If you haven’t, here’s what happens in almost every episode of the show’s nine seasons [spoiler alert]: a motley team of researchers visits a location purported to be “squatchy”, interviews various local eye-witnesses, recreates a sighting by having the tallest team member stand next to a tree, “calls” for Bigfoot in the local wilderness at night, and, predictably, FAILS to find Bigfoot. “We didn’t find Bigfoot this time, but based on testimonials and other physical evidence, I’m convinced that there could be several living in these woods,” Matt Moneymaker, team leader, might say in any episode’s concluding monologue [end spoiler alert].
The Animal Planet program about an animal that does not exist airs because, as Wikipedia puts it, “it has high ratings and is a top earner for Animal Planet.”
Finding Bigfoot is not the only show that feels out of place on a channel that ought to know better, of course. Take The History Channel, once dedicated to covering topics of, well, history. One can tune in to its popular Ancient Aliens program to learn about “the controversial theory that extraterrestrials have visited Earth for millions of years,” with each episode offering “historic depth to the […] grounded theories surrounding this age old debate.” We’ve been debating this topic for centuries, you see.
If aliens aren’t your cup of tea, you could opt for Amelia Earhart: the Lost Evidence The History Channel’s bombshell revelation that the Japanese captured and killed her 5 days before hostilities began in the Pacific. If that’s not shocking enough, the show presents evidence that the U.S. government knew she had been captured…but did nothing to help!
It’s hard to fault the executives of Animal Planet and The History Channel for producing content that gets good ratings. Their business formula is straightforward: produce programming that enough people watch > sell airtime to advertisers > profit.
But, at the same time, these shows are problematic in a small way because they contribute to a shift in American culture towards open government distrust, conspiracy acceptance, and the existence of alternative facts.
Today, according to research from the University of Chicago, 50% of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory, such as Obama’s birthplace or the government’s involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
It’s tempting (oh, so tempting) to correlate belief in conspiracy theories with stupidity or with a particular political party, but neither is the case. Instead, the researchers found that “the likelihood of supporting conspiracy theories is strongly predicted by a willingness to believe in other unseen, intentional forces and an attraction to Manichean [good vs. evil] narratives.”
Which brings me to politics. Donald Trump successfully tapped into our culture’s growing attraction to conspiracies during his presidential campaign. Courting rural voters down on their luck, he successfully cast immigrants as villains to people who likely had never interacted with an illegal immigrant. He created a boogeyman out of international agreements such as the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Paris Climate Agreement, which almost everyone knew almost nothing about. Everything the government had done in the past was an unseen force of evil, acting in your disinterest, he argued. Perhaps his experience on TV’s The Apprentice and in World Wrestling Entertainment convinced him that some people are gullible enough to believe anything – like a TV contest is as good a place as any to find your next hire – despite evidence to the contrary.
Trump won the election by about 78,000 votes in the three states that made the difference: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. If a measly 39,000, or 0.2%, of the three state’s turnout had voted for the pragmatist – if respected media outlets had resisted using their credibility to stoke the public’s juvenile interest in “unseen forces of good and evil” – maybe Hillary would be President.
How responsible is Animal Planet when it leverages its brand as a credible source of animal facts to air 98 episodes of Finding Bigfoot? Is The History Channel, a channel about events that actually happened, at fault as it promotes content easily debunked by The Daily Beast, of all things? Can we blame dupable voters for believing that the government is corrupt when credible sources tell them about the government’s Area 51 Cover Up, as did episode 5 of The History Channel’s Mystery Quest?
Propaganda works with repetition and from a variety of sources, and can find success in small shifts of voter sentiment over long periods of time. Just ask the Russians. So, as a society, we should find a way to entertain more responsibly, recognizing that it takes a village to raise good citizens, especially when some have a propensity to believe that Bigfoot lurks, ancient aliens visit, and The Apprentice was a brilliant interviewing technique.