April 19, 2002 at 4:55 pm #62960
John Edward: Hustling the Bereaved by Joe Nickell
Superstar “psychic medium” John Edward is a stand-up guy. Unlike the spiritualists of yore, who typically plied their trade in dark-room séances, Edward and his ilk often perform before live audiences and even under the glare of TV lights. Indeed, Edward (a pseudonym: he was born John MaGee Jr.) has his own popular show on the SciFi channel called Crossing Over, which has gone into national syndication (Barrett 2001; Mui 2001). I was asked by television newsmagazine Dateline NBC to study Edward’s act: was he really talking to the dead?
The Old Spiritualism
Today’s spiritualism traces its roots to 1848 and the schoolgirl antics of the Fox sisters, Maggie and Katie. They seemed to communicate with the ghost of a murdered peddler by means of mysterious rapping sounds. Four decades later the foxy sisters confessed how they had produced the noises by trickery (Nickell 1994), but meanwhile others discovered they too could be “mediums” (those who supposedly communicate with the dead).
The “spiritualism” craze spread across the United States, Europe, and beyond. In darkened séance rooms, lecture halls, and theaters, various “spirit” phenomena occurred. The Davenport Brothers conjured up spirit entities to play musical instruments while the two mediums were, apparently, securely tied in a special “spirit cabinet.” Unfortunately the Davenports were exposed many times, once by a local printer. He visited their spook show and volunteered as part of an audience committee to help secure the two mediums. He took that opportunity to secretly place some printer’s ink on the neck of a violin, and after the séance one of the duo had his shoulder smeared with the black substance (Nickell 1999).
In Boston, while photographer William H. Mumler was recycling some glass photographic plates, he accidentally obtained faint images of previous sitters. He soon adapted the technique to producing “spirit extras” in photographs of his clients. But Mumler’s scam was revealed when some of his ethereal entities were recognized as living Boston residents (Nickell 1994).
The great magician Harry Houdini (1874**926) crusaded against phony spiritualists, seeking out elderly mediums who taught him the tricks of the trade. For example, while sitters touched hands around the séance table, mediums had clever ways of gaining the use of one hand. (One method was to slowly move the hands close together so that the fingers of one could be substituted for those of the other.) This allowed the production of special effects, such as causing a tin trumpet to appear to be levitating. Houdini gave public demonstrations of the deceptions. “Do Spirits Return?” asked one of his posters. “Houdini Says No-and Proves It” (Gibson 1977, 157).
Continuing the tradition, I have investigated various mediums, sometimes attending séances undercover and once obtaining police warrants against a fraudulent medium from the notorious Camp Chesterfield spiritualist center in Indiana (Nickell 1998). The camp is the subject of the book The Psychic Mafia, written by a former medium who recanted and revealed the tricks of floating trumpets (with disembodied voices), ghostly apparitions, materializing “apports,” and other fake phenomena (Keene 1976)-some of which I have also witnessed firsthand.
The new breed of spiritualists-like Edward, James Van Praagh, Rosemary Altea, Sylvia Browne, and George Anderson-avoid the physical approach with its risks of exposure and possible criminal charges. Instead they opt for the comparatively safe “mental mediumship” which involves the purported use of psychic ability to obtain messages from the spirit realm.
This is not a new approach, since mediums have long done readings for their credulous clients. In the early days they exhibited “the classic form of trance mediumship, as practiced by shamans and oracles,” giving spoken “‘spirit messages’ that ranged all the way from personal (and sometimes strikingly accurate) trivia to hours-long public trance-lectures on subjects of the deepest philosophical and religious import” (McHargue 1972).
Some mediums produced “automatic” or “trance” or “spirit” writing, which the entities supposedly dictated to the medium or produced by guiding his or her hand. Such writings could be in flowery language indeed, as in this excerpt from one spirit writing in my collection:
Oh my Brother-I am so glad to be able to come here with you and hold sweet communion for it has been a long time since I have controlled this medium but I remember how well used I had become to her magnetism[,] but we will soon get accustomed to her again and then renew the pleasant times we used to have. I want to assure you that we are all here with you this afternoon[-]Father[, ] Mother[,] little Alice[-]and so glad to find it so well with you and we hope and feel dear Brother that you have seen the darkest part of life and that times are not with you now as they have been . . . .
and so on in this talkative fashion.
By contrast, today’s spirits-whom John Edward and his fellow mediums supposedly contact-seem to have poor memories and difficulty communicating. For example, in one of his on-air séances (on Larry King Live, June 19, 1998), Edward said: “I feel like there’s a J- or G-sounding name attached to this.” He also perceived “Linda or Lindy or Leslie; who’s this L name?” Again, he got a “Maggie or Margie, or some M-G-sounding name,” and yet again heard from “either Ellen or Helen, or Eleanore-it’s like an Ellen-sounding name.” Gone is the clear-speaking eloquence of yore; the dead now seem to mumble.
