Broadcasting: A Question of Trust
July 3, 2007 9:12 AM   Subscribe

In a speech for the Royal Television Society, ITV chairman Michael Grade questions how much the home audience is aware of fakery and whether they should have to be. It's a fascinating piece which includes examples of when television programmes haven't been, shall we say, completely honest with the viewer -- why am I so surprised about the prizes on Blind Date possibly being rigged? Grade suggests there should be zero tolerance in relation to these things, but isn't it just a case of us accepting that fact-based entertainment television always requires an element of fiction for it to be watchable?
posted by feelinglistless (85 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
What's truly surprising is the fact Blind Date is still on the air. I had no idea people actually watched that.
posted by fandango_matt at 9:27 AM on July 3, 2007


I still get pissed when they pretend they have a "secret ingredient" on Iron Chef America.
posted by RavinDave at 9:32 AM on July 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


Like many things in life, if we knew everything would we be as interested??
posted by spotty_dog at 9:39 AM on July 3, 2007


This is absurd. But then again, so is television.
posted by voltairemodern at 9:39 AM on July 3, 2007


I hope television won't be too upset if a fake a shocked reaction.

...fact-based entertainment television always requires an element of fiction for it to be watchable?

Even if we accept that this is true, fiction still should be labeled as such. You can't shelve Moby Dick in the section on whaling and then say "you need an element of fiction in order to make whaling interesting".
posted by DU at 9:44 AM on July 3, 2007


The best "reality TV" I ever saw was titled Flight School or something like that. It was just a camera stuck in the cockpit of the plane while someone was taking a flying lesson. Very realistic. I can't find any reference to it on the web, now I'm wondering if I just dreamed it. More TV should be like that: just point a camera at something interesting that's going on and won't be disturbed much by the fact that it's going to be on television.
posted by sfenders at 9:47 AM on July 3, 2007


An interesting speech, thanks. Some background info (1, 2) on the premium-rate phone scandals that Michael Grade references in the speech.

I think he's right that the "casual contempt" for the audience amongst programme makers creates an anything-goes atmosphere in which basic safeguards are ignored. The sadness is that the lack of integrity in cheap mass-entertainment shows becomes an audience expectation and all programmes are tainted, across all networks. In this case a few bad apples genuinely do spoil the barrel.
posted by patricio at 9:53 AM on July 3, 2007


I've seen quite a few PBS shows depicting one-man's-journey-into-the-unknown where it seems the viewer is supposed to pretend there are no camera crews involved. I wonder how much longer they will be able to get away with that kind of thing.
posted by gubo at 10:01 AM on July 3, 2007


gubo: I've thought the same thing with Man Vs. Wild on the Discovery channel. My wife was genuinely angry when I sassed that HE might not have any technology, but I bet his cameraman has a satellite phone for genuine ohshit moments.
posted by boo_radley at 10:06 AM on July 3, 2007


The funny think about Michael Grade is that I can't see his name without automatically thinking "fuck you, you canceled Doctor Who". You'd think I'd be over that by now. Interesting speech though.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 10:12 AM on July 3, 2007 [5 favorites]


I find entertainment award shows interesting because they demonstrate pretty well that even those who are considered the top of their field are not particularly dynamic or engaging without the full assistance of the range of editors and technicians hired to make them look good in post-production. (The lesser award shows are especially telling, because they tend to feature audiences that are completely underwhelmed by the experience--one awards show, on MTV maybe, recently had the added humor of an applause track that did not come close to matching the weak audience reaction--and in these situations the celebrities are often visibly panic-stricken.) There are things that interest us in face-to-face contact that cannot work on television, and so television has to do something to heighten the interaction. I don't think it's any different for fact-based stuff. Even the reality shows are edited into storylines that barely resemble real life, because showing real life might make people realize they their own lives off television are more interesting anyway.

I think people know it on some level, but don't get it completely, or they wouldn't so tend to use entertainment value or watchability as standards against which they judge themselves. I would imagine it was an easier distinction to make back when television was not so integrated into daily life. American Idol and reality TV probably showed up and thrived at the time they did because they were taking on the first generation immersed in full-channel-spectrum 24-hour television that pretty much defines their reality.

An interesting thing I saw a while back: Oprah or somebody like that did a show in which celebrities interviewed each other. One of the interviews was between Julia Roberts and George Clooney, and what I loved about it is that the entire thing depicted them as the most boring, unengaging, and annoying people you would ever have the displeasure of spending time with. It was so painfully bad that I've wondered if they did it intentionally, as some kind of rebellion against their celebrity. I doubt it, but the absence of the fiction that would have otherwise been constructed around the interview--the reassuring adoration of the enterviewer, the repetition of the landmarks of their celebrity mythology, the prompting and other guided interview preparation--was very telling.
posted by troybob at 10:13 AM on July 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


troybob, I wouldn't put it past either Julia Roberts or George Clooney to do exactly what you suggested.
posted by watsondog at 10:18 AM on July 3, 2007


Or, shorter: Real life does not meet the standards of watchability we demand from television, so there must always be a fictional overlay. But then: Is this basically what history is--the merging of events and personalities into some kind of consistent narrative, requiring fictional elements (or, at least, disproportionate attention to some elements and the exclusion of others)?
posted by troybob at 10:20 AM on July 3, 2007


When I was 10 or 11 years old, a crew from a kids nature programme visited our school, which was fortunate enough to have its own little nature reserve. I clearly remember that we all had to pretend for the cameras that we were looking at some interesting wildlife out of the window when there was absolutely nothing there.

I think Grade is saying that even this kind of apparently harmless deception should not be allowed, and I agree with him. It's just laziness. I don't want to see an obviously scripted phone call within a supposedly factual programme like Location, Location, Location, it's patronizing for TV producers to assume that I won't watch an honestly made show. The truth is more interesting.
posted by teleskiving at 10:27 AM on July 3, 2007


Isn't it simpler to say that Julia Roberts and George Clooney are simply inherently insipid, boring, and annoying, without all of the epistemological overlay?
posted by blucevalo at 10:29 AM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Maybe I've always been too jaded, but when I started working on "reality" tv shows it came as no surprise at all that every one of them had a script (story, not dialog, but still) well prior to shooting, producers just off-camera coaching the participants, and frequent multiple takes.

Why does this come as a surprise to anyone? It's entertainment, for fuck's sake. Actual reality is boring as hell, and takes way too long.

People's reactions to this sort of thing remind me of Captain Renault in Casablanca: "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"
posted by dersins at 10:31 AM on July 3, 2007


just point a camera at something interesting that's going on and won't be disturbed much by the fact that it's going to be on television.

You might enjoy the NASCAR coverage on DirecTV, then; you get an in-car view of one driver for an entire race, with their radio feed and telemetry and whatnot.

