Television Pandering

PBS ‘History Detectives’ Goes Paranormal

I still happen to think it’s deplorable and even morally wrong for the entertainment industry to pander to unfounded fears and superstitions of undereducated people who, for lack of better grounding in history and the sciences, actually believe in ghosts, monsters, and extraterrestial aliens infiltrating Earth.

This stuff is coming to PBS, but it’s straight out of the History Channel mindset:

PBS History Detectives

As early as the 1870s, Edison and other scientific minds explored psychic phenomena like mediums. They believed every living being was made of atoms that could “remember” past lives.

Did Edison make a machine to unlock the secrets of the dead? The wax cylinders could hold the answer. History Detectives travels to the Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park in New Jersey to find out.

The key concept here is the framing of the question “Did Edison make a machine to unlock the secrets of the dead?”

It’s a matter of historical fact that Edison and many of his contemporaries were involved in “paranormal” research. A Google search on ‘Thomas Edison paranormal’ is instructive if you want to take a quick look.

But when a supposedly reputable 21st-century broadcaster asks the carney barker’s question “did Edison raise the dead?”, intelligent people don’t have to click the link and watch the video to find out, because we know a priori he couldn’t have, and therefore didn’t. The real question becomes: if the question isn’t aimed at the intelligent, who is it aimed at?

Discovery channel still hosts the “A Haunting” show, about people who move into … haunted houses.

The History Channel, once a staid, conservative source of historical documentaries, has moved solidly into the sensational (Gangland, MonsterQuest) as well as the paranormal (Nostradamus, “DaVinci” secret codes and conspiracies, UFO Hunters). They also continue to offer what I consider to be top-notch, no-nonsense historical documentaries on both the modern and ancient worlds, and good-to-excellent science (How the Earth Was Made, The Universe). Despite the sensational aspects of MonsterQuest they rarely feature fake or mythological “monsters” and when they do they de-bunk them, so I occasionally put aside the name and enjoy the show.

We all watch television to be informed, entertained, educated, inspired, and brought up to date. Our tastes are all different. But none of us watch television for the express purpose of being deceived.

Some of us do watch TV to laugh at it. Some of my friends do. I’ve done it. “Sure, they show paranormal stuff. But you don’t really take it seriously, do you? I just watch it to laugh at it!”

When presenting portraits of falsehoods popular and unpopular, there’s a thin line between amusing pathological information, and pandering to it. Advertising a show with the leader “did Edison raise the dead” or “Did Nostradamus predict the end of the world in 2012” crosses the line. My two cents: I think it’s too bad it’s coming to PBS too.

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1 thought on “Television Pandering

  1. Just finished viewing first episode of History Detectives. No, Edison did not make this “psychophone” machine, nor did research show he ever had any interest in the paranormal. Machine was made by someone else, intended to play hourly pre-recorded “positive suggestions” to improve the outlook of the awake or sleeping listener – a primitive “subliminal suggestion” machine, selling for about $3800 in 2009 dollars. Having learned all that, still think asking if Edison was trying to raise the dead is a pretty cheesy teaser lead.

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