One of my greatest guilty pleasures is my near-addiction to the History Channel show “Ancient Aliens.” It is an absurd, but astonishingly entertaining series that purports to reveal the truth behind extraterrestrial beings in the ancient world.
Hosted by Giorgio Tsoukalos and peppered with weird personalities, from legitimate professors to quack conspiracy kooks, the show is informative and charming, even if its grand conclusions are laughable. Increasingly, our mainstream news media is looking more and more like “Ancient Aliens,” and using similar storytelling techniques, to push narratives that fall apart under any serious scrutiny.
Segments on “Ancient Aliens,” now in its 12th season, have a familiar and predictable format. First, actual experts talk about real mythology, and give examples of curious carvings or hieroglyphs that kind of look like spaceships. They delve into the difficulties of certain ancient structures being built without modern tools, or point to the universality of some symbol across civilizations that had no contact with each other.
All of this is curious and leads to some head-scratching. But by the end of the segment, the nut job conspiracists of the show attempt their fraught explanations, usually ending with something like this: “Could the pyramids have been a global power source for alien spacecraft thousands of years ago? Ancient astronaut experts say, ‘Yes!’”
These days, the news, especially when covering the Trump administration, has been following this format in troubling ways. The coverage of the Russia investigation is a prime example. There are plenty of juicy and accurate facts to fill the opening of a segment of foreign interference in the election. Donald Trump Jr. did meet with a Russian offering opposition research against Hillary Clinton, Michael Flynn did lie about Russian contacts, WikiLeaks did try to damage Clinton by attacking the Democratic National Committee’s computer systems.
But, just as in “Ancient Aliens,” so far these interesting facts don’t tell the story the news media wants to tell. So too often we wind up with anchors or experts saying something like this: “Could the Trump campaign have colluded with Russians to interfere with the election? News media experts say, ‘Yes!’”
Evidence Is Not Proof
One of the ways “Ancient Aliens” grips its audience is by deftly giving evidence the appearance of proof. The essential difference is that evidence refers to the entire body of facts pertaining to a phenomenon, regardless of what conclusion it suggests. Proof, on the other hand, is a specific kind of evidence that is sufficient to conclude the validity of a description of reality.
Proof tells a story. Evidence doesn’t. “Ancient Aliens” turns this on its head. Through its B-roll landscape shots and up-close interviews, it stacks evidence in such a way that we feel as if there is no explanation other than alien interference in the ancient world, just as the media insists on Trump collusion in the election.
Of course, like the news media, the show also leaves out all of the myriad evidence that suggests there was no alien interference. Just because we can’t explain exactly how the ancients did this, that, or the other thing doesn’t prove they had help from outer space. In fact, the far simpler and more reasonable conclusion, although not fully proven, is that the ancients simply had methods we don’t understand and were not visited by helpful Moon men.
Likewise, in the Russia investigation it is far simpler and more reasonable to conclude it is likely that some dumb mistakes were made by people who weren’t careful than it is to believe in some grand conspiracy to overthrow the United States.
We Want To Believe
Another reason “Ancient Aliens” works so well is that the idea humans have been visited by aliens is so earth-shattering, so fantastical, and explains so many things at once that deep down part of us wants it to be true. It is simply human nature to revel in and take psychological nourishment from bombshell theories that explain the hidden truth of reality. It is a desire we share with the ancients, and is perhaps at the root of all storytelling.
This is equally true of our political stories. For many it is fulfilling, powerful, and shocking to believe that Russia used Trump as an agent to take over America. How else, after all, can we explain his impossible victory? The alternative theories are quite mundane in comparison. They go something like, “Enough people in strategically important states thought Trump was a better choice for president than the alternatives.”
It is perfectly reasonable for journalists to chase big, shocking stories, and even in their own research to work towards a hypothesis. That’s what attracts eyeballs and clicks. But when actually telling the story, they must avoid the “Ancient Alien” methods of selective evidence and sleight of hand. In short order, several investigations will review all of the evidence and reach conclusions on its basis. The recent flurry of retractions and even the suspension of a journalist for badly misleading the public highly suggests that the news media is fallaciously offering evidence as proof far too often, rather than letting investigations work their course.
Trump Knows The Score
President Trump is absolutely aware of how eager the news media is to bring him down. It’s no surprise given that he has made the “Fake News” his number-one nemesis. Trump plays them like a pitcher facing a home-run hitter chomping at the bit for a fastball. He smiles, grabs his phone, and fires in a slider that looks like a sure thing for 59 feet then crashes to earth in the final foot and a half, leaving the mighty media struck out.
When indictments against Russian nationals came down last week for interfering with the election, it came with the caveat that no Americans had any knowledge of it. Even so, many in the news media could not admit there was no evidence of collusion and move on. Instead we heard about what still might be coming, or that allegations of obstruction were alive and well. Perhaps most importantly, the media badly confused Trump’s claims that there was no collusion and that Russian interference didn’t tip the election to mean he claimed there was no interference. Once again, in their eagerness to condemn Trump, he played them.
“Ancient Aliens” has an advantage over the news media. It has, as far as I know, no nemesis. There is no group of angry scientists campaigning vigorously to expose the inconsistencies and poor use of evidence of the History Channel’s hit show. Not so for the news. Not only does Trump slam them almost every day, a whole host of Trump-supporting outlets and Internet personalities scour the pages and channels of the news for embarrassing mistakes or exaggerations.
Perhaps this constant vetting should convince news outlets to move more slowly and cautiously. But news is a business, just like most TV shows. They sell stories, the bigger and more shocking the better. That is unlikely to change, so news consumers must be careful about what they believe, when evidence amounts to proof and when it doesn’t. We need to watch the news more like we watch “Ancient Aliens”: open to fascinating facts and details but always highly skeptical of grand conclusions that feel more real than they actually are.