King of the Paranormal

Chris Mooney

Broadcast on CNN, the July 1, 2003 installment of “Larry King Live” was a sight to behold. The program, in King’s words, explored “the incredible events of 56 years ago at Roswell, New Mexico.” What most likely crashed at Roswell in 1947 was a government spy balloon, but the panel of guests assembled on King’s show preferred a more lurid version of events. Jesse Marcel, Jr., son of a Roswell intelligence officer, claimed that just after the crash, his father showed him bits of debris that “came from another civilization.” Glenn Dennis, who worked at a Roswell funeral home at the time, said a military officer called him to ask about the availability of small caskets (i.e., for dead aliens). Later Denis, obviously a UFO enthusiast, observed out of nowhere that the pyramids in Egypt had recently been “[shut down] for three or four days and no tourists going out there on account of the sightings.”

King’s program didn’t merely advance the notion that an alien spacecraft crashed at Roswell in 1947. It also hawked the DVD version of a recent Sci-Fi Channel documentary, “The Roswell Crash: Startling New Evidence,” clips of which appeared throughout the hour. A breathy and sensationalizing take on the events of 1947, “The Roswell Crash” first appeared as a tie-in for Sci-Fi’s fictional miniseries Taken, a Steven Spielberg production tracing the impact of UFO abductions on three generations of American families. Other Taken tie-ins that thoroughly blur the line between fact and fiction include a documentary titled Abduction Diaries, a Roper Poll finding that Americans are ready for the discovery of extraterrestrial life, and even the launching of the Coalition for Freedom of Information, an advocacy group devoted to unearthing classified government documents about aliens. Sure enough, King’s July 1 guests included two people with Sci-Fi ties: Leslie Kean, a left-wing journalist turned UFO investigator who works with the Coalition for Freedom of Information, and Dr. William Doleman, a University of New Mexico archaeologist contracted by Sci-Fi to excavate the Roswell crash site. Doleman admitted to King that his dig had not yet yielded any definitive evidence, but added that the “results” of his analysis will be aired on Sci-Fi in October—as opposed to, say, being published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Sci-Fi is an entertainment network, and can arguably air whatever it wants, including pseudo-documentaries hyping the Roswell myth. But Larry King is different. King regularly interviews senators, former presidents, and heads of state. One would expect him to hew to basic standards of journalistic rigor and balance. On July 1, however, King presided over a thoroughly biased discussion of the Roswell question that eschewed historical accuracy and gave a big boost to Sci-Fi’s paranormalist marketing strategies. One Roswell expert, New Mexico physicist and mathematician Dave Thomas, observed to me by e-mail that King’s program failed entirely to explain why Project Mogul, a secret government program to develop spy balloons, counts as such a strong candidate for the source of the Roswell incident.

Does CNN, the “most trusted name in news,” take responsibility for the factual content and balance of “Larry King Live”? This article—a double-length installment of my monthly “Doubt and About” column—attempts to answer that question. After all, King’s July 1 Roswell program was no aberration. King has hosted uncritical shows about UFOs in the past. Not only that: He probably devotes more air time to spiritualist mediums like John Edward, Sylvia Brown, and Rosemary Altea than to America’s UFO obsessives. No other serious cable news anchor treats the paranormal in the consistently promotional way that Larry King does, which more resembles the approach of a Montel Williams or Jerry Springer than that of a trusted journalist.

In researching this article, I interviewed four leading skeptics who have appeared on “Larry King Live,” seeking their perceptions of why the program consistently promotes the paranormal, sometimes without airing any critical perspective at all. I also attempted to contact King or his producers to seek a response to the skeptics’ criticisms. My request, however, went unmet. As a result, I have been left with no choice but to privilege the skeptical perspective, which views “Larry King Live” as a depressing example of the way that marketing values and the demand for viewers can trump journalistic responsibility. This process leads otherwise trustworthy media outlets to inflate the reputations of psychics and promoters of the paranormal because they draw in hordes of credulous viewers. CNN may be a respected news network, but in its irresponsible presentation of paranormal topics and themes, “Larry King Live” belies and compromises that reputation.

On CNN‘s website, Larry King’s impressive personal page presents the sixty-nine year old anchor as a true lion of journalism. King, the page notes, hosted the famous 1993 debate between Ross Perot and Al Gore over the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, which broke CNN
records by drawing in some 16 million viewers. King also conducted “award-winning jailhouse interviews” with Karla Faye Tucker and Mike Tyson, and has won journalism accolades ranging from the Allen H. Neuharth Award for Excellence in Journalism to the George Foster Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcasting. Indeed, over the years King has conducted interviews with pretty much anybody who’s anybody, celebrities and politicians alike. Some top tier interviewees include Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev and Vladimir Putin, and Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.

