Saturday, August 16, 2014

An Open Letter to David Zaslav, President and CEO of Discovery Communications

Dear Mr. Zaslav,

I’m writing to you concerning the programming on Discovery, one of several cable channels owned by Discovery Communications. Specifically, I wish to address my concerns about this year’s “Shark Week” programming.

I have been a long time viewer of Discovery’s annual Shark Week event. In fact, I started watching Shark Week in its very first run in the summer of 1987 and I’ve been a faithful viewer ever since. Over those twenty-seven years, I’ve watched Shark Week’s programming and marketing strategies evolve.

In the past two years, Shark Week’s programming has taken a very troubling turn. Problems began with the 2013 broadcast of Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives. This program purported to expose the existence of Carcharocles megalodon, a giant prehistoric shark that went extinct millions of years ago. It is now well known that this program, purporting to be nonfiction, was entirely fabricated. That same summer, Shark Week also featured the program Voodoo Sharks which explored the existence of the so-called Rookin shark in the bayous of Louisiana. Although the Rookin is a fantasy, the program did include an actual scientist, Jonathan Davis of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, who now claims that the filmmakers lied to him and manipulated his testimony.

Instead of admitting to their deceit, Discovery has doubled down and continued to air dishonest Shark Week programming in 2014. The week was kicked off by Shark of Darkness, an entirely fabricated show about an enormous great white shark that attacked shipwrecked whale watchers. This was followed by Monster Hammerhead. Like Voodoo Shark, this program spun nonsense of a mythical shark and featured actual scientists who were bamboozled by the filmmakers. Shark Week wrapped up its weekday programing with an extended rerun of 2013’s Megalodon episode followed by Megalodon: The New Evidence, which took on the appearance of a news program while presenting “evidence” so absurd that the show treaded on parody.

Aside from fabricating events and deceiving some of the people involved, these programs were also filled with bad science. Shark of Darkness featured several erroneous claims about shark biology and behavior, like maintaining that a great white shark could “learn” to buccal pump their gills (this is like claiming that you or I could learn to grow wings) and insinuating that sharks actively seek out people to eat. Monster Hammerhead claimed that a great hammerhead shark has been haunting Florida waters for sixty years but these sharks have an average lifespan of twenty to thirty years. These errors are unbecoming of a cable network that bills itself as “The World’s #1 Nonfiction Media Company.”

To be sure, authentic programs were broadcast among these fictional shows but that only compounds the problem. Without any clear disclaimers to demarcate what is and is not fiction (and the vague postscripts featured on these shows don’t cut it) it is nearly impossible for viewers to tell what is true and what is fabricated.

This should be of concern for Discovery. According to your company’s website, “Discovery is committed to managing its business activities in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations and to ensuring honest and ethical behavior by its directors, officers, employees and contingent workers.” It is impossible to reconcile the content of these shows—especially the alleged behavior of the filmmakers—and a commitment to honest and ethical behavior.

Please do not think me or this letter naïve. I understand that Discovery is attempting to keep up with the competition. The History Channel (owned by A&E) has long since abandoned its namesake with so-called reality shows that have nothing to do with history and it regularly features programs on religion and extraterrestrial encounters that are disingenuous at best. I also understand that Discovery has an obligation to create revenues for its shareholders and Megalodon and Shark of Darkness achieved tremendous ratings.

However, it is not necessary to abandon journalistic and scientific standards and basic filmmaking ethics in order to achieve the ratings you desire. As Joseph Stromberg of Vox pointed out, Discovery’s 2010 broadcast of the BBC program Life achieved 11.8 million viewers, more than twice Megalodon’s 4.8 million viewers. Also, the recent broadcast of the science-based program Cosmos gained impressive ratings that eclipsed both Megalodon and Shark of Darkness with 8.5 million viewers across ten networks with Fox getting 5.8 million of them. Clearly, there is an audience for authentic and well-made science programming.

The decline of Shark Week should be worrying to Discovery Networks for another reason. Shark Week has become one of the most popular television events of the year not through disingenuous programming but based on the raw interest in sharks that exists among your viewers. Programs like Megalodon and Shark of Darkness alienate these viewers. This isn’t a projection. It’s already happening. Shark of Darkness attracted 3.8 million viewers, one million less than Megalodon did a year earlier. This evidence, as well as the overwhelming negative response in the press and in social media, should be alarming to you, the rest of the leadership at Discovery, and to your investors. If you continue in this manner of producing sloppy and dishonest programming, Discovery may lose the very viewers who have made Shark Week and this network a success in the first place.

I assume that Shark Week will return in 2015. Between now and then, please consider the impact that your programming choices have on shark studies, on viewers, and on your network. While Discovery has gained tremendous ratings in the short term, the negative impact on your brand in the long term may cause you to regret these choices. It is within your power to fix this and I hope you will do so. Otherwise, I may choose to pass on future Shark Week broadcasts and I suspect other viewers will do the same.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Peace Sells But the Israelis and Palestinians Aren't Buying

In the past week my social media feed and the news sources I frequent have been dominated by stories, images, and commentary on the renewed violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians. There’s been plenty of passion expressed on the issue, especially since Israel sent ground forces into Gaza, and many of these debates inevitably devolve into nasty name calling with pro-Israeli voices charging their opposition with anti-Semitism and the pro-Palestinian crowd accusing others of bias. But the unspoken question, the one that no mainstream American news source dares ask, is why should we care?

