy Amtrak delay, stretching now into several hours. It’s not the most fun I’ve had on a trip. While I was out and about, I spent an evening at a local bar talking to bar patrons about alternative history because… well, because most of these people were friends of mine, whom I hadn’t seen in years, and what else am I supposed to discuss? The relative merits of India Pale Ales? For the record, I’m against them. Those newfangled innovations from the nineteenth century really compromise the bread-like qualities of traditional brewing. Since this is the internet, I will now identify that comment as humor.
What my discussions did was to remind me of how people who are not experts in history, or even particularly interested in the subject beyond its entertainment value, view cable TV programming. The people I spoke with included an educator, academic, blue collar worker, salesman, professional athlete, television news personality, and more. Yes, I know a very diverse group of people. Obviously, this is not a representative sample of the general public, both because most were in my age bracket and because they were somewhat biased in that they know of me and my work.
I am presenting the following generalizations as generalizations only, and I will not describe individual reactions to avoid calling down the wrath of the internet trolls on anyone I know.
Everyone had heard of Ancient Aliens, and some of America Unearthed, but few had any strong views about either show. Most laughingly recalled the silliness of such programs, but no one had really given any thought to them. There was a general skepticism toward weird claims about aliens and Jesus, but few could articulate a particular reason that any of the strange claims on the shows were untrue, except that the advocates of the claims were “freaks.”
And overall, that was the most important point to emerge from our discussion: The personalities on TV overwhelmed the message, to the point that those watching judged the credibility and accuracy of the programs by how much they liked and trusted the people making the claims. Giorgio Tsoukalos, with his flamboyant hairdo and intensity of expression, garnered no support except as a cartoon. On the other hand, those who recalled Scott Wolter (though none by name) felt a greater connection to his material because he came across as measured and professional, at least in comparison with Tsoukalos, David Childress, and the Ancient Aliens team.
Explaining Scott Wolter’s speculation about the “Hooked X®” variant-A rune as the penis of Jesus inseminating Mary Magdalene’s womb garnered huge laughs—“What else could it possibly be?” one incredulous person responded in jest. But the thing that really sparked interest was my telling of how Jason Martell and A+E Networks tried to use the legal system to intimidate me. That personal story, relating as it does the background and personalities of the TV faces, did more to impact opinions of these shows that anything related to facts.
And now I will get back to waiting for the train.
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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