What It’s All About

Making the Past Come Alive … Through Cable News from 1861

By William Rabkin

William Rabkin is the head writer and (with Steve Ecclesine) executive producer of The Mason Dixon Report.

A casual study of history teaches us one indisputable fact:

We’re much smarter than all those guys who lived in the past.

Want proof? Read a couple of chapters of any decent history book and you’ll instantly have a clear understanding not only of what happened, but why. You’ll see the cause behind every effect, the pattern binding together incidents that once seemed random.

They couldn’t do that back then, could they?

Because we’re so much smarter than them, we can look back and see, for example, that the invention of the cotton gin led to an increase in plantations growing cotton, which led to a need for more cheap labor, which led to an increased reliance on the institution of slavery, which exacerbated the cultural and political divide between North and South, which eventually brought about the Civil War. I’m not saying that some patriotic soul should have put a bullet in Eli Whitney’s head in the 1780s, but if our ancestors could have seen things as clearly as we do, surely one patriotic soul would have taken some kind of preventative measures to ward off the cotton gin’s inevitable side effects.

Really, if even someone like me—a C-list television writer who once spent a year coming up with dialogue for David Hasselhoff to mispronounce—can leaf through a best-seller and understand that hiring a famous architect to design a fabulous World’s Fair would lead inexorably to the appearance of a serial killer there, it’s hard to come up with any reason why the Big Brains of the time could not… other than that they just weren’t really all that smart.

Unless—and this is just a wild guess—the experience of living through a period of time is fundamentally different from that of looking back on it from a distance. And that any historical presentation, by virtue of its own necessary organization, removes essential qualities of human existence. History, like other great art forms, seeks to turn chaos into order—and order is the last thing we see in our own lives.

That search for order may be essential if we’re to find any meaning in our past. But it also makes those who have come before us seem to have lived lives that were completely unlike ours. That’s particularly true when it comes to a period as disordered as that of the Civil War. We see each cause leading to its inevitable effect; we know which tiny events had huge significance and which cataclysms had none. These people clearly lived in a time when everything had a purpose, unlike their descendants who wake every morning to struggle against chaos.

I think this is one reason why so many Americans have such little interest in history. They can’t make a connection with the people who the books tell them lived lives so completely different from their own.

That disconnect is what led the brilliant producer Steve Ecclesine and me to create our original web series, The Mason Dixon Report (http://masondixonreport.com). We’d been watching the parade of Civil War programming, and while the shows ranged from superb to, um, less so, they had one alienating element in common:

They all insisted that the war was History.

In fact, the best of them, Ken Burns’ massive documentary series, was the most guilty of this, full of slow pans across battered photographs and self-consciously old-timey music in the background screaming out in every frame that this was an event that could only have happened to those other people who weren’t anything like we are today.

We wanted to strip the History out of the Civil War and drop our audience into the middle of it. To give people the sense of what it’s like to live in a time when you don’t know whether or not your country will survive another day.

The conceit of our web series is simple: Cable news existed in 1861, and this was the flagship series. And it turns out that nineteenth century cable news looks a lot like today’s. We’ve got a host who gets the news of the day from our regular reporter, and then turns to a rotating panel of pundits, politicians, and consultants to explore the meaning of what just happened.

We chose the cable news format for a couple of reasons. (Aside from the same reason cable news chose it—it’s a lot cheaper to have people talking about battles than to send cameras to cover them.) One is that this is the language of our day. This is how we’re used to hearing the news, and the contemporary format strips away many levels of historical varnish.

But what really works for us is cable news’ institutional amnesia. Every day on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News pundits give analyses and make predictions, and the next few days prove them completely wrong. Then they come on again and make a new set of predictions based on the current state of affairs, and no one ever mentions what they said before. We wanted to give our people that license to forget. Because what’s most important to us on The Mason Dixon Report is that we never know what’s going to happen next. We don’t know who is going to live or die, which side will win or lose, which tiny detail will turn out to be a crucial turning point.

That gives us a remarkable freedom to explore what actually happened on any given day. (We currently have our first seven episodes up, most taking place on the days around the firing on Fort Sumter; we are preparing a second batch that will take us through July 1861 and into August. By September our goal is to have new episodes five days a week, right through the end of the war.) And because our people don’t know what will turn out to be significant in the grand scheme of things, we can bring to life some of the thousands of fascinating stories that don’t directly fit into the great pattern of History.

Mostly what we hope to show is what it’s like to live through historical events before they become History. We want the passionate engagement you only get from people whose life or death depends on what’s going to happen next week and next month and next year. We want our audience waiting breathlessly on July 2, 2013 for the next day’s report to find out who is going to win this massive engagement at Gettysburg, and we want them to feel the horror two days later when they realize how many men have died there.

We’re just rolling out our series now, and we’re excited to find out what people who teach history think about it. We’re eager for suggestions on how to improve our show, and we plan to reach out to the great community of historians.

But while we’re waiting for feedback from teachers, we have faced what I believe will be our toughest audience—a group of teenage boys. And what we heard from them were the three words that told us we had succeeded:

“Then what happens?”

Originally published by History News Network, June 27, 2011

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