The spirits also seemingly communicate to Edward et al. as if they were engaging in pantomime. As Edward said of one alleged spirit communicant, in a Dateline “He’s pointing to his head; something had to affect the mind or the head, from what he’s showing me.” No longer, apparently, can the dead speak in flowing Victorian sentences, but instead are reduced to gestures, as if playing a game of charades.
One suspects, of course, that it is not the imagined spirits who have changed but rather the approach today’s mediums have chosen to employ. It is, indeed, a shrewd technique known as “cold reading”-so named because the subject walks in “cold”; that is, the medium lacks advance information about the person (Gresham 1953). It is an artful method of gleaning information from the sitter, then feeding it back as mystical revelation.
The “psychic” can obtain clues by observing dress and body language (noting expressions that indicate when one is on or off track), asking questions (which if correct will appear as “hits” but otherwise will seem innocent queries), and inviting the subject to interpret the vague statements offered. For example, nearly anyone can respond to the mention of a common object (like a ring or watch) with a personal recollection that can seem to transform the mention into a hit. (For more on cold reading see Gresham 1953; Hyman 1977; Nickell 2000.)
It should not be surprising that Edward is skilled at cold reading, an old fortunetelling technique. His mother was a “psychic junkie” who threw fortunetelling “house parties,” one of the alleged clairvoyants advising the then-fifteen-year-ol d that he had “wonderful psychic abilities.” He began doing card readings for friends and family, then progressed to psychic fairs where he soon learned that names and other “validating information” sometimes applied to the dead rather than the living. Eventually he changed his billing from “psychic” to “psychic medium” (Edward 1999). The revised approach set him on the road to stardom. In addition to his TV show, he now commands hundreds of dollars for a private reading and is booked two years in advance (Mui 2001).
Although cold reading is the main technique of the new spiritualists, they can also employ “hot” reading on occasion. Houdini (1924) exposed many of these information-gatherin g techniques including using planted microphones to listen in on clients as they gathered in the mediums’ anterooms-a technique Houdini himself used to impress visitors with his “telepathy” (Gibson 1976, 13). Reformed medium M. Lamar Keene’s The Psychic Mafia (1976) describes such methods as conducting advance research on clients, sharing other mediums’ files (what Keene terms “mediumistic espionage”), noting casual remarks made in conversation before a reading, and so on.
An article in Time magazine suggested John Edward may have used just such chicanery. One subject, a marketing manager named Michael O’Neill had received apparent messages from his dead grandfather but, when his segment aired, he noted that it had been improved through editing. According to Time’s Leon Jaroff (2001):
Now suspicious, O’Neill recalled that while the audience was waiting to be seated, Edward’s aides were scurrying about, striking up conversations and getting people to fill out cards with their name, family tree and other facts. Once inside the auditorium, where each family was directed to preassigned seats, more than an hour passed before show time while “technical difficulties” backstage were corrected.
Edward has a policy of not responding to criticism, but the executive producer of Crossing Over insists: “No information is given to John Edward about the members of the audience with whom he talks. There is no eavesdropping on gallery conversations, and there are no ‘tricks’ to feed information to John.” He labeled the Time article “a mix of erroneous observations and baseless theories” (Nordlander 2001).
Be that as it may, on Dateline Edward was actually caught in an attempt to pass off previously gained knowledge as spirit revelation. During the session he said of the spirits, “They’re telling me to acknowledge Anthony,” and when the cameraman signaled that was his name, Edward seemed surprised, asking “That’s you? Really?” He further queried: “Had you not seen Dad before he passed? Had you either been away or been distanced?” Later, playing the taped segment for me, Dateline reporter John Hockenberry challenged me with Edward’s apparent hit: “He got Anthony. That’s pretty good.” I agreed but added, “We’ve seen mediums who mill about before sessions and greet people and chat with them and pick up things.”
Indeed, it turned out that that is just what Edward had done. Hours before the group reading, Tony had been the cameraman on another Edward shoot (recording him at his hobby, ballroom dancing). Significantly, the two men had chatted and Edward had obtained useful bits of information that he afterward pretended had come from the spirits. In a follow-up interview Hockenberry revealed the fact and grilled an evasive Edward:
HOCKENBERRY: So were you aware that his dad had died before you did his reading?
Mr. EDWARD: I think he-I think earlier in the-in the day, he had said something.
HOCKENBERRY: It makes me feel like, you know, that that’s fairly significant. I mean, you knew that he had a dead relative and you knew it was the dad.
Mr. EDWARD: OK.
HOCKENBERRY: So that’s not some energy coming through, that’s something you knew going in. You knew his name was Tony and you knew that his dad had died and you knew that he was in the room, right? That gets you . . .
Mr. EDWARD: That’s a whole lot of thinking you got me doing, then. Like I said, I react to what’s coming through, what I see, hear and feel. I interpret what I’m seeing hearing and feeling, and I define it. He raised his hand, it made sense for him. Great.
HOCKENBERRY: But a cynic would look at that and go, ‘Hey,’ you know, ‘He knows it’s the cameraman, he knows it’s DATELINE. You know, wouldn’t that be impressive if he can get the cameraman to cry?’
Mr. EDWARD: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Not at all.
