For some twenty years I believed the story about Sarner’s disease which appeared in the CBC’s Ideas program back in April 1996. I was particularly interested in the cholera epidemic of 1832 which is the subject of my fourth novel in preparation. Well, the April 1996 program about “the lying down” or township cholera” where people would appear to die from this strange type of cholera and then suddenly come back to life was a complete hoax. It contained interviews with medical specialists, was animated by host Lister Sinclair and written by journalist Barbara Nichols. Furthermore, the same information appeared in an article in the Globe and Mail not long after the radio .
Remember that the Ideas program was not some kind of comedy special, but a wonderful reflective radio program about important issues broadcast at 9 pm in the evening on CBC radio. The show touched on the arts, sciences, social issues, etc. and was an inspiration for ordinary Canadians who wanted to feed their craving for knowledge in all its forms. Today it is hosted by Paul Kennedy and often features the Massey Lectures in collaboration with the University of Toronto and the House of Anansi Press.
So I was quite shocked recently when I googled “Sarner’s disease” and saw the CBC archives announcement that the show had been a joke – an April 1 hoax. A lot of Canadians were victims of this hoax. I believed the story for some twenty years and I even wrote a feature film drama based on the idea that there might be some truth in it. The screenplay was financed by Telefilm Canada, the SODEC and others. Of course, my script only touched on certain elements in the Ideas program, but still it was shocking to feel abused by this hoax for so long.
Over the years when I would try to research the elements in the story, there seemed to be nothing on the web to support it. This just goes to show how long fake news stories can hang around, perpetuating wrong ideas and why it is important for our national broadcaster to avoid putting out fake news like this. It took the CBC over twenty to admit that it was in the fake news business.
In my new novel based on my original script entitled “Remembrance Man”, I have excised most of the elements in the fake Ideas program. The 1832 cholera epidemic is an extraordinary story in itself and it doesn’t need exaggeration and misrepresentation to make it interesting. I have kept the title, however, which refers to the men from Detroit who were hired to watch over the graves of the recently buried to reassure their families that their loved ones had stayed peacefully dead or rescue those who might come back to life. In the 19th century people feared being buried alive.
Fake news is everywhere of course. In documentary films, supposedly based on hard facts, writers and directors add their own grain of salt and bend the truth. They build stories by taking interviews out of context and employ them to shock the public. The truth is often not very exciting and of little interest to journalists who are looking for the big scoop. The CBC, in particular, has always been a left leaning broadcaster and its information services have been bending the truth for as long as anyone can remember. And they are not alone.
It is always going to be a tough job getting to the real facts behind most stories with so much exaggeration and misleading information out there. I write historical novels, so I do like to base the stories on real facts and not fake news.
Have a nice week.