James Randi brings down the hammer on Oprah
Reprinted from the James Randi Myspace Page:
AN OPRAH FIASCO
This will be a rather long item, but it deals with an important subject – how Oprah Winfrey manages to promote woo-woo ideas on her program by careful management of the content. Before we begin, you must understand how TV programs are recorded and put together for later broadcast. First and most important is the image of the host; this must be supported, and audience expectations must be met in that regard. Second, the sponsors must be satisfied that nothing unpopular or politically incorrect is used; that won’t sell the product. Third, secondary guests are expendable, and are there only to be used, in any way that serves the intent of the producers.
Back in April of 1995, I’d been contacted by the Oprah show and made an offer to do a second appearance with them. I simply told them, “No thanks”; I’d already been sandbagged by that show. In that appearance, I’d been told, just before I left my hotel for the studio, that the previously-scheduled “psychics” – for whom I was well prepared – would not be showing up. I went all the way out to the location and then found out, moments before the show went on the air – live – that those major "psychics" actually were appearing on the show. Though I’d I'd prepared video and newspaper material to contradict the pompous and false claims of those two scheduled “psychics,” I’d left the data behind at the hotel when told I'd be without opposition, and I had nothing in hand. It was a blatant, calculated lie designed to trap me, and I fell for it. But I’d not do it again. I'm sure Oprah doesn't need me, and I have no need of such unethical behavior. There are rules, even though Oprah doesn't seem to know them.
Recently, Oprah Winfrey aired a lopsided interview with “psychic/mediums” John Edward and Allison DuBois. Things immediately took on a circus air when Oprah began by describing human life as “vibrating energies.” The perfunctory skeptics were present, but of course the producers took great pains to be sure that they were ineffective. One woman from Evansville, Indiana, who had repsonded to a call for skeptics, was handled as we might have expected. Her sister, Cristina Michelassi, wrote to me:
My sister, Laura McMahon, was a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show taped Thursday, 2/8/07, for a segment that was purported to be a discussion between skeptics and “believers” on the subject of psychics. My sister believes in critical thinking and scientific study, and thought that the panel of guests would be open to having an intelligent discussion on the topic, albeit with their differing perspectives. She had responded to the on-air call for show participants via Oprah's website, explaining that she was skeptical in regard to paranormal or supernatural abilities that psychics claimed to possess.
I thought you might be interested in the account I've written about the experience, as it illustrates how the producers of the show very deftly controlled and orchestrated the whole show to ensure an outcome that would be well received by Oprah's audience. Once again, it was made quite clear to me that most people will believe what they want to believe, no matter how much logic and facts are presented to them.
I am very thankful that you and your organization exist!
Cristina wrote this report:
I wish I could be writing to all of you about what a wonderful experience Laura had when she went on the Oprah Winfrey show, but the truth of the matter is that she did not.
We all knew beforehand that her viewpoint would not be the “popular” one, especially in such a venue as this show. We did, however, hold some hope that it would offer an opportunity for a reasonable discussion about the topic, as she had been led to believe that there would be a panel interspersed with individuals who believed in psychic abilities and those who held a more skeptical view. Unfortunately, this was not the case whatsoever, as she was the only guest on the show with a truly skeptical perspective.
Now that I've had some time to reflect a bit on the whole process, it is quite apparent that the show is not ever meant to be a discussion about the topic at hand at all, but is instead a strictly controlled forum to showcase what Oprah's audience wants. Although the planning for this starts well before the topic's blurb on the website looking for show participants, that blurb seems to be the initial “hook” which allows the producers to not only get a good sense of the audience's position on a specific topic, but also to begin their search for individuals who, unbeknownst to them, will be filling the roles in the play that’s already been scripted.
My brother, Roberto, said it best when he observed:
I think it is quite clear that this was all orchestrated to get the outcome they wanted. The show is after all – business. They obviously know their audience quite well – and set up a show that would appeal to them. They needed to set up an environment where on the surface it appears as if they were really trying to be fair and balanced – so that the people on the fence might still get drawn into the show. But they had to make sure that the outcome would be clear, and the one that they knew the majority of their audience would agree with.
