February 19, 2002
True Lies

People lie to get on TV. Well, duh, of course they do. But in spite of the instantly cynical reaction I got out of you by that statement, I'll bet, deep down inside, you really don't believe this. Not about everyone. I know I didn't. If a person was sincere enough, and I personally couldn't think of any reason for them to lie, I believed them. This led me to all sorts of really fun beliefs... the Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, alien abductions, men in black, ghosts, and all sorts of other things that made the world really cool. I knew my beliefs were true because I saw documentaries on them in theaters, on PBS, Discover, TLC, and other "accepted" channels of learning (mostly on TV).

What really turned me around was the story of two girls named Elise Wright and Frances Griffiths. The link gives the particulars, but briefly: in 1917 two young girls came back from a late trip to the woods saying that they not only had met fairies, but had in fact taken pictures of them using their camera. To our modern eyes, used to sophisticated CGI graphics that can make Jar-Jar Binks the murder target of geeks everywhere, the pictures are almost laughably fake. And yet well-known experts for decades either firmly believed in them (Arthur Conan Doyle), or would go on camera and testify that the pictures could not have been faked.

I saw a section of an interview both ladies did in the late 1970s. Now classic elderly Britsh matrons (right down to the blue hair and horned-rimmed glasses), they quite sincerely stated that the pictures were not fake. Clear eyes, steady voice, looked right into the camera and said those pictures were real. You couldn't help but believe them. What purpose would little old ladies have lying about such a thing? Why, after all these years, would they bother?

In 1983 a now 76-year-old Frances admitted all the pictures were fake, and produced some of the "fairies" (paper cutouts) to prove it. Elise eventually also admitted they were fakes. The little old ladies were lying.

That was just the most memorable moment I can recall. There were others. Like when one of my favorite childhood documentary movies, In Search of Noah's Ark (a film my mom still remembers facts from) proved to be a badly researched hoax. Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods, a book my dad still believes, turned out to be mostly made up. Accounts of disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle, documentaries that used to scare the bejeezus out of me as a kid, tended to cut out little details like "we couldn't see the end of the barge <cut> [because there was a howling storm outside] </cut> and eventually the tow cable just snapped <cut> [when the thing finally sank]</cut> and the barge disappeared".

And these were not in some hand-stapled bible-belt fundie pamphlet cranked out on the preacher's wife's mimeograph, they were in documentaries! On TV! Networks like Discovery, TLC, A&E, BBC, PBS, all had entertaining documentaries that, when you really thought about it, consisted of nothing more than hearsay and the sincere testimony of people who, in retrospect, had nothing to back them up. I watched what purported to be a really scary ghost documentary that claimed, for the first time, to have for real actual videotape of ghosts. Their ghosts? Grasshoppers zinging out of the back yard.

And these are just the easy ones. It just makes me ill when I see what are obviously just recycled press releases regurgitated on the nightly news. Did you notice that at the start of the Afghanistan conflict we were constantly hearing about civilian casualties, and then we suddenly weren't? The reports came from Taliban authored press releases. Afghanistan was too dirty, dangerous, and remote for the really pretty news readers (you can't call these people reporters or journalists) to do a good job, so they sat on their asses in Islamabad and breathlessly reported paraphrased accounts of what the Taliban was telling them.

The reports stopped not because we were or were not dropping bombs on some poor bastards in mud huts, but because the Pakistani government had shuttered the Taliban's embassy. When it turned out that all the journalism BA's with nose jobs might actually have to get a little dirty, the "news" dried up fast. The real journalists were too busy trying not to get shot to file daily reports, and substance takes a little longer than just reading a paragraph to a camera that you read to yourself fifteen minutes earlier. The former is journalism, the latter dictation.

The next time you watch a documentary, pay attention. Remember that these things are created by dozens of people that you never see, not just the people being interviewed. The chances for making stuff up are many and varied. You don't get on TV if you don't tell an interesting story, your film doesn't get made if you don't have an interesting concept, and nobody will watch it if it doesn't say something interesting. And, really, who's gonna know?

The next time you listen to the news, listen to the locations. Remember that a huge number of journalists live in New York or Washington DC. If you hear a byline of " Virginia" or " Maryland", it means the goddamned reporter didn't even bother to leave their house to do the story. Great if you actually live here, but not so great if you're in, say, Boulder facing a completely different problem.

The media conglomorates form what they think are a sort of self-appointed guardianship of truth and culture, when for the most part they're actually dedicated to selling advertising and nothing more.

And how hard do you really think it is to let the truth... slip... a little when a billion dollar advertising account is on the line?

Posted by scott at February 19, 2002 04:27 PM

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I cannot quote facts about Noah's Ark! I never ever, ever saw that movie. My son is reporting from his office in VA not from a remote in AR. to ask me about this. LOL
I cannot, however, speak for his dad.

Posted by: Pat on February 20, 2002 12:47 PM

You can two report facts from this TV Show. You are a font of useless OLD Trivia (How else can you explain spanking me and Scott at Trivial Pursuit??)

Posted by: Jeff on February 20, 2002 02:42 PM

I never will forget playing my Mom at trivial pursuit. She can't remember where she hides christmas presents, but can tell you without a pause who banged his shoe at the UN. At that's just an easy one.

Being, oh, 13 and 11 at the time, we would struggle valiantly against this titan of trivia (what business does a 6th grader have knowing what year Peggy Fleming won her first gold medal?) when, inevitably, mom got into the center circle.

Our job was to take one card and find the hardest question on it. We took this seriously! I can't remember if she'd quit smoking by then or not, if she hadn't I guarantee she was sitting there puffing like Smaug sitting on a pile of treasure waiting on us. We would quite smugly ask the question we knew she could not possibly have any chance of knowing.

Only to be greeted by a broad smile.

Posted by: scott on February 20, 2002 10:19 PM
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