You might be surprised to hear that someone so decorated could be guilty of repeatedly treating a certain topic—the paranormal—in a fashion that betrays virtually all journalistic standards. If you cast a glance back at King’s various shows over the years, however, you will find titles like “Is the End of the World at Hand?”, “Paranormal Warfare – A Secret Military Power?, “Is Exorcism Real?”, and “Are Some Persons Programmed for UFO Contact?” interspersed with more serious programs. Sometimes these shows have included interviews with a skeptical figure. But King frequently devotes entire programs to paranormal topics with nary a skeptic to be seen, as was the case with the July 1 Roswell program. In fact, a study by Matthew Nisbet found that even in one case where King included skeptics on his program, these doubters were granted dramatically fewer total seconds of speaking time than the paranormalists.

Possibly the most troublesome aspect of King’s promotion of the paranormal involves spiritualism, the contacting-the-dead movement that began in the 19th century with the “rappings” of the Fox Sisters and evolved into the televised psychic mediumship seen today on programs like Crossing Over with John Edward (a Sci-Fi production that originated after the channel’s president saw Edward on “Larry King Live”). Prior to his July 1 Roswell program, King’s most recent foray into the paranormal was a May 16 interview with popular psychic Sylvia Browne, whose website attests that she is “truly on a mission from God,” and who frequently dispenses explicit health advice despite her lack of medical qualifications. An excerpt from the show transcript demonstrates just how low these programs can go, and how willingly King plays along:

KING: Do you believe in angels?
KING: What are they?
BROWNE: They’re actually the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that was made by God to protect us. I mean, they’re not…
KING: Bad people have angels?
BROWNE: You know, bad people, I’ve never seen bad people have angels. That’s interesting you should ask that, because I’ve never seen angels around bad people.
KING: Do they look like the drawings of angels?
KING: They do?
BROWNE: And I didn’t think they had wings. I thought that was just some stupid…
KING: Sylvia, Sylvia, come on. You see people with wings?
BROWNE: Yes. I used to tell people they didn’t have wings, Larry. And then I saw one with wings, and then I had to go back up on stage and say, I’m sorry, I lied. They have wings.
KING: Why do you see them and I don’t?
BROWNE: I don’t know. You probably could see them if you wanted to. You have four of them around you.
KING: To what, to protect?
BROWNE: To protect.
KING: We have four them around us?
BROWNE: You have four.
KING: I have four.
BROWNE: You have four. Some people have two.
KING: I’m a good guy?
BROWNE: Well, that’s it.
KING: I’ve got connections, right?
BROWNE: You’ve got connections.

Browne appeared alone for the entire hour. Throughout much of the show, King allowed her to take phone calls and attempt to contact listeners’ dead loved ones—a process greatly facilitated by a palpable will to believe on the part of these desperate, bereaved callers. A Nexis search shows that King has invited Browne on his show on several other occasions during the last few years. In fact, Browne has repeatedly promised, on the air, to allow magician James Randi to test her psychic abilities in a rigorously controlled setting, but she has not yet submitted to the test. On his website Randi maintains a “Sylvia Browne Clock” that keeps track of how many days it has been since Browne accepted his challenge. King, however, has shown little interest in learning whether Browne can actually do what she claims.

And if King’s promotion of Browne rankles, it’s just the beginning. Another psychic superstar of King’s program is John Edward, who has appeared repeatedly, both alone and with other guests (including occasional skeptics). As CSICOP paranormal investigator Joe Nickell and others have documented, the techniques used by Edward to convince “Larry King Live” callers that he can contact the deceased turn out to be quite mundane. Using a process called “cold reading,” Edwards essentially goes fishing for information. Talking quickly, he throws out common causes of death and other vague data, and then waits for callers to take the bait and suggest he’s on to something. Edward also asks questions, makes educated guesses, and feeds off reactions for more information. His statements are often wrong, and when they’re right it’s only in a vague way. But the willingness of callers to seize upon Edward’s “hits” and ignore his “misses” makes these antics seem believable.

King’s uncritical presentation of spiritualists like Browne and Edward, as well as James Van Praagh and Rosemary Altea, reached such a pitch in 1999 that two leading skeptics, CSICOP’s Paul Kurtz and Joe Nickell, sent a complaint letter to King and one of his producers. “We must protest,” wrote Kurtz and Nickell, “your repeated promotion of ‘spiritualism’…without providing a contrary view,” continuing:

One must wonder if people would really want the touted “communications” from their deceased loved ones if they knew the facts about spiritualism’s history of fraud and deception, or even that the techniques used by mediums on your several shows are well known and easily discredited.

If spirit communications are not genuine, we are often asked, nevertheless what harm is there in the solace provided by the pretense? The answer is that falsehoods have consequences. Magician Harry Houdini catalogued many of them—“the suffering, losses, misfortunes, crimes and atrocities”—of spiritualistic deception. We have personally witnessed the consequences to people’s self-respect when they realized their most sacred beliefs had been manipulated and trivialized.

Kurtz and Nickell concluded by noting that while “we do not advocate censorship, we do invite fair-minded journalism.”