The truth of this observation was evidenced by Oprah's own behavior and remarks throughout the tapings of the two shows and the “after show” segment. The producers seated Laura in the first row of the audience, directly across from Oprah. The first guest to join Oprah on the stage was John Edward, a popular self-proclaimed psychic. Each time he either related a “supernatural” experience from his past or a videotaped segment of one of his “readings” was shown, Oprah would immediately look at Laura, and rather than address her by name, would make remarks such as "What do you say to that, science lady?" or "Any response, skeptic woman?" and on one occasion, “Skeptico?” directed at her with a questioning look.
The next step in fostering the show's outcome was to bring into question Laura's scientific background and education. This was done by suddenly identifying a “surprise” guest in the audience who was introduced as a psychologist studying paranormal phenomena. [Randi: this was an electrical engineer, Dean Radin, author of “The Conscious Universe”] This man stated that there have been a lot of experiments and studies done in the last 100 years that have indicated to scientists that there's "definitely something there." This meaningless statement seemed to sufficiently convince the audience that the whole of the scientific community worldwide believes in psychics, so who does "science lady" think she is?
As the second show taping began, it became more obvious that we had been “had.” Oprah related how some people believe that Harpo Studios [where Oprah tapes] is haunted by the spirits of the people who died when the Eastland ferry sank and the building was used as a temporary morgue to house their bodies. Videotape was shown of various staff members claiming to have heard, seen or felt a supernatural presence while working in the studio alone late at night. Then videotape was shown of one of the “psychics” on the show, walking around Harpo Studios late at night with a film crew, claiming to be experiencing precisely the very things the staff members had. When asked about how the dead people looked, the “psychic” said they appear to her as whitish energy blobs. Oprah chose this moment to admit, a bit hesitantly, that she herself had been visited once in the middle of the night by a presence that looked exactly as the psychic had just described! (She does know how to act, after all!)
When Oprah had announced who would be on the show, she had referred to Laura as a mother of two from Indiana who is a skeptic, “Laura McMahon.” That was the only time she actually ever said Laura's name. Although she consistently addressed the other audience guests by their names, she never once addressed Laura by hers. By the time Laura's pre-taped “reading” was shown, the tide had pretty much turned. When Laura told how the psychic was wrong in all her statements about our father save one, the response was that Laura was “blocked,” not open to receiving my father's “energy,” and that she had issues with closeness and emotional ties. In other words, it was her fault that the psychic had failed so miserably. Whether you only met my sister once or have known her since her birth, I am confident in saying that all can attest to the fact that she is an extremely approachable human being. On more than one occasion, total strangers have remarked upon her genuineness and warmth upon meeting her for the first time.
After the two shows were finished, they continued to tape the “after show” segment. All three “psychics” claimed to possess these “abilities” because of their personal and special connection to God. They insisted that their ability to speak with the dead, or predict the future, or get into a criminal's mind, was a God-given gift that they constantly improved and perfected through meditation and prayer. Oprah turned to Laura and asked her point-blank if she believed in God. When Laura replied that she was a humanist, the audience reaction was one of total disapproval and disbelief, though I'm quite sure the majority of them had absolutely no clue what a humanist is. Oprah's last remark to the audience before she left the stage was her admission that she believes in the supernatural.
We find here the tried-and-true ploy of casting aspersions on a victim by establishing that they’re not superstitious or credulous, or might even be an agnostic or atheist. or atheist; being naïve is regarded as a highly admirable trait.. It’s a cheap shot, but it works. Cristina continues:
If nothing else comes of this, just know that these shows are not interested in people, they don't care to know your stories, they aren't interested in your joys or sorrows, and they certainly don't want to bother with your thoughts… They want good ratings, for continued monetary success. And as Roberto said,
I think that they don't even consider us as real people. We are just members of the "Audience," a thing that is to be manipulated, cajoled and otherwise persuaded into behaving in a manner that delivers to them the rewards they so richly deserve.
