Poison Spread by Nat Geo TV

by Jim Longworth

The National Geographic Society was founded in 1888 with the motto, “Inspire people to care about the planet”. It’s a pretty good motto, especially in this day and time. My Dad cared about the planet and he treasured his collection of National Geographic magazines.

He read them cover to cover, and encouraged me to do the same. For me the magazines inspired a number of school projects. For my friend Bryan Cranston, star of “Breaking Bad”, they inspired something quite different. Bryan once told me that he learned about sex by looking at pictures of naked native women in National Geographic.

To be honest, my Dad and I looked at those pictures too. But most of all, the magazine took us to far away places and taught us about cultures different from our own. In that regard, National Geographic magazine made the planet seem a bit smaller, and much easier to care about.

I suppose that’s what the National Geographic Society intended when it launched the Nat Geo television channel. But somewhere along the way, Nat Geo fell prey to the same economic realities as have other formerly respectable channels, such as A&E, Bravo, and History. Today it’s not enough to present quality, educational programs.

These channels must compete for eyeballs, and that means broadcasting the likes of Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty. Nat Geo’s own line-up includes such inspirational programs as:

Lockdown, Breakout, Amish Out of Order, Polygamy USA, Kentucky Justice, and the worst of them all, Snake Salvation. It’s the latter that made news last week when the star of the series, Rev. Jamie Coots, died from a rattlesnake bite.

Coots had been the spiritual leader of Middlesboro, Kentucky’s Full Gospel Tabernacle, and a snake handler from way back. After being bitten, Coots refused medical treatment because he felt that a true believer such as himself would survive the serpent’s tooth.

And why not? After all, he had cheated death eight times before. But this time Coots’ spirit was no match for the snake’s venom.

Normally I wouldn’t waste space in this column to rail against the act of an ignorant snake handler, but this was different because Coots’ death was facilitated in part by Nat Geo. What really got my goat was National Geographic’s official response to the accident.

AOL News cites an unnamed Nat Geo spokesperson as saying the corporation was, “struck by Coots’ devout religious convictions despite the health and legal peril he often faced …those risks were always worth it to him, and his congregants as a means to demonstrate their unwavering faith. We were honored to be allowed such unique access to pastor Jamie and his congregation during the course of our show, and give context to his method of worship”.

I’m sorry, but that statement is the biggest bunch of horse manure I’ve heard since former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told us to duct tape our windows to protect against terrorism.

First of all, Coots was a nut case and a criminal who illegally transported venomous snakes into Kentucky, and once helped to kill a congregant. The latter occurred in 1995 when Coots goaded 28 year old Melinda Brown into handling a rattlesnake. Ms. Brown was bitten, and died soon after.

Nat Geo was aware of Coots’ background and the lethal nature of his activities, yet they contracted with him to do the TV series without hesitation. The implication is that the TV channel knew people would tune in each week to see if anyone got bit by a snake, and, in my mind, that makes Nat Geo guilty of sensationalism at least, and facilitation of a suicide/homicide at worst. It also makes their official statement hypocritical and an insult to our intelligence, as they feign honor over and assign faux educational value to a product that was nothing more than a ratings ploy for profit.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that at some point in the last 126 years, National Geographic magazine no doubt featured people who did dangerous things. But reading a single article about snake handlers is far different from watching a weekly TV series about a sadomasochistic guy who is an unchecked, ongoing danger to himself and others.

Philo Farnsworth, who invented television, envisioned that his creation would help to enlighten, educate, and inspire people, not unlike the mission of the National Geographic Society. But increasingly, television has become a repository for showcasing dysfunctional groups and individuals who lower the bar for all of us whether we watch or not.

It is ironic that an organization dedicated to a healthy environment is engaged in polluting the airwaves. Nat Geo should stick to saving the planet, and leave the saving of souls to someone else.

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).