Even if you're not a fan, watching it for a short race would probably interest you.
posted by davejay at 10:33 AM on July 3, 2007


Er, need to mention that it's a adjunct to the main coverage, with a limited subset of drivers, and it costs money.
posted by davejay at 10:33 AM on July 3, 2007


dersins: 'reality' programmes, despite their popularity, are still a small part of the schedules. Why should I expect the pathetic production values of those shows to be followed in everything I watch? The article refers to clear examples of faked documentary footage which is, to me, obviously much more serious. Perhaps you don't care how debased TV has become - or the pernicious effects of the erosion of trust?
posted by patricio at 10:36 AM on July 3, 2007


I remember discovering that the "celebrities" (quotes added to accomodate the likes of Jim J. Bullock and Alf) on Hollywood Squars received the questions ahead of time to prepare jokey answers. I was young enough to be naive about these things and this enlightenment troubled me for two reasons. Firstly, my eyes were open to the fact that American media as a whole was clearly a sham and I could no longer trust anything I saw, read or heard; for all I knew, Tom Brokaw was improvising the news as he went. Secondly, those jokes were prepared? They had time to come up with something and that was the best they could do? I mean, Jesus they were bad.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 10:41 AM on July 3, 2007


What's truly surprising is the fact Blind Date is still on the air. I had no idea people actually watched that.

Don't be confused between the American and British shows. The British Blind Date was a version of The Dating Game and was completely unlike the American show Blind Date.
posted by watsondog at 10:42 AM on July 3, 2007


Perhaps you don't care how debased TV has become

Frankly, no. Why on earth should I? It's fucking television, for fuck's sake.
posted by dersins at 10:47 AM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


dersins writes "Why does this come as a surprise to anyone? It's entertainment, for fuck's sake."

And there's the problem. Sure, to me, it doesn't seem like it should come as a surprise to anyone. But it does. And since TV stations know that, they should take that into account. Make your fiction fiction. Make your fact fact (with, of course, the inevitable biases that show up in editing, choice of subject matter, etc.). But don't do things you know are fictitious in something that viewers are going to believe as fact. Maybe they're wrong for making that assumption, but since you know they will, and you're doing it anyway, they're just ignorant, but you're a liar.
posted by Bugbread at 10:47 AM on July 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


I was on some reality television show recently with my girlfriend. We were set loose in the Mall of America with a certain amount of money and had to buy clothes for her in a certain amount of time, and then she modeled the clothes in a fashion show at the very end of it. There was nothing about the process that was like making a documentary -- it was all contrived, everything was preplotted, even the stores we could shop at -- but they included these ridiculous scenes to make it look less fabricated, such as having Debbie Matenopoulos run up to us at the start of the show and ask if we wanted to participate, like she had just met us at the Mall, rather than us going through a somewhat elaborate audition process.

As we went through the Mall, a gang of cameramen and assistants, including a producer and a security guard, swirled around us, pushing people out of the way and racing to get signatures on releases from people who might accidentally have gotten caught on camera. The producer shouted out suggestions the entire time, asked us to rephrase things we had just said, and generally directed our behavior.

Additionally, everybody cheated. The participating girls were not supposed to bring makeup, or be made up, as that would be part of the storyline. They all ignored it, but for my girlfriend, who had to spend a chunk of her money on makeup. Additionally, participants were allowed to call a few of their friends -- two, I think -- to be in the audience for the final fashion show, and to vote. When the moment came about, it started to seem like there wouldn't be very many people in the audience, and so the producers told contestants to call anyone they wanted. Needless to say, the winner was the gal who called the most friends.

We didn't really care, but from our experiences, a show such as the one we were on, which presents itself as "reality tv," is wholly artificial from soup to nuts. We never watched the completed episode, but from what I have read from people who have been on reality television, the editing process adds one additional level of remove from reality, as the editors construct a narrative, rearranging timelines, cherrypicking scenes in order to turn a participant into a "character," and generally manufacturing dramatic elements where none existed during filming.

That being said, I can't go to the Mall of America now without missing my film crew. Being filmed is a little like being a millionaire, or being very famous, or very beautiful, in that you are the center of attention and conversation, and you get the first and best treatment wherever you go. Additionally, it was nice to have a person whose only job it was to shove people out of the way when you are walking. It's hard to have that and then go back to not having that.

I expect the finished show was nothing particularly special. Despite all the manipulation behind the scenes in order to create "good television," I had the feeling the entire time that I was helping to create bad television. I don't mind that it's a total forgery, but I do mind that it may not have been worth watching.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:51 AM on July 3, 2007 [52 favorites]


dersins writes "Frankly, no. Why on earth should I? It's fucking television, for fuck's sake."

Because for a whole, whole lot of people, it isn't "fucking television", but "television". Once you've got the cynicism to handle TV, things are groovy. But most people aren't as cynical as us MeFites. Even good, intelligent people. My wife doesn't have my cynicism. She believes what's on TV, on those variety shows where they talk about science or health or history or law or the like. They're all absolutely completely full of shit (I live in Japan, where this problem is 1 billion times worse than in the US or the UK). I have to sit there on the side pointing out all the misleading quotes and inferences and bad science and bad logic, because otherwise she'll believe it and it will influence her view of stuff like negative ion air conditioners or chiropractics or homeopathy. And given the choices between:
1) Getting everyone in the country to become a cynic.
2) Leaving people uncynical, but giving every non-cynic in the country a cynical viewing partner.
3) Not making shit up in the first place.
Option 3 is by far the easiest.

It's like putting those little holes in pencaps so kids don't suffocate by swallowing them. Sure, kids shouldn't swallow pen-caps. But they do. And it's a lot easier for pen manufacturers to make a little hole in the pencap than to have someone monitor every movement of every child in the world 24/7.

(Note: I'm not saying it should be illegal to make shit up on TV. I'm not advocating a nanny state. I'm just saying that I'd prefer that TV not be intentionally lying to non-cynics.)
posted by Bugbread at 10:55 AM on July 3, 2007 [3 favorites]


Uh, Astro Zombie, check your participation agreement. I hope for your sake there isn't a confidentiality section with a liquidated damages clause.

Most shows I worked on had one.
posted by dersins at 10:56 AM on July 3, 2007


Perhaps I'm naive to believe it, but I'm of the opinion that broadcasting (be it commercial or public service) can be beneficial to society as a whole, and I'm glad to see that the head of one of the major braodcasters in the UK thinks so too. Institutions (governmental or not) in which people can put their trust are few and far between - I'd rather we didn't needlessly throw one away.

and on preview - it's the excessive cyncism in bugbread's option (1) that I want to avoid. I understand that "trust no one" and "everyone's lying to you" are the default safe ways to life one's life, but really it gets pretty wearing. I'd rather that I didn't have to minutely overanalyse even the most basic of entertainment shows.
posted by patricio at 11:02 AM on July 3, 2007


The best "reality TV" I ever saw was titled Flight School or something like that.

