Monday, March 19, 2012

The Collective Vengeance of Rutherford B. Hayes


If there’s one thing of which writers working in television are painfully aware, it’s that you have to do your research.

No relying on what you sorta remember from high school, using that great story your aunt told every Christmas or even Wikipedia. Don’t get your facts straight, somebody’s gonna call you on it.

You’ll soon discover the quote you credited to Shakespeare was written by a beat poet who wants royalties. Your aunt’s tale was the plot of a Warner Brothers film unseen since 1952. And Wikipedia is about as reliable as the user photos on a dating site.

Sometimes the comeuppance arrives as a letter pointing out the gun your hero used fires five shots not the six your story needed. Sometimes its a hilarious tweet fest exposing your complete misunderstanding of current urban slang for sex acts.

No matter the message or messenger –- it’s embarrassing – and potentially costly.

Unfortunately, not doing your research often seems to come with the territory when you hold a prestigious government job.

This cop show I once worked on had an episode wherein a nuclear plant suffered a power outage that almost caused a meltdown.

Our cop heroes worked the terrorist angle, only to discover the culprit was a small time crook knocking out burglar alarms.

Nice little “didn’t see that coming” plot we all liked, although we worried about recreating a Nuke plant control room on our budget.

Then our crack locations team discovered a nearby nuclear facility had an exact replica control room used for training and were more than happy to share.

I went along on the survey and asked the power company guide if there was anything in the script that didn’t track with reality.

“All of it!” she said. “But it’s just a TV show, right?”

Then I learned that nuclear plants don’t draw power from outside because they can’t afford to be compromised.

I called my producers and the network. But they liked the script the way it was and figured that 99.9% of our audience didn’t know how a nuke plant worked either.

The show ran and they were right. Not one note of correction or derision arrived.

And then I got a letter from a major American intelligence organization, complimenting the episode and requesting a copy to be used in training their agents.

I wrote back, explaining why our “terrorist plot” couldn’t be replicated in the real world.

I received a very firm reply demanding immediate compliance with their request or the consequences would be severe.

Truth was not going to stand in the way of a good story.


Last week, President Obama made a speech designed to imply those opposed to some of his policies were social or technological Luddites, part of a long tradition of people unable to recognize progress when it was staring them right in the face.

He mentioned those who laughed at Columbus, didn’t see a future for the automobile and stated that the reason America’s 19th President, Rutherford B. Hayes, wasn’t on Mount Rushmore was because he had poo-poohed the invention of the telephone.

The quotes he used were all quite humorous in a “We’re all so much smarter than those people” way. Only problem was –- none of them were accurate.

In fact, they could all be found on a Wikipedia page listing “Incorrect Predictions” where many were falsely attributed or taken far out of context.

Hayes, for example, a career politician who enlisted on the Union side in the Civil War, was wounded five times in combat and came out of the conflict with the rank of General had, in fact, been the first President to install telephones in the White House. He was also the first to require his staff to use the typewriter.

Now, you can’t blame the President for that oversight. He’s got a lot on his plate and depends on a team of political strategists and speech writers to prep his public appearances.

They’re the ones who didn’t do the research. And their oversight, as the country gears up for an election, spawned an internet meme that became an overnight sensation, with Rutherford B. Hayes himself responding to the current President’s criticism.

Hayes 1

A meme that not only allowed the President’s detractors to poke a little fun, but to use the original mistake to prove the President’s critics were as hip to technology as his side.

Hayes 3

And what’s more could use it just as effectively to imply the guy in charge might not know what he was talking about on a lot of levels.

Hayes 2

Movie Star John Wayne was once quoted as saying, “Life’s tough. It’s tougher if you’re stupid.” And that’s never been truer than now, when virtually anybody with a web connection can instantly fact check what you’re selling them.

This morning, for example, I received an email request to invest in a film supporting the Occupy movement. Which, through the wonders of technology, I could do with the click of a key.

But via the same keys, I’d already read a CBS News report of an Occupy member saying the only way they can gain respect is by killing a few cops, as well as reports of New York cop families already receiving threats if Occupiers are arrested.

Kind of a long way from having those who trashed the economy brought to justice, isn’t it?

Do I really want to send money to publicize people thinking about killing cops –- and maybe their kids?

It’s become a tougher world in which to get people to drink your Kool-Aid, especially for those of us mixing the fictional version every day.

And the minute an audience realizes you’re playing on their ignorance, they begin looking somewhere else to suspend their disbelief –- or just find something else to believe in.

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