Flash vs. fact on the History Channel

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The History Channel values entertainment over intellect, writes Kevin Mattson, a professor of contemporary history at Ohio University at Athens in the curent issue of Dissent.

Started in 1995 as part of the A&E Television network, the History Channel has become a cable-television staple. Mr. Mattson describes the channel as "the leading institution that popularizes history in the United States."

But to make history popular, Mr. Mattson says, the History Channel emphasizes scandals and conspiracy theories instead of historical debates and modern relevance. A History Channel memorandum about selecting commentators for shows reveals that the network prefers insights from attractive experts over respected ones, he explains.

"Entertainment over veracity, good looks over good history -- such are the operational principles of historical explanation in an age of entertainment," Mr. Mattson writes.

History becomes bizarre on the History Channel, he says. Without the omniscient narrator's endorsement or judgment, conspiracies and ghost stories share equal time with legitimate theories and real history.

Technology shows like Modern Marvels seem more like infomercials than analysis of technology's effect on society. An episode on air-conditioning, for example, features sound bites from public-relations executives at air-conditioning companies. The actor Tim Allen, promoting his new line of home-improvement equipment, appears on a show about power tools.

Mr. Mattson detects a larger trend in the History Channel's use of facts and trivia. The channel packages history in "bite-sized morsels for a bored and jaded audience," he writes, and in many ways, it's "no different from CNN."

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