No, I don't think you were dreaming it. I can swear I saw it once or twice (by accident) too -- it totally rocked.
posted by Opposite George at 11:07 AM on July 3, 2007


I don't think it's cynical to say that television values watchablity over truth. It's merely factual. "Not making shit up" might seem the easiest, but it's not going to happen in a medium that seamlessly blends truth (or some version of it) with entertainment. To me, it just seems easier to inform people that one must assume everything on television, even the news, is fictionalized. If they won't accept that, it's their choice/loss, except to the extent that they vote--and really, that ship has sailed anyway.
posted by troybob at 11:08 AM on July 3, 2007


I am so upset that Man vs. Wild is bigger than Survivorman. As far as I can tell, Les does all his own camera stuff, too.
posted by absalom at 11:10 AM on July 3, 2007


"that ship has sailed anyway"
perhaps in the US, not yet in the UK.
posted by patricio at 11:11 AM on July 3, 2007


I've seen quite a few PBS shows depicting one-man's-journey-into-the-unknown where it seems the viewer is supposed to pretend there are no camera crews involved. I wonder how much longer they will be able to get away with that kind of thing.

A while back I saw a PBS documentary about a family that lived in a remote part of Alaska. If they needed provisions, it was a full day's journey into town by snowmobile. The cameras followed the father as he took the snowmobile to get goods while the narrator talked about the "dangerous journey"; suddenly the ice underneath the snowmobile collapsed and the snowmobile and guy started sinking into the freezing water. They showed the dad pull himself out of the icy river and try to rescue the snowmobile while the narrator went on about how he could die at any moment. I realized that they had the perfect shot of him going into the water, meaning that it was probably faked, and I became depressed that PBS would do this so I changed the channel.

but I really hope the camera crew didn't let him die.
posted by Challahtronix at 11:12 AM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Astro: I just flagged your post with the wrong flag! A thousand pardons, sir. Good to have a bottom to top breakdown of the artifice.
posted by absalom at 11:14 AM on July 3, 2007


Ah, so that's what happened. I was all, "double post? There's supposed to be two of 'em if it's a double post."
posted by cortex at 11:20 AM on July 3, 2007


Well, as someone who works in TV, I have to say that *everything* you see on TV is fake. Period.

Case in point. PR.

When you watch those talk shows and they have a "baby expert" or "gift giving expert" come on there and say what this season's hottest new gifts are.... that person is a *paid endorser*. They have been paid by the manufacturers of these products thousands of dollars per appearance to go and shill their products. They are told what the marketing points are. They aren't generally just kind souls would want to help you out. They are doing a kind of bait and switch advertising.

Trust *nothing* you see. All of it is manipulated.

Not just reality tv, but documentary and journalism, too. Someone chooses where to point the camera, and who to point the camera at, and people choose what pieces to use, and in what order, what to leave out, etc. This is manipulation.

I think the fallacy here isn't that some TV is fake. ALL TV is fake.

Or at least shouldn't be trusted.

If everyone could just learn and accept that, things would be better.

The problem is that people believe what they see on TV to be true. And not just Fox News viewers.
posted by MythMaker at 11:25 AM on July 3, 2007 [7 favorites]


I am so upset that Man vs. Wild is bigger than Survivorman. As far as I can tell, Les does all his own camera stuff, too.
posted by absalom at 11:10 AM on July 3 [+] [!]


The guy on Man vs. Wild has a lot more charisma, IMO. Plus, I remember in the last Survivorman I caught, the guy just repeatedly griped about having to film it himself. I mean, I'm sure it's hard and all, but it's his job for Pete's sake.
posted by the other side at 11:26 AM on July 3, 2007


DU Besides, in your example you still need something to make the ficiton interesting. Damn the new critics for turning that pile into a classic.
posted by Grod at 11:28 AM on July 3, 2007


There's a lot of laughter down here about that Oil, Sweat and Rigs documentary that's on Discovery, I think. Lots of little errant details and contrived dramas that are insulting, really, because there's plenty of real drama in diving, it's just sudden, and not cinematic.
posted by atchafalaya at 11:28 AM on July 3, 2007


It's like putting those little holes in pencaps so kids don't suffocate by swallowing them.
THAT'S why those holes are there?? It makes so much sense, and yet I never understood it. Thank you!

posted by inigo2 at 11:31 AM on July 3, 2007


Mythmaker, I'm sure that's all true. I think the distinction that people are talking about is a matter of degree. Generally, there's more fabrication involved in having "inteview subjects" read from scripts than there is in choosing where to point the camera.
posted by the other side at 11:32 AM on July 3, 2007


Well, yes and no. Choosing where to point the camera sometimes is everything.

Case in point, missing white woman syndrome.

The American news media loves to point their cameras at missing beautiful white women. Not the other 800,000 missing persons per year.

This is bias. My point is that *all* TV has bias.
posted by MythMaker at 11:39 AM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


"that ship has sailed anyway"

perhaps in the US, not yet in the UK.


Keep telling yourself that....
posted by dersins at 11:40 AM on July 3, 2007


I would like to insert a single frame into this thread stating "GRADE IS A CUNT."
posted by Mayor Curley at 11:43 AM on July 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


I don't want to see an obviously scripted phone call within a supposedly factual programme like Location, Location, Location, it's patronizing for TV producers to assume that I won't watch an honestly made show. The truth is more interesting.

These shows are made with the cooperation of businesses that are looking to promote their products - real estate agents, fashion brands, and etc. Reality would certainly be more interesting, but it isn't realistic.

Hmm.. If Astro Zombie 3 had posted that comment, I would have been sure, but as it is..
posted by Chuckles at 11:50 AM on July 3, 2007


troybob writes "To me, it just seems easier to inform people that one must assume everything on television, even the news, is fictionalized."

True. I'd be totally groovy if each show started with one of those "this is fiction" disclaimers. They always seem to get put on useless shit. You don't have to tell people that Battlestar Galactica is fiction, and does not represent actual persons or events. Telling people that the wildlife documentary you're about to show is fiction, however, would be far more useful. The problem isn't fiction on TV. It's fiction disguised as fact. The two solutions, then, are either to stop the fiction, or stop disguising it. Either works.

the other side writes "Mythmaker, I'm sure that's all true. I think the distinction that people are talking about is a matter of degree."

Yes. I mean, it's clear that there is no "absolute true truth" in TV. Editing, structure, and basically everything that avoids Dogme95 style construction prevents that. But the degree makes a big difference. One possible litmus test, I guess, would be to consider how much surprise would be felt by a viewer who believed it to be true.

Producer: "You know that part where he gets in his car and drives to work? Actually, the camera ran out of batteries, so we had to do a second take"

Viewer: "Oh, ok."

Producer: "And that part where he got all surprised when his son came out of the closet and admitted he was gay? He actually found out the previous day."

Viewer: "What!?"

Producer: "And the tearful reunion with his wife at the end? That was an actress. His real wife got a restraining order preventing him from even entering the same town."

Viewer: "You lying bastards!!!"
posted by Bugbread at 11:51 AM on July 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


MythMaker writes "Well, yes and no. Choosing where to point the camera sometimes is everything.

"Case in point, missing white woman syndrome."


In that case, choosing where to point the camera isn't everything. It's half of everything.

Think about how dishonest it is to highlight the newest missing white woman, ignoring the other 800,000 missing folks.