For some, the answer to that question is implicit. War, bloodshed, and human rights violations inherently make the conflict of interest, right? Wrong. If that were the case, there would be a whole lot more attention bestowed on many more places, particularly African nations that have experienced ongoing civil conflicts and have suffered far higher casualties and more outrageous abuses of human dignity.

So why does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict generate such interest? Some of this is due to America’s strategic interests in the region, with Israel an American ally and one of the only functioning Western-style democracies in the Middle East. But there is more to it than that. These fights take place in the so-called “holy land,” where combat over this territory goes back at least as far as the Crusades.  The fascination with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has nothing to do with the people living there and has everything to do with the location. Fights over this region take on the dimension of a cosmic struggle and as individuals from the outside weigh in on it through social media notes, water cooler conversations, and blog posts they are able to entertain the illusion that they are participating in a matter of great importance and thereby fool themselves into believing that their own lives have meaning and value.

The way opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict formulate among the American populace bears this out. One of Israel’s key allies in America is found among evangelicals. But the motivation behind this support has nothing to do with an appreciation of the people living in that region or a meaningful understanding of their history. The evangelical support for Israel is really about Biblical beliefs of the Apocalypse, which requires a Jewish state in the holy land to incite the Second Coming and kick off the events of the Book of Revelation. This belief among one of America’s most powerful voting blocs has resulted in politicians making foreign policy to assuage it. Reacting primarily against the conservative evangelical coalition, many liberals have taken up the cause of the Palestinians. Like their opposition, American leftists frequently have little or no understanding of the Palestinian people and their history, but rather subscribe to the “friend of my enemy is my enemy” paradigm. The leftist commitment to the Palestinians has nothing to do with human dignity. It is about fighting the evangelical political machine that is absorbed with establishing Christian nationalism in America. In response to the growing secularism of American culture, evangelicals intensify their commitment to Israel and leftists respond by doubling down on their commitment to the Palestinians as a way of demonstrating their opposition to evangelicals, to traditional religious institutions in general, and the expansion of domestic religious political power. In short, the debate among American spectators over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has nothing to do with the people of that region and has everything to do with personal and domestic agendas.

Of course, whenever violence breaks out between Israelis and Palestinians, some will call us to “pray for peace.” Let me save you all a candlelight vigil. There is no reason to hope for peace in this region. None. As much as we might hope for it, as much outrage as we might pour onto social media outlets, none of this makes a difference. Peace cannot be wished from the outside. It has to be demanded from within and both the Israelis and the Palestinians have proven that neither of them are interested in peace. When I say “both,” I don’t refer to fringe elements and special interest lobbies working to destabilize any potential peace process. The mainstream voting populace of this region has demonstrated that they have no interest in peace and they have made that point through the mechanics of their democratic institutions. The Palestinian people have elected Hamas, a terrorist organization committed to violence, to run their government. The Israeli people have consistently elected war criminals like Arial Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu to the leadership of their country. With mass endorsement of leaders with violent agendas, outbreaks of war should not inspire frustration or disbelief. The only real surprise is that the violence ever stops.

Rather than wasting time praying for peace, here is my challenge to you: stop caring about the Israelis and the Palestinians. Let the matter go. You don’t really care about them anyway. These people are the Hatfieds and McCoys of the international stage and their conflict is only poised to end when this arid and largely worthless patch of land is so covered with dead bodies and its inhabitants are so drenched in each other’s blood that they can’t tell the difference between each other anymore. Making the Palestinian-Israeli conflict about us just distorts the issue and allows domestic special interests a roundabout way of advancing their own agendas.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Independence Day: Celebrate Democracy, Not Freedom

This is Independence Day weekend in which Americans celebrate the birth of the country with cookouts, parades, and fireworks and in which the word “freedom” is tossed around like an inflatable ball at a beach party. Throughout the year, but especially now, the word “freedom” is used so cavalierly in the American lexicon that it’s nearly a reflex. With that in mind, I have a modest suggestion. This July 4th, and from here on out, stop extoling the virtues of “freedom.” Instead, celebrate democracy.

Freedom is integral to the American worldview. Like most people of contemporary democracies, we presume that freedom is the inherent state of man. As Thomas Jefferson stated in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Or, to paraphrase Jean-Jacques Rousseau, man is born free. This is to say that human beings do not owe allegiance but rather choose to submit to authority, even if that submission occurs at a subconscious level, and we retain the dignity of autonomy and the right to dissolve our allegiances to our government and to each other.

