On February 19, Dorothy Rabinowitz, the acid-tongued commentator of the Wall Street Journal, published a stinging attack on the History Channel for running a film contending that Lyndon Johnson was directly responsible for the murder of John F. Kennedy and seven others. Controversy about “The Guilty Men,” had been brewing for several days; complaints poured into the television network from, among others, former Presidents Ford and Carter, LBJ's widow, and public television guru Bill Moyers, Johnson's former press secretary.
A History Channel spokesperson announced that the network had not endorsed the film and had shown it only “for public debate.” In the face of the continued uproar over the shoddy production, Channel officials appointed a panel of three veteran historians to explore the film's documentation and thesis. The results of this study should not be hard to predict.
This raises the question why the History Channel didn't have one or more qualified historians view the film before it was put on the air. Rabinowitz asked, “…If even this primitive piece of conspiracy-mongering could win a respectful airing on the history channel—on the ground, no less, that it's a subject worthy of public debate—then what dregs of crackpot theory would the network consider beyond the pale?” She noted that an Oliver Stone film glorifying Fidel Castro had been dropped by HBO because it lacked documentation. “Mr. Stone might have done better going straight to the History Channel.”
But I think there's a deeper problem with the History Channel: It is not only sometimes superficial and unprofessional, it is almost always deadly dull, doing much to convince viewers (if they needed convincing) that the past is irrelevant and that the study of it is almost certainly boring in the extreme. I have watched it many times, almost always coming away disgusted.
The network's strong emphasis on war might lead younger viewers to believe that human conduct rarely rises above barbarism. Grainy films about Hitler seem endlessly fascinating to network officials. (The normal din of weaponry and slaughter was brightened a bit recently with “Sex in World War II,” featuring Hugh Hefner.) Entire topics of human life go virtually unexplored. Themes that have been explored at tedious length in the media, such as the discovery of ancient Egyptian artifacts and the latest underwater findings, are shown repeatedly. The cutting-edge work of professional historians, which many of us find exciting, goes unexplored, as do debates among leading historians about the meaning of the past. News about recent books and articles is left to C-Span, which devotes at least a little time to the subject.
And then there are the commercials—that endless parade of noisy, mindless, degrading nonsense, seen on almost all of the channels, which seem to take up 30 percent of an average hour. They render serious consideration of anything impossible.
It is a truism, at least on the right, to say that television is a major force in the cultural decline of the West. The serious drop in the quality of programming at the Arts and Entertainment Network and BRAVO reveals much, not to mention the many channels devoted exclusively or in large part to sleaze. Perhaps we can't expect much more from the History Channel. But why can't we? Shouldn't the historical professional rise up as a body and demand more of a network that is often misusing and trivializing something vital to the education of civilized human beings? I say, let's talk less about current election campaigns and more about the life of the mind. Scholars should let the suits at the History Channel feel some well-informed heat. Often.
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Oscar Chamberlain - 2/25/2004
The problem of having a decent history cable channel may shed light on the problems of popular history (and making good history popular). Looking at what succeeds, here are some observations.
1. More people like the celebration of heritage than like their history straight. Therefore the better history documentaries that are also popular explore topics important to heritage and usually, in part, confirm that heritage.
2. The worse documentaries pander to heritage. This is most clear in the sub-genre of Biblical History. Many of these slide in and out of assuming Biblical inerrancy with an awe-inspiring casualness. The result provides an aura of scholarship to Cecil B. DeMille influenced faith. Unfortunately, there are whole generations so influenced.
3. Some of the better documentaries learn how to fake pandering. The opening and conclusion are sensationalist as are the segues to commercials, while the good stuff is packed in between. I think this may relate to the current vogue in history subtitles. ("How the Irish saved Western Civilization"; "How Greeks guarded us from being idiots." That sort of thing)
3. Lots of people think "wars are neat." They will watch anything that shares that vision. Some of them dress up in period garb and hold demonstrations. When combined with the heritage people (some of whom know that wars aren't neat but see them as central to heritage), they provide a steady audience for wars well known in our history. (The re-enactors also provide cheap extras for the battle scenes).
4. Conspiracies are good theater. They play like Aristotelian tragedies, providing both terror and pity.
The Kennedy assassination is the current high water mark of this confluence. We watch the Zapruder film like the Greeks watched Agamemnon go inside to bathe.
Here, the History Channel and others are dabbling in myth when they run Kennedy programs. In an odd way we may be watching how different versions of myths emerged, clustered ever more distantly around a core of truth.
Thinking about it, that's historical.
Jonathan Dresner - 2/25/2004
My approach to the History channel is malicious neglect: I don't watch it, and I discourage my students from watching it. And, lo and behold, it doesn't bother me, much. Critical controversy would probably just encourage them: how much extra press have they gotten out of this JFK-LBJ thing?
But here we are, at HNN, building something relevant and interesting and substantive.
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