Now imagine that there are no missing white women, so the news programme makes one up, using an actress.

That's way worse. There may not be a black and white in this issue. Everything may be grey. But it isn't all 50% grey. There's light grey, medium grey, and dark grey.
posted by Bugbread at 11:55 AM on July 3, 2007


Fair enough. There are certainly degrees of dishonesty and fiction, and no question that some things are faker than others.

But my point was that *nothing* on TV is unfiltered, unbiased or "reality." *All* of it is constructed.

Whether that's rearranging real things into a different order editorially, or selectively making someone seem like more or less of an asshole on a "reality" TV show, there is manipulation, and that's true of *everything*.

I think the public would be better served by assuming that everything they see is fiction.
posted by MythMaker at 11:59 AM on July 3, 2007


To me, it just seems easier to inform people that one must assume everything on television, even the news, is fictionalized. If they won't accept that, it's their choice/loss, except to the extent that they vote--and really, that ship has sailed anyway.

Wow--what a striking shift from the days when the public airwaves were considered a public resource that had to be managed responsibly in the public interest! I mean, I don't dispute what you're saying, I just think it's breathtaking how radically our society's ideas about who owns the public airwaves and how they should be used has been transformed over such a short period of time.

It's crazy to think we could come to casually accept the degradation of the news media to just another entertainment outlet, but sadly, that seems to be where we are in America these days. And anyone who points it out is dismissed with the inevitable chorus of self-deluded fools chiming in "It's always been this way," when they might as well say, "We've always been at war with Eurasia," or "War is peace," or similar nonsense.

I mean, obviously Graves is concerned here with the state of the medium in Britain, but I think his comments on the importance of impartiality in the news and his desire to stay ahead of the devastating cultural and economic trends that have effectively destroyed the credibility of the American television media are well-placed.

(So he was the ass who canceled the original Dr. Who? Damn. Well then I guess this is one of those "enemy of my enemy" situations for me.)

Thanks for this feelinglistless.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:07 PM on July 3, 2007


Make no mistake.

It's all a fake.

-The Cramps
posted by telstar at 12:11 PM on July 3, 2007


saulgoodman writes "It's crazy to think we could come to casually accept the degradation of the news media to just another entertainment outlet, but sadly, that seems to be where we are in America these days."

I think you may be misreading MythMaker (or, perhaps, I am). In the olden days, people had a more solid sense of universalism regarding things like importance. As such, you could have news which everyone agreed was extremely truthful, and nobody would take much issue with. Nowadays, with increases in globalism, cultural relativism, and information dissemination, I think it's impossible to have news that people agree is totally truthful. Not because TV is entertainment, but because total truthfulness about anything as vast as "things that have happened in the world today" is impossible due to vastness.

Ok, so, rephrased: back in the day, you might have a murder which hit the national news. It could be presented with no intentional entertainment value. No music, no sweeping graphics, no dramatic reenactments. People back in that day would say "Ah, yes, good, impartial, factual news". If you showed that exact same newsclip to people (by which I mean the types of intellectual MeFites who consider the news to be something besides entirely truthful. I'm not talking about people who consider FoxNews unbiased straightforward fact) now, the reaction would be "Yes. But why was this news segment 5 minutes long? Why wasn't there a report of this other guy who got killed? Why did the newscaster use the adjectives he did? Why did he report the occupation of the deceased? Why wasn't there an update on this other recent issue?".

It's not just that people think the news is an entertainment aspect, but that people recognize now, more than they used to (perhaps) that it always has been. Not exclusively entertainment, mind you. Not at all. But that has always been there. And, really, by "entertainment", I just mean "ability to get viewers' attention", that is, "ratings". I don't mean "entertainment" like "hey, that was fun to watch". I just mean, basically, anything other than boredom. Some sort of emotional response that made viewers want to watch the news. Whether it be fear and foreboding, or revulsion, or anticipation, or the like.

I know that you've dismissed that with the "We've always been at war with Oceania" line, but there's a bit of a difference. If MythMaker were saying that the news has always been as non-truthful as it is now, then, yes, we'd be talking Orwellian rewriting of history. But, as far as I can tell, he's not saying that. He's just saying that, no matter how much you try, you cannot make news entirely truthful.

Maybe I'm reading too much into what he's saying, but the Orwellian comparison seemed like a strawman charicature of something MythMaker wasn't actually saying.
posted by Bugbread at 12:39 PM on July 3, 2007 [3 favorites]


Producer: "You know that part where he gets in his car and drives to work? Actually, the camera ran out of batteries, so we had to do a second take"

I think this is a great example of low-grade deception being done out of habit, to support a preconceived idea of how a real event has to be told as a story. The first instinct is to reshoot it, rather than to work around it creatively.

It might seem unimportant in this case, but it reflects a value system that says that documentaries have to provide every dramatic cliche in order to hold the interest of viewers. Every little fabrication in support of this idea just reinforces it, to a point where when problems happen with the dramatic climax of the film (the "coming out of the closet" moment), the temptation to fake it will be too hard to resist.
posted by teleskiving at 1:09 PM on July 3, 2007 [5 favorites]


I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter — we never need read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications? To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea. Yet not a few are greedy after this gossip. There was such a rush, as I hear, the other day at one of the offices to learn the foreign news by the last arrival, that several large squares of plate glass belonging to the establishment were broken by the pressure — news which I seriously think a ready wit might write a twelve-month, or twelve years, beforehand with sufficient accuracy. As for Spain, for instance, if you know how to throw in Don Carlos and the Infanta, and Don Pedro and Seville and Granada,(20) from time to time in the right proportions — they may have changed the names a little since I saw the papers — and serve up a bull-fight when other entertainments fail, it will be true to the letter, and give us as good an idea of the exact state or ruin of things in Spain as the most succinct and lucid reports under this head in the newspapers: and as for England, almost the last significant scrap of news from that quarter was the revolution of 1649; and if you have learned the history of her crops for an average year, you never need attend to that thing again, unless your speculations are of a merely pecuniary character. If one may judge who rarely looks into the newspapers, nothing new does ever happen in foreign parts, a French revolution not excepted.

Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous. If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights' Entertainments. If we respected only what is inevitable and has a right to be, music and poetry would resound along the streets. When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality. This is always exhilarating and sublime. By closing the eyes and slumbering, and consenting to be deceived by shows, men establish and confirm their daily life of routine and habit everywhere, which still is built on purely illusory foundations.
posted by sfenders at 1:50 PM on July 3, 2007 [4 favorites]


In Broadcast News, which was made in 1986-7, the central question on which much of the human drama hangs is whether a reporter who almost teared up while interviewing a subject later turned the one camera around and filmed himself actually tearing up, and whether the story in which the footage was used thereby made the reporter part of the story. (To be fair, James L. Brooks made the narrative execution ambiguous.)

It's a measure of the last 20 years that this point now seems quaint to the degree of inconsequentiality.

