REALLity Checklist -- 1998 in Review

by David Bloomberg

"News is a consumer product, like sausage. Be careful what you swallow."

— Author Unknown

Like any other year, 1998 had its ups and downs. Sometimes the media did a great job, and sometimes they needed to go back to the basics. There were some good TV shows presenting skeptical viewpoints, but meanwhile "psychics" made it to the best-seller list several times. Surprisingly, there are a lot more "bests" than "worsts" here this year, though I can't be sure that is due to a good trend or just to me being fortunate enough to miss some of those bad media reports. Here are some of the highlights and lowlights.

Best Local Story Award

I'm going to bend the meaning of this award. Normally, it goes to the author or publisher of a good news story that looked skeptically at one of the topics we cover. This year, however, I'm going to use the word "story" not to mean a report, but to mean an incident; and I'm going to expand "local" to mean the State of Illinois.

The story I'm referring to is the Pat Burgus story. As regular readers know, Burgus is the woman who believed, thanks to repressed memory therapy, that she had been a satanic high-priestess, had eaten human flesh, performed human sacrifices, abused her own children, etc. But after being institutionalized in Chicago for several years, she finally got out. Late last year, she got over a $10 million settlement from Dr. Bennett Braun and the hospital. This year, information she provided was used by the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation to file complaints against Braun and two colleagues for the way they treated her and her family.

The "best" part of this story is that unscientific practices like Braun's are finally being challenged.

Worst Local Story Award

Scott Hilyard, of the Peoria Journal Star, gets this award for his article extolling the great powers of the late Greta Alexander (7/18/98, also printed in the State Journal-Register). While I wouldn't have expected an article discussing her death to point out all the flaws in her claims, nor did I expect one that discussed her supposed powers as if they were an accepted fact. As discussed in the September issue of The REALL News (Vol. 6, No. 7), Alexander's claims have been examined by a number of people (including a full chapter in the book, Psychic Sleuths) and have been found lacking.

There was one part of the article that Hilyard got right — "She was no slouch at self-promotion." Indeed, I have openly admired her ability to promote herself. He probably did not realize it when he stated that she did the police work for free, but he was talking about that very self-promotion. She did it for free — and for free advertising. Other "psychics" often do the same thing, and Hilyard's praise of Alexander will only encourage them, seeing that there are journalists who will believe their claims without having to worry about backing them up.

When the article appeared, I wrote a letter to Hilyard to describe all of this (a copy of that letter can be found at www.reall.org). I never heard back from him.

Best Research Award

John Stossel's special, The Power of Belief, has to receive this award. It looked skeptically at astrology, voodoo, firewalking, therapeutic touch, etc. While none of this was really news to skeptics, Stossel's special sent it into the homes of thousands of others who had probably never really thought about these things before. Hopefully, it is a signal that television networks are becoming more willing to air "solved mysteries" types of programs instead of only the pro-supernatural/anti-science stuff we so often see.

Best Exposť Award

20/20 took this award away from Dateline NBC (who has won it most other years) with their coverage of James Van Praagh. Van Praagh, you may recall, claims he can have conversations with dead people. He had a best-selling book (Talking to Heaven) and showed up all over television land, usually facing less-than-skeptical audiences and hosts.

But 20/20 nailed him.

They had Michael Shermer, of the Skeptics Society, to explain how Van Praagh does his cold readings. He counted the "hits" and "misses" to show how people remember the hits and forget the misses. In one case, 20/20 showed how Van Praagh had to fish around quite a bit to determine how an older couple's son had died. In another, they caught him in a lie: he claimed he had not asked a woman who she wanted to talk to, but in fact they had him on videotape during a break asking that very question of her! When they started up again, he seemed to be brilliant when he told her that her grandmother was there with them.

The one downside of this report was that, even after all of this, Barbara Walters believed Van Praagh was for real. He had given her a reading and seemed to know a lot about her father. She said he couldn't have known, but when the segment's reporter pointed out that he had found out the same information fairly easily, Walters agreed that her father had actually been well-known. Alas, it didn't phase her. Besides, he makes people feel good, and that seemed to erase any problems in her mind. At least co-host Hugh Downs put forth his more rational view that there is nothing to Van Praagh's claims, and her ridiculous attitude was not enough to blow the research done by other 20/20 staffers.

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