Fusing fact and fiction

Television needs oases of rationality, not purveyors of 'magic'

Johnny Carson once had the famous spoon bender, Uri Geller, on to give a little demonstration of his psychic skills. When Geller took his seat, he was surprised to find a coffee table laid out with objects Carson had chosen to test those skills. Carson, who was a magician in his youth, asked Geller to use his mental dowsing powers to figure out which of several small metals vials contained water.

That shouldn't have been too tough for a guy who claims he can shove around bookcases with his brain. But guess what? He couldn't do it. He claimed the vibes were bad. I'm thinking (and I bet Carson was thinking) he couldn't do it because he hadn't set up the trick as all good magicians must.

Last week, there was a little dust up over a Time
magazine article that suggested that there might be video chicanery involved when famed psychic (it says here) John Edward tries to talk to dead people. Edward has a nightly show on Sci Fi during which he puts members of his studio audience in touch with their dearly departed. So popular has the show become that Studios USA was able to sell Crossing Over with John Edward into broadcast syndication this fall.

The show's producers fired off a letter to Time, denying the allegations that Edward is helped by clever editing and a staff that eavesdrops and learns personal information about members of the audience while milling around with them before the show.

I'm amused. Could it be that Edward is not really able to conjure up the dead? Time ought to investigate the WWF. I got a tip that those guys are faking it.

Now I can't tell you about Edward. But here's a fact: No psychic in recorded history has been able to prove in a controlled scientific setting that he or she can tell the future, visit with the dead, or read your mind with any more accuracy than an accomplished poker player.

To their credit, the producers don't claim Edward is real, just that he's really good television. "It is not our intent to persuade or convince anyone to believe in psychic phenomena," they wrote to Time. "We encourage viewers and guests to approach Crossing Over with a healthy sense of skepticism, and then make up their own minds about what they see.

"It's not about whether you believe or don't believe he's talking to someone from the other side," says Studio USA's Steve Rosenberg. "It's about that moment when he really connects with someone."

Of course, TV is awash in UFOs, alien abductions and just every other paranormal phenomenon you can think off.

But one of TV's great unexplained mysteries-one even a man of John Edward's extraordinary talents couldn't explain-is why such programming dreck has found homes on networks like Discovery and The History Channel.

Say what you will about Edward, he resides primarily on Sci Fi as in Science Fiction. People can't say they weren't warned going in.

But History is almost the diametric opposite of Sci Fi. It is, or is supposed to be, well, about History. It claims to be one of the great purveyors of nonfiction television. Yet, there are enough spooks loose on their schedules to make Leonard Nimoy jealous. History has a regular series called Haunted History, an excuse for retelling every old ghost story the producers can find, sometimes dramatized.

Last Thursday night, Discovery aired an hour on the afterlife (with zombies!) that careened so violently between fact and fiction that it made you want to question every claim on every show on the network. I don't think that is what founder John Hendricks had in mind. Not that I read minds. But if not for the bug in the lower right corner, you wouldn't know Discovery from Fox sometimes.

Now, these shows tend to present the strange goings-on as reported occurrences, not as fact. But the overall effect of shows like Discovery's upcoming Monsters, Cannibals and Strange Graves is to lend plenty of credence to them. It's tough to give up programs for which the public seems to have an insatiable appetite, but I wish Discovery and History at least would. They, of all networks, should be oases of rationality.

I'm starting to sound like a curmudgeon. Maybe all of it is harmless fun. But tune into John Edward. See how emotionally upset some of his subjects become. Some people really believe this stuff. Including, perhaps, the editors of Time. What would Henry Luce say? Maybe John Edward should ask.