(Another striking thing about the film -- one of my favorite Holly Hunter vehicles, btw -- is the utter lack of any mention of cable news. It's all about the balance between the networks and the affiliates, even the coda advanced several years later. Talk about the last possible moment you could make that mistake.)
posted by dhartung at 2:09 PM on July 3, 2007


Astro Zombie, I really enjoyed reading your account of your recent "reality TV" experience.

If anyone is interested in a well-written fictional treatment of the "reality TV" experience, you might enjoy Lost and Found by Carolyn Parkhurst; it's a novel about an Amazing Race-esque show and its participants.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:35 PM on July 3, 2007


sfenders,
What are you quoting? If that was your own piece, bravo, I loved it.

Astro Zombie,
My fiancee loves Instant Beauty Pageant. I think you've just broken her heart with your account of how it really works and crushed her hopes of ever being in the mall at the right time...
posted by Sangermaine at 3:02 PM on July 3, 2007


The problem is seeing tv as some sort of provider of truth in the first place - take the line further and all programs would resemble warhols film of the empire state building.

It's like the pub bore going on about how macbeth wisnae really like that.

I've presented tv shows in the past myself and i didnt have a problem with it (apart from the researchers unofficially coming up to my house and asking me if i might have any programme ideas) - a lot of it seemed like any idea will do, just shove it through - lovely director i worked with though, great bloke.
posted by sgt.serenity at 3:13 PM on July 3, 2007


That was Thoreau on the state of about news and entertainment 150 years ago. The symbol of an ancient man's thought becomes a modern man's metafilter comment.
posted by sfenders at 3:35 PM on July 3, 2007


Personally I'm with AZ in that I don't mind if it's a total forgery, long as it's worth watching. I enjoy watching Bullshit for example, even when they're totally wrong about something. In general I do like to see a little more of reality. Not that television is necessarily the place to get it, but it would be nice if they made the attempt more often.
posted by sfenders at 3:43 PM on July 3, 2007


It doesn't really matter whether Thoreau "lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor." I think he very likely did, but were it all fiction what he wrote would be just as profound, have just as much truth in it. The kind of honesty inherent in those words, and the simpler kind of reality shown in that Flight School show are very hard to fake convincingly. That people can watch Amazing Race or the nightly news and not immediately see that they have only the most tenuous connection to reality indicates to me that they haven't seen enough honesty and truth on television to learn to recognize it.
posted by sfenders at 4:00 PM on July 3, 2007


There's a scene in the movie Live Free Die Hard where young hacker Matt Ferrel (Justin Long) attempts to educate John McClane (Bruce Willis) about how everything in the media is faked, and I had to laugh because the little monologue he launches into is being said by an actor on a soundstage in a sequel to a film that's about virtual terrorism, where technology is used to influence the media, communications, transportation, power, law enforcement, etc.

Of course reality television is fake. This has been repeated in this thread more often than a buddist mantra, as if it's newsworthy.

Does anyone honestly think Richard Hatch won Survivor Borneo fair and square? That contestants on Amazing Race are chosen on mertis of sincerity and not because they fulfill some predetermined set of stereotypes the producers wanted?

One would think that the Charles Van Doren Case would have taught people why not to stretch the truth, but few seem to learn from history. The fact is producers know the absolute truth is BORING and will cause viewers to use their remotes in a heartbeat to switch to something less boring. Only if the truth is manipulated and controlled can there be hope of maximizing audience interest, and by proxy advertising dollars.

That's essentially why I liked Fear Factor for many years. That series knew what it was and was bold in its manipulations. However, it didn't try to hide it any more than Penn & Teller would hide their illusions on stage. It was just a game show, and it never took itself too seriously.

Make no mistake though. It's all entertainment, even and especially the news. If you want truth, you're gonna have to leave the television and try to find it for yourself. Don't be surprised if either the truth is something you didn't want to know, or the truth is something they didn't want you to know. The first of the two choices is very boring, and the second of the two choices can be very deadly. Either way, you can't win.
posted by ZachsMind at 4:19 PM on July 3, 2007


ZachsMind writes "Does anyone honestly think Richard Hatch won Survivor Borneo fair and square? That contestants on Amazing Race are chosen on mertis of sincerity and not because they fulfill some predetermined set of stereotypes the producers wanted? "

Yes, people do. Those people generally don't hang out on MeFi, but, yeah, I'd guess that more people believe that's true than don't.
posted by Bugbread at 4:27 PM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


The problem is seeing tv as some sort of provider of truth in the first place - take the line further and all programs would resemble warhols film of the empire state building.

oh piss off - there's a clear difference (one that Grade explicitly acknowledges in his speech) between the editorial decisions that frame programme content and decide what is shown at all and lying to viewers. It's a little sad if you can't even expect TV programmes not to lie to you.
posted by patricio at 4:43 PM on July 3, 2007


Really, it comes down to which fictions aren't really recognized as such by most viewers.

Most viewers know about laugh tracks, hence they aren't misled.
Most viewers know about editing. If they see, in a news report, a reporter ring someone's doorbell, and then the camera cuts to them discussing something with the homeowner on the front lawn, viewers know that there was editing, and neither homeowners nor reporters can teleport, hence they aren't misled.
Most viewers know that not absolutely every single thing that happens in America gets on the news, so they know there is some degree of editorial selection in deciding which of the billion daily murders is the one put on the news, hence they aren't misled.

Most viewers probably don't know that reality shows are explicitly scripted, hence they are misled.
Most viewers probably don't know that the random person found in a mall for Instant Beauty Pageant was actually preselected and prepped, hence they are misled.

The issue isn't whether TV should be a paragon of absolute truth, but whether it should mislead one into believing fiction is nonfiction. You say nonfiction isn't interesting enough, and has to be fictionalized? Great. Then stop making reality shows, and start making explicitly fictional contests. Or put a disclaimer at the start of the show saying that it is fictional.

There's no need to make TV a fountain of veracity. Just like there's no need for the fiction sections of bookstores to be thrown out. But at least make it clear which is which in the types of cases where there is confusion.
posted by Bugbread at 5:13 PM on July 3, 2007


sgt.serenity writes "The problem is seeing tv as some sort of provider of truth in the first place"

Er...so, if there's an earthquake, where should I turn to for emergency information about whether to expect a tsunami (big issue here)? The internet (good with news, but nowhere close to TV speed in disseminating tsunami warnings and the like)? Newspapers? Almanacs?

After all, it's not like paper gets some sort of magical truthfulness that broadcast video signals don't. Going back to 9/11, I didn't see it with my own eyes. I saw it on TV (but there is editing and selection involved there, so apparently I should assume it's fiction). I also read it in newspapers (again, editing and selection, thus fiction). I read about it on the internet (again, editing and selection, thus fiction). And that's all I know. Since I should assume that everything is fiction, does that mean I should assume that if I go to New York tomorrow, the WTC will actually still be there?

TV carries both fiction and edited/selected non-fiction. The problem is the blurring of the lines.
posted by Bugbread at 5:20 PM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Maybe I'm reading too much into what he's saying, but the Orwellian comparison seemed like a strawman charicature of something MythMaker wasn't actually saying.