According to Kurtz, the letter resulted in a telephone “shouting match” between Kurtz and King’s producers, who defended their presentations on the grounds that, in Kurtz’s words, “everybody knows it’s entertainment.” Kurtz disagreed, explaining to me that since Larry King has a reputation as one of TV journalism’s leading figures, even his treatments of the paranormal will inevitably be taken as “authoritative and newsworthy.” Indeed, it’s almost as if the sheen from King’s interviews with senators and former presidents rubs off on the UFO-promoters, psychics, and quacks.

So what’s going on at “Larry King Live”? Why are psychics, mediums, and UFO believers permitted to speak without interruption to King’s vast audience? Among the skeptics I interviewed, all of whom have appeared at one time or another on “Larry King Live,” a consistent theme emerged: That the quest for ratings is the only possible explanation for King’s journalistic transgressions. “Having the spiritualists on must be for him very popular shows. Whatever he uses for feedback to tell him this, it must really work. Otherwise he would drop it like a hot potato,” said Nickell. Magician James Randi was even more explicit: “This is a marketing thing. They want sponsors, they will get sponsors and they will keep sponsors if they put this kind of material on, because it attracts viewers. That’s the bottom line.”

Michael Shermer, of Skeptic magazine, has also appeared on “Larry King Live” and confirms the views of Kurtz, Nickell, and Randi. Of King’s presentation of the paranormal, Shermer notes: “I’ve actually asked Larry about this. Specifically, ‘Do you believe this stuff?’ And he said, ‘For the most part, I’m a skeptic like you,’” recalls Shermer. “And I’ve asked his producers, ‘Why do you put this stuff on?’ And they said, ‘Cause it gets great ratings, it’s good television.’” Since ratings inevitably drive the media’s presentation of the paranormal, Shermer argues, it’s incumbent upon skeptics to create programs that stand an equal chance of drawing large audiences. Shermer’s own show, “Exploring the Unknown,” presented a skeptical perspective for 65 segments on the Fox Family Channel. And with Showtime’s late night show “Penn & Teller: Bullshit!”, the Discovery Kids Channel’s “Mystery Hunters,” and the Discovery Science Channel’s “Critical Eye” (produced with the help of CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer), the skeptical perspective does seem to be finding its way onto television more frequently than it did during the paranormal-obsessed 1990s.

Shermer’s strategy certainly describes one way of combating the paranormal messages spread on “Larry King Live” and other programs. But should ratings alone dictate the treatment of the paranormal on a television news network like CNN? Shermer opines that “Larry King is not in the news department, he’s in the entertainment department, so he’s not required to have any journalistic ethics, and he doesn’t.” But there are problems with this response. For example, “Larry King Live” will sometimes transition back and forth between news reporting and paranormal “entertainment” within the course of the very same program. When this happens, how are viewers supposed to tell the difference?

In any case, Shermer’s recollection of his conversation with King and his producers seems consistent with Kurtz’s account of his own interaction with King’s producers. Still, I wanted to be sure these first-hand accounts accurately represented the institutional view of “Larry King Live.” So I contacted King’s publicist, Erin Sermeus, identifying myself as a writer with the online version of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Sermeus returned my initial call, and in our conversation I summarized for her the criticisms of “Larry King Live” that I had been hearing from leading skeptics.

Besides noting—correctly—that shows devoted to psychics comprise only a small percentage of total “Larry King Live” programming, Sermeus did not provide much substantive response. However, said she would get back to me in a few days with something more thorough. She never did. An e-mail, a follow-up phone call, and a call to Sermeus’s cell phone all went unreturned. After waiting a week beyond my original article deadline, I decided to go ahead with this piece without a formal response from “Larry King Live.” If this article presents a very negative view of the show, it’s partly because that was the only viewpoint I actually heard.

Where does that leave things? If the past is any indication, we will continue to see unbalanced presentations of paranormal topics on “Larry King Live,” sometimes with token skeptics included, sometimes not. Barring a sudden change of heart at CNN, things will proceed as usual.

At this point, Michael Shermer’s suggestion—that skeptics try to create their own programs to get their messages into the media—does sound pretty attractive. Granted, it basically concedes that skeptics have lost the moral argument about proper journalistic practices. And yet, these practices themselves are not set in stone. After all, who knows how our culture’s approach to the paranormal—both journalistic and otherwise—will change?

We have already seen skeptic-friendly media programs. Perhaps one day the skeptic movement will produce a media personality of sufficient stature to appear on “Larry King Live” for a whole hour uninterrupted, the way Sylvia Browne and John Edward currently do. Then maybe Larry and the skeptic will exchange a few jokes at the expense of psychics and UFO believers. Indeed, perhaps the skeptic will even ask King to repent for his show’s previous transgressions, and King will go along. An on-air confession: Now that would make for great ratings.

Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist, blogger, podcaster, and experienced trainer of scientists in the art of communication. He is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality. He blogs for Science Progress, a website of the Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund.