Years ago, I used to watch the hour long episodes of Perry Mason starring Raymond Burr. By today's standards, the shows are tacky and poorly produced, but none-the-less I found them intriguing. Foremost in the series was the fact that Perry always solved the case in one hour. There were never any continuances, no one got sick and couldn't make it to Court, the Court never had to continue the case because of calendar problems. In short, Perry Mason was pure fantasy.
But guess what, in 37 years of law practice, I had to live with Perry Mason almost every day. Because of Perry and a host of other television lawyers and murder mystery cases, my clients had a universally inaccurate and twisted view of the U.S. Court system and how lawyers practiced their profession. In today's world we have Monk and Judge Judy to thank for perpetuating the myth of the easy solution to legal problems. I have one case that has gone on in one form or another for over 12 years. Try and condense that into an hour long TV show!
Now the genealogical world has its Perry Mason. A riveting show that solves all genealogical problems in an hour. I hesitated to write down my feelings about the show because of the almost uniform and enthusiastic press the show has received from the Bloggers. Recently, however, there has been a blizzard of opinions about making money from genealogy. Some of the articles have pointed out the realities of representing clients and billing for hours spent doing research. What I fear is that in the end, shows like Who Do You Think You Are? will do more damage to the practice of genealogy than many other issues in today's world.
One of the consistent depictions of the show is the star jumping on an airplane or driving to some distant location to find a record. The record is always found by a convenient librarian/researcher who just happens to stumble across the solution to the star's questions about his/her ancestor. What chance do you think you would have if you were looking for a record in some remote location of finding the record on the first day of your visit? Do you think that some helpful researcher or librarian would automatically be there to solve your research problem? By hiding the actual work that goes into genealogy, the show gives the impression that magically the records will appear. Granted, it is possible to find some records rather quickly and easily. But do I need to jump into my Lexus or limousine and drive to where the person was born/died/got married?
Yes, I may wish to travel to the ancestral home, but if I am doing genealogical research, I will have spent a lot of time preparing for the visit. Arranging accommodations, verifying access to the records, hiring researchers and taking care of the multitude of issues. On the TV program where were the star's flash drives? Driving to a location and finding a record is like having Perry Mason's witness confess on the stand.
We actually have people come into the Mesa Regional Family History Center and ask to see their genealogy. They expect their ancestry to be stored there in Mesa I guess. But that brings up another observation, none of the WDYTYA stars ever set foot inside of a Family History Center. During some of the shows I had my laptop open and checked, the same records the star had just traveled half-way across the country to see, were available at a local Family History Center on microfilm! I wouldn't mind traveling all over the world to find my ancestors, but I certainly don't have to do so, besides not being able to afford the trips.
Genealogy is a complex and challenging avocation and profession. Although publicity and raising awareness are laudable goals, we will all live with the stereotypes created by TV shows for a long time.