Whoa. I'm really confused then, cause I didn't even realize I was disagreeing with MythMaker--I thought I was seconding him.

All the epistemological issues you point out aside, it's the concept as an ideal that the airwaves are a public resource that should be used responsibly that I meant to say had been lost, which IMO is a shame. And that's a subject Grade addresses, obliquely. Sorry for any unintentional miscommunication.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:28 PM on July 3, 2007


Nobody seems to have stated the most obvious problem with Reality TV: Reality shows are driven by low overhead; therefor they put creative professional people out of work.
posted by tkchrist at 5:45 PM on July 3, 2007


Most viewers know about laugh tracks, hence they aren't misled.

Most viewers know about laugh tracks, and allow themselves to be misled anyway. I do it myself on those rare occasions when I'm able to watch something with a laugh track.

Going back to 9/11, I didn't see it with my own eyes. I saw it on TV (but there is editing and selection involved there, so apparently I should assume it's fiction).

Well, that's an interesting example. 95% of what's been broadcast (and printed) about it since the event probably is bullshit, repeated lies, spin, and illusion. Even on the day itself, they got some of the basic facts wrong; not intentionally, but in a way that certainly could have been avoided had they concentrated more on accuracy instead of speed. But of course you can still get some truth out of just about anything, it just that it takes more work with television.

Those lines have been good and blurry since long before television. Trust in the news media has waxed and waned for centuries, and though honest and accurate reporting seems a worthy ideal to aspire to, as far as I know it's rarely been all that popular. It does seem to be in decline at the moment.

Suddenly I'm reminded of people in the 1980's arguing over whether "professional wrestling" was for real.
posted by sfenders at 5:47 PM on July 3, 2007


I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter — we never need read of another

Is it really always this way? A few weeks ago I read about Julie Helgeson's death in Yellowstone in the 1960s from a bear attack. I found the account from her companion and those who tried to help her pretty memorable and harrowing.

And then a few days later I ended up reading about an 11 year old boy who was drug from his tent two weeks ago by a black bear not far from my hometown. If anything, the account seems more harrowing to me.

Bear attacks, of course, retain novelty because they're relatively rare, and the fact that it happened in an area I was familiar with was an extra attention getter for me. Maybe that's it. Or maybe it's the reporting. If you simply report the event, then it fades into a statistical blip. When you start to actually tell the story, even your average banal car accident becomes dramatic.

Maybe the distinction is between reporting and journalism?
posted by weston at 6:04 PM on July 3, 2007


I think this is a great example of low-grade deception being done out of habit, to support a preconceived idea of how a real event has to be told as a story. The first instinct is to reshoot it, rather than to work around it creatively.^

I think this is really a big part of what is going on with reality TV, etc. It's not that producers are thinking of what they are doing as "dishonest." It's that faking little details is standard operating procedure.

Look for things like this: announcer comes to someone's door to tell them that they've won a million dollars. Cut to camera inside the house, with person opening the door, to see the announcer standing there.

That means the cameraman was already inside the house. There's no surprise - it's faked, because there's no other way to get that camera there. In fact, if you see the reverse angle from outside the door, and don't see the cameraman inside, where you can tell they are from the coverage, then it means it was shot in *multiple takes.*

TV producers are making entertainment, not actuality. Not truth. They don't care about it. Perhaps audiences do, but most people working in the field don't care about it at all. It is trivial and casual to ask someone to say something a second time or to do a second take of something.

I think the problem isn't so much that this is happening, it is that the audience mostly doesn't realize that this is happening. It's not so much that the producers are intentionally trying to deceive, it's that the audience doesn't realize that these techniques are being used, and so assume a degree of spontaneous "reality" that just isn't what's happening at all.

And, yes, there's no question that all of this in increasing over time, and these kinds of casual deceptions are getting more and more pronounced. It used to be, in the 50's, say, that an advertiser would "sponsor" a TV show, and the stars of the show would do little obvious hard sell presentations about the cigarettes or soap or whatever it was.

Now it's much more sneaky. Whether it is product placement (look at the Coca-Cola on the desk in front of the judges in American Idol, or the Ford music videos in the same show), or PR (look at all the corporate press releases presented as news on the nightly news), or fake "reality," I think there's no question it is getting more pronounced.

I think the best response to this is an educated populace who can recognize the manipulation for what it is. I don't think we're going to see it go away. But if people are conscious of the manipulation, at least it is far less effective.

But then again, I think the obvious manipulations and half truths on Fox News are pretty obvious too...
posted by MythMaker at 6:12 PM on July 3, 2007


This is why I like Dirty Jobs. He points out the existence of the camera, the crew are practically characters on the show (one dimensional, but better than non-existent).
And if it's scripted? He still ends up covered in poop.
posted by pantsrobot at 6:24 PM on July 3, 2007


GET READY TO HAVE YOUR MIND BLOWN!

Mike Rowe. QVC. 2 AM. 1992.
posted by blasdelf at 7:26 PM on July 3, 2007 [3 favorites]


But my point was that *nothing* on TV is unfiltered, unbiased or "reality." *All* of it is constructed.

Uh-huh. Even how-to shows... so says someone who's done 5 in all, and can't bear to watch any of them. (I went over a year before seeing the first one, and only because my mom practically tied me to the couch and forced me).
posted by bitter-girl.com at 7:27 PM on July 3, 2007


bugbread: "Yes, people do. Those people generally don't hang out on MeFi, but, yeah, I'd guess that more people believe that's true than don't."

Ew. Really? Then in that case I'd just attribute that to a "buyer beware" thing. If you're stupid enough to believe that Ronald McDonald sincerely believes you deserve a break today, it's your own lookout.

What's real and what's fake? Oooookay. Let's explore this conundrum.

This does beg in my mind though a series of questions that have been haunting me lately. I've recently been watching episodes of Mythbusters. I'm late to the party I know. I'm fascinated by how it appears to be reality tv while at the same time is so blatantly 'fixed' and hokey fake... in a NICE way don't get me wrong. It's wonderfully deliciously funny and entertaining, but everyone's all smiles when the cameras are running. It's between two and five people (depending on the episode) mugging for the camera.

It's presented like a documentary that's had a little too much sugar, and is being fussy cuz it doesn't wanna go nappies. Just how much of it is document and how much of it is just airy?

I honestly don't know how much of it is real. Does Jamie even own that building? Is he really in charge or do they just say that, cuz sometimes it looks like he's in charge and other times, if he were in charge then why does he let X happen when he's clearly displeased about it? "X" being whatever he's shown disapproval for that episode.

And what happened to Scottie? She just disappears with no explanation and a few episodes later there's Grant. Cool guy Grant, but Scottie wuz purtier. Apparently either Scottie's reasons for leaving were so boring they didn't make good TV, or they were so bad nobody wanted to make them good TV. Do we really wanna know what happened to Scottie? IS it our business? No. But then, nothing on this show is the audience's business. We MAKE it our business by tuning in. If it woulda made good television, why not tell us?

