A&E: Unreality TV

Blending ‘documentary’ concepts with fiction not only defies reality, it distorts history.

In the early days of the evolving film industry, documentaries were called “actuality films.” They documented reality with the single unblinking eye of the cinematographer’s camera. The films captured the world the way it was, as any eyewitness could see it.

But the “documentary”—and the implications that it brings with it “reality” and truth—has been distorted and imbued with a different sort of quality that changes its character, a point of view that brings with it the ability to serve an agenda.

Cinema vérité—“truthful cinema”—has warred with “direct” cinema over point of view for decades. In that battle, the differences between “documentary” and “actuality films” began to widen. The 1915 silent epic produced in Hollywood by D.W. Griffith, Birth of a Nation—from the book The Clansman—romanticized the terrorists of the Ku Klux Klan and remains an indelible marker of racism and intolerance that “documentary-style” storytelling created by mixing fiction with reality to distort history.

In that nakedly racist film we now recognize the lessons it was teaching, which include the power of the medium to influence falsely. A&E has clearly understood only one of those two lessons. The power—and with the power, the profit.

The network produced programs—Aftermath and Live PD notable examples—that distort the truth and create false characterizations of people and groups that result in threats and violence against religious, ethnic and racial targets.

The camera recording events with an unblinking eye could be a potent tool for truth that informs public opinion. But corrupted “cinema vérité”—in the form of “reality” television—is being used to distort reality. Racist ideals and the enablers of racial and religious hatred saw the propagation of their destructive ideas through film in Birth of a Nation. Now we see parallels at A&E.

Distant, and detached from the reality of the world outside their Manhattan offices, the executives in power at A&E make conscious choices to serve viewers with programming based on false narratives. But this “reality” programming, which makes a lie of A&E’s claims to bring truth to audiences, has instead wrought destructive consequences. Their programming not only spreads fear, distrust, hatred, discrimination, and intolerance, but in the process leaves false markers on history.

The “docuseries” productions that cross ethical lines feed an environment of violence against religious groups and encourage ethnic and racial hatred. As award-conscious Hollywood wrestles with endemic racism and religious and ethnic discrimination in its Emmys and its Oscars, it should consider the profiteers of hate in every dark corner of the industry, and refuse to honor them.

The willful mixing of truth and falsehood—of which A&E executives now try to wash their hands while still filling their pockets—undermines the reality the citizenry depends on to make sound judgments about the health and safety of their own communities.

The raw cynicism of A&E’s never-aired Generation KKK (which at the first whispers of controversy changed its name to Escaping the KKK, echoing how The Clansman became Birth of a Nation) was exposed for paying sources and scripting their conversations, paying for symbols of racial hatred, and encouraging the language of racism. The tactics didn’t kill that series. The exposure of those tactics did.

Most recently, A&E execs killed Live PD amid controversy that exposed the reality that not all the “live” footage—particularly that of the killing by Austin, Texas, police of Javier Ambler—was seen by the public (nor by the criminal investigators looking into that death), because A&E destroyed the video footage. Still, the show’s host and co-executive producer, Dan Abrams, continues to defend the “docuseries.”

A&E, under the leadership of its crew of cynical film producers, answers to no one but the power of the purse. Disney and Hearst may have had a part in getting Aftermath and Live PD off the air, and if so they must continue to raise corporate responsibility higher and sooner. Otherwise, any perception of silence on their part implies approval of programming that promotes false narratives and that panders to the worst instincts within our culture for racism and religious intolerance. Is that the nation they are giving birth to? 

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