Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Discovery Channel on TIGHAR and Amelia Earhart

So, what did I think of the Discovery show? Well, I thought it was by far the best TV portrait yet of our project, and generally represented it fairly. And I wasn’t as put off by the re-creations as I thought I’d be (Discovery at one point wanted US to do re-creations while in the field; we politely declined, having other things to do).

I do have two beefs:

First, I think it was too bad they made it so much The Ric Gillespie Show. That’s not because Ric doesn’t merit the exposure, and it’s not to say that he didn’t take his lumps. Nor is it to deny that Ric is the one who’s made the project go, all these years, or that he’s the central figure in the search. But one thing that really makes the project special is what producer/videographer Mark Smith calls its “Hive Mind” – the Earhart Project Advisory Council (EPAC), a free-wheeling group of experts and generalists who debate, argue, plan, scheme, critique, and in many ways both power and direct the research. Yes, several of us EPACers were shown doing our things – Kar Burns, Bob Brandenburg, Jeff Glickman, me – and it obviously would have been impossible to crowd everyone in, but some representation of the EPAC as corporate entity would have made the portrayal of the project more accurate. As would an occasional glimpse of the other scholars who’ve contributed their efforts, in and out of EPAC – my generous neighbor Tony Mucciardi and his mids at the U.S. Naval Academy doing materials analysis, Taylor Keen of the University of Maryland doing ground-penetrating radar and dendrochronology, Sharyn Jones at the University of Alabama analyzing the fish bones, Dave Wheeler introducing us to Kite Aerial Photography (KAP)….. As would some representation of the way some of us -- notably Randy Jacobson and Reed Riddle, occasionally I --  beat up on Ric, and dispute his take on things.  Again, I know they couldn’t crowd everybody in, and the purpose of the show wasn’t to give everybody credit, but I think some portrayal of the interactive, collaborative nature of the research would have better informed the public about how such research is done, and better served TIGHAR as a research organization, than did presenting the thing as Ric Gillespie’s personal quest. Even though, on one level, that’s what it is.

Second, there’s the &^%$*&^% “smoking gun.” They trimmed the debate between Ric and me about smoking guns versus the preponderance of evidence (which I recall as being rather truncated anyhow) to the point of being meaningless, and made me seem as fixated as Ric is on finding the hot pistol. I’m not, and think it’s really unwise and unhelpful to keep pandering to the simpleminded about this. Maybe there’s a smoking gun to be found, probably there’s not, but what people ought to learn from our work is a little bit about how science (particularly a science like archaeology) is done. Particularly in a field like archaeology, smoking guns are rarely found, and the success or failure of a piece of research seldom if ever turns on finding one. Only a fool, I’d argue, would base research on the hope of finding a smoking gun, and we try, if not always with success, not to be fools.

With those caveats, I thought it was a good show. It’ll be interesting to see what its results are in terms of public interest.


  1. Tom, I generally agree with your overview. THere certainly lots of other people involved. As I said elewhere, we now have far too much material to cover in only two hours. For the general public, this show far exceeds the average attention span already.

    I guess I was bored with the "smoking gun" discussion years ago. WE know that isn't how archaeology works, but we also know that it will take a shovel to the side of the head to convince the infidels (that is, the non-believers). So, good job, Discovery Channel!

  2. Tom, it was nice to see you working in the field. TV, particularly "reality TV" which this is being shown as, will fixate on personalities - building up heroes, and making the most of disagreements and controversies.

    Maybe if they had footage of you flinging f-bombs at Ric, they'd show that. But 'hive mentality' and consensus isn't sexy enough for TV.

    I disagree about the smoking gun. It seemed that they fairly set the expectation that a smoking gun isn't likely to be found and that it's about the amount of evidence and the quality of it.

    But it is a "CSI" influenced audience, and they want DNA, or something I read (was it in your book Tom?); a watch with an engraving "To Fred from all your pals at Pam Am" :-)

  3. In terms of public interest, I thought the show was very informative. I've always been interested in the Amelia Earhart disappearance "mystery", I feel that the TIGHAR group has proved with a preponderance of evidence what happened to Amelia and Ted Noonan. I do hope a "smoking gun" is finally discovered, just to quiet the critics of TIGHAR.


    Pilot error due to any one of a number of factors: fatigue, poor radio communication ( every message as general as can be- absolutely no specifics whatsoever), perhaps even panic.
    The Navigator: Not on his game in the final four hours of flight.

    Reef Landing: "I don't think so"

    Someone please get back to Angela (above) and tell her none of the presentation contained "evidence", and that it was Ted Noonan's twin brother Fred who was navigating........... Mon Dieu!!! And they're allowed to vote no less !!

  5. 7cca -- So what if it was pilot error, or if Fred wasn't on his game? The question remains, what happened to them. And telling Angela that the show presented no evidence doesn't make it so; in fact, it did present evidence -- equivocal evidence certainly, but evidence nonetheless.