Kari has on more than one occasion claimed on camera to be a vegetarian. Is this for real, or does she say that cuz she thinks it'll get her more face time? Or did the producers invent it - thinking it'd create conflict for those myths that involve animal byproducts?

The show started as just Jamie & Adam kinda like partners but as the series progresses there's this inconsistency that permeates the series. Sometimes they appear to be equals. Sometimes it's like Jamie's a master craftsman from the middle ages and Adam's his principle journeyman (an experienced underling - like a team foreman), and starting with season two these apprentices come along. It all makes perfect sense and yet it also appears entirely fabricated for purposes of television. Is this how this sort of business actually operates in modern-day, or is this how the producers prefer to present the characters so that an audience can understand?

As I understand it, Heineman hired Savage before the series began, so any antagonism between these two must be fabricated - Heineman could just fire Savage at the drop of a hat otherwise. So are these guys lying to the audience, or are they giving the audience what it wants, or is what we see on the screen what really happened, and any fabrication is invented in post production by the producers?

Or as Clu Gulager once said to Jeff Goldblum, "I think you fall into the 'or what' category."
posted by ZachsMind at 7:35 PM on July 3, 2007


I like Best Brains answer to these sorts of questions. Repeat to yourself it's just a show. You should really just relax.

If you go up to an Elvis impersonator and ask him if he's really Elvis (and he's on the clock doing his thing) he's gonna tell you he's Elvis. If a child asks a department store Santa if he's really Santa, he's not gonna say "gee kid I'm just playing Santa - he's not real didn't your momma ever tell you that?"

It's just TV. It's not real. Even when it tells you that it is real. Everyone should watch television on the presumption that none of it is true. Even and especially the news. Unless something is corroborated by a second or third independent source (and I don't mean more than one television network) just don't take it as gospel that it happened.

There's another scene in DieHard 4. The bad guys take over every major channel that's being broadcast, and show on television that they blew up a building. What's the first thing the protagonists do? They rush away from the TV and head towards that building to see if it really happened.

Maybe the only way to know the truth for certain is to have been there.
posted by ZachsMind at 7:54 PM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Most viewers know about editing. If they see, in a news report, a reporter ring someone's doorbell, and then the camera cuts to them discussing something with the homeowner on the front lawn, viewers know that there was editing, and neither homeowners nor reporters can teleport, hence they aren't misled.

Viewers are aware of it, but even with this example they would tend not to be conscious of it; it's just the language of television, and people get in trouble with false assumptions and oversights about language all the time. I think the TV news viewer tends to be less aware of the degree to which editorial decisions are made based on whether video exists. The scene you describe here is most probably irrelevant to the story the reporter is conveying; it is not necessary for reporting the story, it just fills the video requirement. Stories that are conceptual or otherwise are not given to video presentation are given much lower priority.

This also gives a great deal of strength to a very big fiction: that video doesn't lie. It's a really dangerous assumption and one that is not challenged nearly enough.

I give the example every time this kind of discussion comes up, but I think "48 Hours" (I don't know if it's still on these days) was a great example of TV news showing us (not necessarily intentionally, but more as a dramatic device) how we are influenced by the editing. They would do a show on some murder or other court case, and the first half of the show they would lead the viewer in one direction regarding guilt/innocence, and then in the second half they would steer the viewer back toward the other direction. It was in part how they laid out the information, of course, but it was also other cues--music, emotional elements, slow motion, etc.--that gave a clear demonstration over their power over the perception of the story.
posted by troybob at 9:42 PM on July 3, 2007


Of course, the corollary of this is that fiction can become much more "truthful" - think of all the people who get their news from "The Daily Show". I used to watch it (when I had more free time) regularly, and would often find out about news events (especially US) from it. I think that they often got right to the essential facts of an occurrence so that they could then make fun of it. Often with less cruft about the actual happenings than network news shows.

Of course, the other aspect of this situation is that newspapers aren't much better. Having to compete with the infotainment available on the boob-tube, they also sculpt to morph events into ledes and fluff. I'm sure it is not uncommon to read an article about a happening that you witnessed yourself, and wonder "What event did the author view?"
posted by birdsquared at 10:17 PM on July 3, 2007


I'm not saying it should be illegal to make shit up on TV. I'm not advocating a nanny state.

I am advocating a nanny state for matters that affect health. I want a nanny and the professor state. You should not be able to mislead people about diet, exercise, and pills.

If it's a show about a diet or an exercise tool or the like, I want the manufacturer to pay for a government agency to review the product, publish an opinion, and supply a brief, blunt summary that must be shown and read to the viewing audience before and after the show.

Something like: "The product discussed here, Calf Master, is no more likely to help you lose fat in your calves than any other exercise regimen (such as running or swimming) involving calf exercises. Furthermore, it has been shown that spot reducing does not work: to lose fat in your calves, you must lose fat in general. People shown in this program are professional actors and models who were paid to use the Calf Master, and are not representative of the average user. The average user lost X pounds over Y weeks and gained it all back after Z weeks..." and so on.
posted by pracowity at 12:23 AM on July 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


Nobody seems to have stated the most obvious problem with Reality TV

That's the most obvious problem? Are you implying it's the most serious problem? You have a strange set of priorities.

This thread makes me glad I don't watch television except for the occasional dramatic series, and that always via download. It's been so long, more than a decade, that I've gotten any news from television, that I think I've forgotten just how central to how many people experience the world television news really is.

Print journalism in the US has a much stronger ethos of being "factual" and "objective" but, of course, there's large amounts of distortion there, as well. But I was raised to understand and expect this, I have never thought otherwise, not even as a small child.

And how could anyone think otherwise based upon their own personal experience of the world? No two people's memories of an event are the same, no two people's evaluation of what is more important about an event are the same. Our real lives are almost nothing but opinion and shades of truth and more and less attempts to see through the veil. How can anyone expect that journalism would be any different?

People fail to be critical. Even scientists, who are trained to be critical, are themselves quite credulous about the process of science and how, in reality, "truth" is arrived at.

These are all various shades of the underlying impulse that brings of theism. People want revealed and absolute truth. Not being able to successfully manufacture it in their personal lives (excepting the truly faith-obsessed and the mentally ill), they turn to an authority to provide it for them.

That citizens of contemporary wealthy nations have found a way to be provided "true" things about the world in an dramatized format indistinguishable from fictional narrative is really only the inevitably outcome of the impulse that sees all this ambiguity and says "fuck it", there's nothing that true in the least, we might as well get a good story out of our silly desire to be "informed".
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:13 AM on July 4, 2007


Sorry I'm late to this thread...anyway, there is some evidence that Americans are becoming less gullible (or less trusting, depending on your viewpoint), at least with regards to news.

From the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press:

"The percentage [of respondents] saying they can believe most of what they read in their daily newspaper dropped from 84% in 1985 to 54% in 2004."

For local TV news, believability was 62%, down from 85% in 1984. Network TV news dropped from 87% in 1987 to 64%.