Replacing the word “freedom” with “democracy” may seem like an insignificant or meaningless distinction because Americans use the words interchangeably. However, “freedom” and “democracy” are not synonyms and the word “freedom” is frequently misused and abused. The expression “Freedom isn’t free,” affixed to the car bumpers of well-meaning patriots and employed in the speeches of politicians both idealistic and cynical, is wrong. Of course freedom is free. It’s right in the word. Freedom is just the absence of restriction. Freedom is amoral.

Any government or system of laws and morality is a hindrance to freedom and that’s okay. Societies are made possible by individuals giving up a certain amount of freedom for the advantages of living together. That is, in a nutshell, the social contract and this agreement between people to live cooperatively is what makes civilization, peace, and morality possible.

When we mistake freedom for democracy we put ourselves and society at risk. Politicians and pundits like to say that freedom is the natural state of man—and that is correct—but what they clearly mean to say is democracy is inherent and that isn’t the case. Democracy does not spring up organically. Neither does a meritocratic form of capitalism. These are social systems that require certain cultural preconditions and their maintenance demands effort and investment. Deconstructing government regulations, services, and infrastructure may indeed promote freedom but increasing freedom does not necessarily improve anyone’s quality of life. Remember, an employed and engaged citizen is less free than a homeless and unemployed person and a rouge sociopath is the freest of them all.

The danger of confusing freedom for democracy isn’t academic. It is playing out right now across the world, especially in the Middle East. When we invaded Iraq on the guise of spreading “freedom,” that goal was achieved but it didn’t have the results we expected. When basic social services did not function and with Iraqi citizens struggling to provide basic necessities for themselves and their families, the country descended into chaos, looting, and murder – the telltale behaviors of truly “free” people. Reestablishing stability in Iraq was accomplished through a combination of military force and the institution of democratic processes. The likely collapse of Iraq’s government and the appeal of the resistance against it are partly rooted in the Iraqi government favoring some ethnic and religious groups at the expense of others. In short, the current bloodshed is a failure of democracy.

One of the virtues of democracy is the way it diffuses the violence inherent to politics and to human behavior. People who have no say in their government and do not receive the benefits of society’s protection are not bound to follow its laws or play by its rules.  This inevitably leads to violence. Democracy, when it works, constructively coopts that violence by offering the marginalized a place at the table, even if their participation results in very little progress.

There has been an erosion of democracy in America. Laws that disenfranchise individual voters while giving corporations civil rights and make participation in local, state, and federal matters difficult or just meaningless eat away at the foundation of democracy which in turn has a corrosive effect on local communities and the country as a whole. What is especially pernicious about this attack on democracy is the way it has been carried out under the guise of freedom. Perhaps, at bottom, the rhetoric isn’t entirely disingenuous but it is at least naïve and the way the argument is popularly framed makes it sound as though expanding freedom is synonymous with expanding democracy when this is far from the case.

This plea for the virtues of democracy should not be taken as an endorsement of government expansion run amok. Governmental authority tends to side with existing power structures and that puts it at odds with the values of democracy, which depends upon the enfranchisement of marginal groups. Existing power structures tend to resist that expansion because it changes the social configuration and dilutes the grip of the system that elites enjoy and exploit. That conflict between old power and new power causes friction and democracy tends to be loud and ill mannered. But as raucous as democracy can be, in the long term it is the best mechanism for ensuring social stability and prosperity.

This Independence Day, remember that democracy, not freedom, has made this country into the powerhouse that it has become and it is the erosion of democracy that may lead to its downfall. Freedom does not build great civilizations, although great civilizations frequently value and respect individual liberty. It’s democracy that acts as a bulwark against chaos and creates a foundation of social solidity that allows individuals to pursue happiness and unleash the greatest of human potential.

So celebrate democracy while we still have it.

Monday, April 07, 2014

'Last Temptation of Christ' at Winona State University

The film The Last Temptation of Christ will be shown on the Winona State University campus on April 10, 2014 at 7pm in the Stark Hall Auditorium.

Directed by Martin Scorsese and based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ is a fictional take on the life of Jesus, dramatizing the struggle between earthly desires and higher callings. Roger Ebert wrote, “This film is likely to inspire more serious thought on the nature of Jesus than any other ever made.”

A webpage, including the trailer and links to essays and reviews about the film can be found here. There is also a Facebook event page here.

When it premiered in 1988, The Last Temptation of Christ incited considerable debate. For that reason, the faculty and student leaders of Winona State as well as the leaders of religious organizations in the Winona area are offered a chance to respond to this film on Sounds of Cinema. The responses will be prerecorded and broadcast on the show airing on Sunday, April 20th. In order to allow enough time to integrate them into the show, the responses will have to be completed by April 17th. Responses should adhere to the following guidelines:
  • Limited to five minutes in length.
  • Relate specifically to the content of the film.
  • Delivered in language that is broadcast appropriate.
If you are interested in participating or have questions, please contact me by email at

The screening of The Last Temptation of Christ is sponsored by Winona State University’s English Department, Sociology Department, Mass Communication Department, the Darrell W. Krueger Library and Sounds of Cinema.