The growing trend among television producers to grind out fake documentaries has numerous worrisome implications for the survival of a free society.
The grainy, crepuscular quality of the photo above is deliberate. The image was presented on The Discovery Channel/Animal Planet’s now infamous mock-documentary, Mermaids: The Body Found, as appearing on a boy’s cell phone just an instant before the terrified kid took to his heels. Two lads, so the story goes, somehow sneak onto a beach along the Pacific coast which the military has cordoned off (after testing a mysterious deep-sea sonar weapon). The boys find the sandy corpse of a seal-like creature with oddly human hands. As they poke further, the beast, summoning its few remaining vital sparks, rears up and yields the image almost accidentally captured as the young explorers flee in horror.
The ensuing hour proceeds to “document” the frustrations of three researchers whose work is constantly discredited, confiscated, impeded, and otherwise shut down by information-stifling government entities, both in the US and abroad. Two of the team appear frequently on camera in an interview-like format: the third—the leader—is ostensibly so upset by the resistance he has met that he cannot be reached for comment. Other grainy snapshots that have escaped the censor’s black vault crop up now and then, along with a few yarns offered by leathery fishermen at their respective wharves. A Darwinian explanation for how mermen and mermaids might plausibly have evolved from homo terrestris is also provided.
And the explanation, frankly, follows the actual evolutionary path of the whale, which we know came from sea to land before returning to the sea. In fact, when this mock-doc was first aired in May of 2013, yours truly swallowed the bait and allowed himself to be reeled in. Apparently a lot of viewers continue to bite on the same hook, to judge from Internet discussions. Only after tuning into a rerun of the show and freezing the final credits as they blurred by was I able to locate a small disclaimer. No narrator’s voice had announced the fraud at the beginning, and no frozen screen of large letters (of the “Viewer Discretion Advised” variety) had been posted at any point. Part of the joke, or the ruse, or the shtick, or the experiment, or whatever-the-hell this was, seems to have consisted of sitting back and watching the public try to figure the whole thing out by itself.
I should like to know why. Was Mermaids indeed an experiment? If so, of what sort, and by whom? The Discovery Channel clearly hadn’t learned enough or had enough of a laugh, in any case, because it continued to run hoaxes. A sequel crockumentary, Mermaids: The New Evidence, soon followed. Then we had Megalodon. More grainy footage, more fidgeting interviews with edgy researchers, more allegations of high-level government obfuscation, more fantasy woven plausibly from shreds of hard science: had my neck not already been stiffened by Mermaids, I would have come away believing that a Cretaceous-era shark was still cruising the ocean’s unplumbed trenches. After all, the coelacanth was also supposed to have died out with the dinosaurs, yet one was dredged up off the coast of Madagascar about the time I was born. I’m not that old!
Over the past month, I discovered something on Netflix called Dark Secrets. I was again, at first, suckered in. A bit of research indicates that this series originated on The History Channel rather than Discovery. Perhaps that’s why my “mermaid alarm” failed to sound instantly: i.e., the subject matter did not address natural science. The format seemed closer, say, to Forensic Files. Yet parallels to Discovery’s hoaxes lay just beneath the surface. We were once more given a sleuthing insider-type (who, however, was now the narrator himself rather than an interviewed field-worker; I was bothered immediately that this Joe Friday voice-over was inadequately identified). Thick layers of conspiracy also enveloped episodes about vanished persons, inexplicable deaths, quasi-demonic possessions, and so forth. Finally, there were always those who “didn’t want us to know” (the pretext of the show appeared to involve a trove of documents sealed in a condemned building), and “they” were always agents of some government at some level.
Any observer of pop-culture must surely observe this much (and the observation may somewhat redeem the fraud practiced upon the public by various producers): Americans are constantly being lied to by their elected representatives and their appointed “defenders and protectors”. Fictions like the above would never be able to command a loyal audience in an age when men and women of honor served us in high places. Today, however, the notion of cover-up and spin seems instantly plausible to us. From the nation’s president on down, we receive slap-in-the-face lies daily, and often almost gratuitously (as if the liars were just refining their technique, or as if they wanted to be able to smuggle an occasional truth by in all the smoke). Part of the reason we are so ready to accept that aliens are mutilating cows in New Mexico or Sasquatches exchanging howls in the Cascades or HAARP transmissions turning our brains to jelly on Election Day is precisely that NSA is tapping our phone conversations, Google sharing our email with Homeland Security, and the DOJ running guns to murdering terrorists. If the people we once trusted implicitly now smell of sulfur, why can’t a seal have hands?
But a great irony slinks about in this sympathetic formula—and its slinking isn’t very friendly. If producers of fake documentaries are somehow expressing our collective outrage with a mendacious public sector, why are they doing so through mendacity? Are they giving voice to our mistrust, or are they mocking our voice with exaggerated imitations? We may be crying out, “We don’t believe anything you tell us!”… but the “mermaid” translation somehow becomes, “These people will believe anything if you tell them it doesn’t come from the government!”
And, of course, there is a patently sinister side to operations calling themselves The History Channel and The Discovery Channel feeding us realism-coated garbage. When did fantasy become history? When did delirium become science? Would the producers contend that they are somehow reviving the interest of the nation’s youth in science by blending lurid adventures from a few hard facts? One might as well seek to create a youthful enthusiasm for chemistry by designing lab exercises that concoct new aphrodisiacs. The bedrock both of history and of science is a skeptical, objective method keenly resistant to intrusions of personal prejudice or involvement. Melodramatizing the labors of the responsible researcher in this manner undermines the very possibility of research.
Still more concerning to me, though—for I doubt that the producers conceived of their audiences as young students rather than infinitely credulous marks—is the precedent now created for inventing sexy, spicy news stories ex nihilo. How long now before we see a story—not on History but on NBC—about Ted Cruz’s being an Israeli robot or Barack Obama’s being a benign visitor from the outer cosmos who entered earth through a Kenyan stargate? What protest could be raised against such stories? That they’re lies? But the mermaid/megalodon hoaxes were woven from truth and lies, as well. So is everything (the argument would run): given that, can we say just where the truth ends in any fabric of lies? And anyway, “the people” enjoy it all. No one ever used to watch the NBC News: now, with its new format, it will be must-see entertainment. The people have spoken. In a democracy, who dare say “nay” to them?
I don’t like the vector along which “crockumentary” travels. Neither do a lot of my fellow viewers, it seems: Discovery’s “Shark Week” was effectively boycotted in 2013 when the truth about its false “body found” emerged. Yet not only do these producers persist in spinning their fisherman’s tales—The History Channel has also entered the Counterfeiter Sweepstakes. We’re crossing a threshold with this “entertaining” claptrap into a profoundly Orwellian moral chaos. Something should be done to pull us out of Discovery/History’s little house of horrors and lock the door. At the very least, producers should be required to warn the public loud and clear of the impending fraud, just as they warn of graphic and disturbing content. What they’re now doing with and to the truth is a helluva lot more disturbing than a headless corpse.