I didn't see any demographic breakdowns, but I suspect, based on conversations in my classes, that believability is even lower with the college-aged set. I always thought that I, as a confirmed Gen-Xer, was about as cynical as it came, but sometimes my students make me feel like an optimist by comparison. And they all know reality TV is fake, but that doesn't keep them from wanting to watch.

The full Pew report is here.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 8:56 AM on July 4, 2007


I have a friend who said her son once refused to read from a list of novels his teacher required for a passing grade, because none of the books on the list were based even remotely on fact. He was like ten years old maybe and being told to read stuff like Charlotte's Web or Stuart Little, and what he was wanting to read was something based on history like Diary of Anne Frank (which wasn't on the list). The teacher almost gave him a failing grade for refusing to follow her direction, but they finally found on the list a book that took place during the Bubonic Plague. He spent more time researching for his own satisfaction the history of the time in history books than he did actually reading the noivel, but read it he did, got a passing grade, and the rest as they say is history. Again, he was ten years old, and he knew fact from fiction.

The moral of the story is, if an individual WANTS to research the truth and separate fact from fiction for his own edification, he'll do so. Most people don't want the truth; it's a bother, and the end result is rarely as interesting as the tall tales. Personally, I'll choose Annie Oakley over Anne Frank any day. Whether it's true or not, I prefer it when my heroines shoot back.

Some years ago, The Price They Paid first circulated via email. I remember reading that back then, thinking this a curiously rare thing - a spammed message in my inbox that I didn't mind getting. However, I didn't bother to check its facts. I just took them as a given. Why would anyone bother to lie about something like this? What could they possibly get out of being historically inaccurate?

As Snopes.com reveals in the above link, it's not so much that the writer of "The Price They Paid" lied, but rather they generalized and mowed over the details in order to make a patriotic point. For example, it is true that several of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had their homes ransacked and burned, but whether or not it's 12 is up for conjecture. Further, that was common during the Revolutionary War. A lot of people who DIDN'T sign the declaration had their houses ransacked and burned too. So the "The Price They Paid" document is misleading, making it sound like the signers were singled out.

Further, the document gives the impression that the signing of the Declaration was a direct cause of these men's suffering. The truth is that the war had started BEFORE the paperwork was drawn. Jefferson wrote the Declaration in response to the travesties he and others saw happening to the colonies - and they felt it was due to political and military pressure from overseas. Many of the events that happened to the men after signing the declaration would have happened anyway regardless of whether or not they signed it.

Do we need to know that George Washington's dentures were not really made out of wood? The wooden denture mold that the Smithsonian has on display is not what Georgie put in his mouth. It's what was used to make his actual false teeth, which were made out of more expensive, and more common materials of the day.

So. Now you know. But does it really matter, one way or the other? The Devil is in the details. Just how much of the truth do we want or need to know when it comes to history? Or anything for that matter?

It's good to know that John Wilkes Boothe killed Abraham Lincoln I suppose. However, if I thought Ulysses S. Grant killed Abraham Lincoln, beyond the occasional reproach I'd get from people laughing at my ignorance, my life would go on as normal. What's scary to me is when political policy or other more pressing modern day issues are facilitated based on misleading information or a total ignorance of the past.
posted by ZachsMind at 10:25 AM on July 4, 2007


Jesus, Discourse Marker, the poll shows that the American public believed in 1985, and still believes today (by a wider margin) that print journalism is less reliable than television news. What the fuck? Is it because they believe that pictures can't lie? I find this very depressing.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:07 PM on July 4, 2007


Why would anyone bother to lie about something like this? What could they possibly get out of being historically inaccurate?

You really need to learn more about urban folklore if you think like this. Stuff is invented in a bit of folklore to make it a better story and/or to make the story conform to a moralism or to confirm a stereotype/bigotry.

Something doesn't have to be false to be urban folklore. But it usually is.

I wrote a lot on a.f.u. and elsewhere that the "glass is a liquid/glass can be seen to 'flow' down old windowpanes" is an example of an odd sort of folklore that, nevertheless, functions as other folklore functions. I haven't heard anyone give this type of folklore a good name, but there are numerous examples of it. This bit of folklore is a good story in its own small way, especially when various details are added to it that seem to validate it. It also functions on a social level as a divider: the people who are smart/educated enough to "know" this separated from those who aren't. And it has the personal psychological effect that folklore often does, it's comforting in one's self-image and worldview: I know this little factoid because I'm one of the smart guys.

One of the things I've seen much discussed, but nothing definitive about, is what exactly is happening when people invent or add pieces of fabricated history or other falsehoods to folklore—often these go to great lengths to appear to be credible. Does one person manufacture all this fakery at once? Or does it start with a small bit which is then elaborated? And what are such people thinking? My guess is that they believe that the story is true, so they're not really "harming" anyone by adding to its credibility...not unlike how many TV producers and documentarians might think.

A warning sign, actually, is that something seems heavily documented or filled with citations in a sort of isolation, where you can't find it elsewhere and the citations seem to be very hard to track down. Con artists and other successful liars know that, among other things, a good lie needs lots of convincing little details which the mark might think "why would anyone make up such a tiny detail?"

All of the falsehoods we tolerate in our lives, from religion to believing the man on the TV or the newspaper article, derive from the delusion of narrative. We think that life—our individual lives, everyone's lives, the world, our towns, an animal's, the universe's—are stories. We construct narratives about anything and everything. We never lie in such a way that it destroys narrative. We want clearly comprehensible motivations, clear sequence of events. We want good guys and bad guys and winners and losers. We want people to make goals and reach them, or fail to reach them. We want a death to be tragic, love to conquer all (except when it doesn't), and we want to know what's in the briefcase.

You've heard Sturgeon's Law? Well, here's another like it: 90% of everything doesn't make any sense.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:29 PM on July 4, 2007 [4 favorites]


Personally, my biggest problem with television is the false knowledge it gives us. Before television, people wouldn't have visual experiences with things like rain forest, which now is a plus, the camera can take us places we could never go. The downside of this though is the things we think we know about because of television and movies, the most recent example would be the people who "know" how things explode, even though their experiences only come from television.
posted by drezdn at 8:55 AM on July 5, 2007


My biggest problem with mefi is the false knowledge it gives us...
posted by five fresh fish at 6:10 PM on July 5, 2007


Does anyone honestly think Richard Hatch won Survivor Borneo fair and square? That contestants on Amazing Race are chosen on mertis of sincerity and not because they fulfill some predetermined set of stereotypes the producers wanted?

You're too cynical, and you're mixing ideas strangely.

Yes, Richard Hatch won survivor on his own.

That said, the producers picked him (like everybody else) on purpose, and quite likely with the aid of psychologists, to make sure they'd get some conflict, some love possibilities, some humor and some drama in general.

They almost assuredly attached similar levels of thought into the various competitions, to make sure that teams would fail challenges because of the failure of a single person and what not.

But that doesn't mean that the winner didn't really win. It just means that they were lucky enough to get cast, and that they then managed to succeed, when given a complex problem, designed largely to create drama.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 9:10 AM on July 31, 2007


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