Laura’s husband Roberto also gave us his individual account of this event:
My wife Laura accepted an invitation to be a guest on the Oprah show, which was taped today, about mediums who speak to the dead. She was identified by the show based upon a response to a question in which she wrote about her skepticism of this phenomenon. She was flown to Chicago, where she was first asked to do a 1:1 reading with a psychic, who stated upon beginning the session that my wife would have to answer either "yes" or "no" to each of the medium's questions about my wife's deceased father – essentially reducing the exercise to a child's game of “20 questions.” When my wife asked why she would have to do that if the medium could actually speak with the deceased, the medium rose out of her seat and proclaimed, "I can't work with this woman!" Eventually, she sat back down and continued the cold reading, but apparently the look on my wife's face had already made her position clear. Part of it was fairly offensive as the medium chuckled, in apparent response to something funny that my wife's deceased father "said" to her. The session finished, and my wife awaited the taping of the show.
While on the show, that same psychic misrepresented what she’d said to Laura during the reading. For example, she had told Laura that her father didn’t like to show his romantic side to his wife. Laura had denied this, citing the numerous times that he’d bought her jewelry or surprised her with flowers and chocolates. And, on the broadcast – edited – show, the “reader” said that she had correctly gotten that the father liked to show his romantic side to his wife – the exact opposite of what she’d “divined.” Roberto continues:
Laura and I talked about how the taping of the show might go, and we certainly anticipated that she might not be the hero of this story, given the earnestness with which people seek out and buy into this type of activity. We were not, however, prepared for what actually occurred at the taping. As it turned out, my wife was not only the sole guest who did not believe, but was likely the only person in the entire audience or at least the only one courageous enough to voice her opinion. The other guests were other famous mediums and a "professor" of paranormal psychology. [Randi: this was Radin, the electrical engineer.] As you can imagine, my wife was clearly out of her depth, and swimming with the big fish.
I've just spoken with my wife after the taping, and it was a terribly difficult position for her as the audience, and to some degree, Oprah, hammered away at my wife for being "closed," "blocked," and "narrow minded." Oprah even had taken the position of calling my wife the "science lady" in a not-so-positive reference. (I hold a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and my wife worked for quite a few years as a research assistant). My wife actually sat next to John Edward during the taping, and after being reminded yet once again of her "blocked" state, turned to him and said "Are you getting any signals yet?"
Needless to say it was a very challenging and, to be transparent, upsetting experience for my wife, particularly since we figured that while she would probably be in the minority, she would not be alone in her position. Clearly our mistake. I have told my wife that it took a person of enormous courage and character to stand up for her principles in such a highly emotionally charged and one sided environment. I am struck by the thought that my wife was essentially fed to the lions in the taping of the show, which of course will probably make great television, but that under different circumstances she might have been cheered for standing up against this deplorable act of pretending to speak with the dead. My wife and I can only imagine how she will be portrayed in what will be the final product, once the editing of the show is completed...
Roberto, what your wife did was very courageous. She saw the minefield she was walking into, and yet decided that the confrontation was worth risking. Of course, she could not have anticipated the extent to which creative editing, selection, timing, and emphasis would be employed to slant the outcome of the show. As I wrote above, even I was once the victim of this same process, at the hands of the Oprah team. They got what they wanted: Oprah looked good, decisive, powerful; the skeptical point of view was derided and suppressed. An “expert,” Dean Radin, was pulled out of the air like a bunny from a hat, and presented as if he represented the scientific view on these matters. No other really scientific point of view, which could have offered a very different opinion – though easily available to the producers – was presented. Radin said his piece, and the show closed.
Laura, thank you, sincerely. Without good folks like you to stand up against this humbuggery, we’d have no soldiers out there to offer a defense of reason. Oprah is powerful both in influence and image, and she’s opted to join, support, and endorse the forces of woo-woo. Her huge staff, her producers, and her money are brought into the battle against rationality and common sense, and she sees a God on her side, as well. I’ve known this ever since I saw her fall for Geller’s spoon-bending on a co-hosted show out of Baltimore, many years ago, well before she was an icon of American – and international – television.
History will be the final judge…