If Alaska’s largest newspaper is to be believed, you can now add the so-called “Last Great Race” to the filmed events of which you must ask “is it real or is it reality TV?”
The Anchorage Daily News on Thursday reported the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race engaging in “re-enactments.” The one in question involved former champ and reality TV star Dallas Seavey.
During this year’s race, Seavey was tested for COVID-19 in the tiny, remote community of McGrath, population 278, but the TV cameras missed the event. So they re-created his reaction to the results, which was reported this way:
“‘Your test is negative,’ a race official told Seavey casually as he was mid-chore.
‘”I’m happy to hear it!” Seavey exclaimed.
“Not long after that, Seavey agreed to re-enact the moment for the benefit of an Iditarod Insider cameraman who didn’t catch it the first time around.
“Once more, the volunteer told Seavey he did not have the coronavirus. Seavey’s staged response was more celebratory than the original.”
The ADN did not report what else the Iditarod Insider, which presents itself as race “news” coverage, might have re-enacted this year. Re-enactments were long a journalistic no-no, even for organizations like the Iditarod or the NFL Network covering themselves in the news.
The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics still states that journalists should “never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information. Clearly label illustrations and re-enactments.”
If as the ADN describes the situation with Seavey’s reaction to his COVID-19 test going from a throwaway “I’m happy to hear it” while going about his business to a “celebratory,” boy-am-I-glad-I passed response, the context clearly shifted.
But the old rules against re-enactments are themselves shifting as “news” becomes less about journalism and more and more about entertainment.
The SPJ in 2018 refused to slap down “television crews engaging in” what Louisiana journalists described as “deceptive or misleading coverage of hurricanes by distorting or exaggerating wind conditions or water depth.”
Citing growing concerns about “fake news,” the Louisiana Chapter of the SPJ offered a resolution to the national conference proposing the organization call “upon television networks and local television stations to desist from ordering, encouraging or permitting reporters and their camera crews to engage in dramatizations of storm coverage that alter, distort or exaggerate actual conditions, thus damaging the credibility of all journalists and exposing them to public ridicule.”
As a former Pulitizer Prize judge observed on Friday, the re-enactments have become so common it’s hard for many to be offended by them anymore. Thus we have arrived at where we are today in these un-United States.
To paraphrase only slightly British statesman and philosopher Edmond Burke, the only thing necessary for the triumph of fiction is for good journalists to do nothing, and the latter have proven good at doing nothing.
After the 2020 Pulitzer for Commentary was awarded to New York Times “investigative journalist” Nikole Hannah-Jones for as essay in “The 1619 Project” that would in the kindest characterization be described as a revisionist view of American history, Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, and 20 other top U.S. scholars were moved to protest.
In a letter published on the association’s website, they asked the Pulitzer Prize Board to rescind the prize awarded the essay “entitled, ‘Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written.’ But it turns out the article itself was false when written,” they wrote, “making a large claim that protecting the institution of slavery was a primary motive for the American Revolution, a claim for which there is simply no evidence.”
This was a claim one of the Times’ own fact-checkers – newspaper employees disappearing even faster than beat reporters – had warned supervisors were “plainly false,” the letter said, and a part of the Project that later led Time’s editor to engage in what has come to be called “ghost editing.”
“Providing no public explanation or acknowledgment of its actions, the Times amended the digital version of the Project text,” the historians wrote. “Not until September 19, 2020, when historian Phillip Magness compared the original and digital versions of the essay in the journal Quillette, did the alterations come to light.
“Correcting factual errors in their published works, of course, is an important responsibility of both the journalistic and scholarly press. But such corrections are typically and rightly made openly and explicitly. The author and the publisher acknowledge an error and correct it. That is not what happened in this case. Rather, the false claims were erased or altered with no explanation, and Hannah-Jones then proceeded to claim that she had never said or written what in fact she has said and written repeatedly, assertions that the Project materials also made.”
Liars, lies and lying
So the historians say the Times and Hannah-Jones lied and then tried to cover it up. What could really be wrong with that in a country where the truth has become something to be tempered with rationalizations?
Hell, one of the few things – possibly the only thing – on which the country’s two main political parties agree these days is this: If your guy lies, it’s despicable. If our guy lies, it isn’t a lie or, if it’s such a big lie there’s no avoiding it was a lie, there was a good reason for the lie.
Anthony Fauci, the country’s point man on the pandemic, has admitted to repeatedly lying to the American public and has not only survived the shift of the presidency from Republican to Democrat but has flourished.
Attacked by some left-leaning media for lies while working for former Republican President Donald Trump, the now main-man for Democrat President Joe Biden’s battle against COVID-19 is under fire from some right-leaning media for “public manipulation in the name of science.”
And yet he’s been busy winning awards for his bravery:– the “Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage” from Georgia Tech and amFAR’s “Award of Courage for 2021” – and praise from The Times for his “counsel and commitment to hard facts (that) endeared him to millions of Americans.
Among Fauci’s re-enactments were face-covering statements that went from no one needs to wear one in public places to everyone should wear one in public places.
The good intentions argument can be used to justify this about-face as opposed to the entertainment argument, though both are valid for those who believe the ends justify the means.
In the Iditarod’s case, the entire survival of the race is contingent on its entertainment value. Ergo, mushers have good reason to do whatever is necessary to make the race entertaining.
Seavey was schooled as an actor in “Ultimate Survival Alaska.” And is the case with most such reality TV shows, the story is more important than the truth. Trump was educated in the same system in his role as the boss of reality TV’s “The Apprentice.”
His successful “drain the swamp campaign” of 2016 was the child of The Apprentice’s punchline: “You’re fired.” There’s no telling how many people voted for Trump wanting to hear him utter those two words to federal bureaucrats, and if you believe the Associated Press (AP), he sometimes did.
If Trump understood nothing else, he understood the importance of the story. The national media had great fun documenting his many untruths, but to his supporters, these weren’t lies. They were simply “his truths.”
This standard for “truth” seems widely held in the country today. After some years ago pointing out to a young reporter that it was not acceptable to write a story containing statements easily documented as untrue, it was explained to me that though the claims might have been false, “they were her truth.”
This is the “he said” or “she said” defense for inaccurate reporting; “Well that’s what he said.”
The approach has turned some of journalism into stenography with a slant. If a reporter disagrees with what is being said, it is left out of the story. If the reporter agrees with what is being said, or is willing to accept it, the comments is left in the story as “what he/she said.”
The business has turned into such a shit show that nobody batted an eye when Seavey showed up first at the Nome finish line of the 2014 Iditarod claiming he didn’t know that he’d won.
It made for a good story.
“Dallas Seavey and his team of dogs crossed the finish line of the iconic Alaskan dogsled race called the Iditarod and wondered what all the fuss was about,” Men’s Journal teased. “After all, he finished in third place, or so he thought.”
Never mind that Seavey admitted he’d seen the name of race leader Aliy Zirkle on the sign-in sheet at the Safety checkpoint 20 miles out of Nome, and that race leaders in the Iditarod always ask how far ahead the next team when they reach Safety.
Why? Because it’s hard bordering on impossible to close a gap of much more than 30 minutes between Safety and Nome. Among the top 10 teams last year, the difference between the slowest – third-place Jessie Royer – and the fastest – Jesse Holmes in ninth – was 35 minutes.
This is pretty much the norm, which is why mushers check the time gap. After 980-miles of racing, there is no sense asking a tired team to try to push for a pace of 7.5 to 8 mph to the finish line when they can comfortably trot home at a more comfortable 6 or 6.5 mph pace.
That Seavey didn’t know that Zirkle was parked in Safety waiting out a storm when he left there in 2014 is nye on impossible to believe, but his interactions with the Insider at the finish line nicely added to the race drama:
Seavey: “Huh, what the heck did I do?”
Insider: “You just won the Iditarod two-thousand fourteen.”
Seavey: “You kidding me?”
Real or reality? These days with the news – almost any of the news – it’s hard to tell.
Who’s to blame?
No one in particular led the country to this post-truth world, and everybody led the country here.
Almost ever since former President Richard Nixon resigned from office after being caught lying about a two-bit burglary, the importance of telling the truth has been fading. One truly has to wonder whether Nixon might have survived in these times.
The burglary didn’t really amount to much of anything, and Nixon had good reasons to cover it up. Former President Bill Clinton later got in front of a microphone to tell the American public a whopper of a lie – “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky” – for no good reason other than to avoid embarrassment.
He was impeached by the House of Representatives, but the Senate refused to remove him from office. The story was similar with Trump, a master of the big lie. (In Trump’s defense, a University of Massachusetts psychologist studying the frequency with which people lie to make themselves look good concluded 60 percent tell at least one lie per 10-minute conversation, which would make Trump, God forbid, close to “normal.”)
Democrats protected theirs in the case of Clinton. Republicans protected theirs in the case of Trump.
Fundamental honesty? Does it really matter anymore?
When TV game shows were found to be rigged in the 1950s, both federal attorneys and Congress investigated. The former managed to convict 17 people of lying to a grand jury, and the latter made it illegal to fix game shows.
Today TV is over-run with reality shows that are anything but real, and nobody seems to much care. The shows are little more than fodder for debate among fans as to how much is real, how much is close to real (ie. re-enacted in some way) and how much is wholly phony.
Alaskans have known the “Alaska Bush People” show was fake since at least 2015 when the late Billy Brown, the family patriarch, and son Joshua were convicted of illegally claiming Alaska Permanent Fund Dividends because they didn’t spend enough time in the state to qualify.
But Country Living was still pondering the show’s reality last fall.
“Season 20 of the supposedly-unscripted reality television show premiered on August 23, 2020. And, after six years of following the Brown family – including patriarch Billy and matriarch Ami, along with their seven children and a smattering of spouses and grandchildren – viewers can’t help but wonder whether or not the show is even real, let alone actually unscripted,” reporter Rebecca Norris wrote in October.
But these days, who knows? Maybe it’s all just a setup for a Season 21, “Billy’s Back” Special. Or better yet, maybe he’ll return to run the 2021 Iditarod. Now that would get the race some serious attention.