But try to weasel out of it as he might, Edward had obviously been caught cheating: pretending that information he had gleaned earlier had just been revealed by spirits and feigning surprise that it applied to Tony the cameraman. (And that occurred long before Time had suggested that an Inside Edition program-February 27, 200**was probably “the first nationally televised show to take a look at the Edward phenomenon.” That honor instead goes to Dateline NBC.)
In his new book Crossing Over, Edward tries to minimize the Dateline exposé, and in so doing breaks his own rule of not responding to criticism. He rebukes Hockenberry for “his big Gotcha! moment,” adding:
Hockenberry came down on the side of the professional skeptic they used as my foil. He was identified as Joe Nickell, a member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which likes to simplify things and call itself CSICOP. He did the usual sound bites: that modern mediums are fast-talkers on fishing expeditions making money on people’s grief-“the same old dogs with new tricks,” in Hockenberry’s words.
Edward claims to ignore any advance information that he may get from those he reads, but concedes, “it’s futile to say this to a tough skeptic” (Edward 2001, 242**43).
Edward may have benefitted from actual information on another occasion, while undergoing a “scientific” test of his alleged powers (Schwartz et al. 2001). In video clips shown on Dateline, Edward was reading subjects-who were brought into the hotel room where he sat with his back to the door-when he impressed his tester with an atypical revelation. Edward stated he was “being shown the movie Pretty in Pink” and asked if there was “a pink connection.” Then he queried, “Are you, like, wearing all pink?” The unidentified man acknowledged that he was. Yet Edward had thought the subject was a woman, and I suspect that erroneous guess was because of the color of his attire; I further suspect Edward knew it was pink, that as the man entered the room Edward glimpsed a flash of the color as it was reflected off some shiny surface, such as the glass of a picture frame, the lens of the video camera, etc. I challenge Edward to demonstrate his reputed color-divining ability under suitably controlled conditions that I will set up.
In addition to shrewd cold reading and out-and-out cheating, “psychics” and “mediums” can also boost their apparent accuracy in other ways. They get something of a free ride from the tendency of credulous folk to count the apparent hits and ignore the misses. In the case of Edward, my analysis of 125 statements or pseudostatements (i.e., questions) he made on a Larry King Live program (June 19, 1998) showed that he was incorrect about as often as he was right and that his hits were mostly weak ones. (For example he mentioned “an older female” with “an M-sounding name,” either an aunt or grandmother, he stated, and the caller supplied “Mavis” without identifying the relationship; see Nickell 1998.)
Another session-for an episode of Crossing Over attended by a reporter for The New York Times Magazine, Chris Ballard (2001)-had Edward “hitting well below 50 percent for the day.” Indeed, he twice spent “upward of 20 minutes stuck on one person, shooting blanks but not accepting the negative responses.” This is a common technique: persisting in an attempt to redeem error, cajoling or even browbeating a sitter (as Sylvia Browne often does), or at least making the incorrect responses seem the person’s fault. “Do not not honor him!” Edward exclaimed at one point, then (according to Ballard) “staring down the bewildered man.”
When the taped episode actually aired, the two lengthy failed readings had been edited out, along with second-rate offerings. What remained were two of the best readings of the show (Ballard 2001). This seems to confirm the allegation in the Time article that episodes were edited to make Edward seem more accurate, even reportedly splicing in clips of one sitter nodding yes “after statements with which he remembers disagreeing” (Jaroff 2001).
Edited or not, sessions involving a group offer increased chances for success. By tossing out a statement and indicating a section of the audience rather than an individual, the performing “medium” makes it many times more likely that someone will “acknowledge” it as a “hit.” Sometimes multiple audience members will acknowledge an offering, whereupon the performer typically narrows the choice down to a single person and builds on the success. Edward uses just such a technique (Ballard 2001).
Still another ploy used by Edward and his fellow “psychic mediums” is to suggest that people who cannot acknowledge a hit may find a connection later. “Write this down,” an insistent Edward sometimes says, or in some other way suggests the person study the apparent miss. He may become even more insistent, the positive reinforcement diverting attention from the failure and giving the person an opportunity to find some adaptable meaning later (Nickell 1998).
Debunking Versus Investigation
Some skeptics believe the way to counter Edward and his ilk is to reproduce his effect, to demonstrate the cold-reading technique to radio and TV audiences. Of course that approach is unconvincing unless one actually poses as a medium and then-after seemingly making contact with subjects’ dead loved ones-reveals the deception. Although audiences typically fall for the trick (witness Inside Edition’s use of it), I deliberately avoid this approach for a variety of reasons, largely because of ethical concerns. I rather agree with Houdini (1924, xi) who had done spiritualistic stunts during his early career:
At the time I appreciated the fact that I surprised my clients, but while aware of the fact that I was deceiving them I did not see or understand the seriousness of trifling with such sacred sentimentality and the baneful result which inevitably followed. To me it was a lark. I was a mystifier and as such my ambition was being gratified and my love for a mild sensation satisfied. After delving deep I realized the seriousness of it all. As I advanced to riper years of experience I was brought to a realization of the seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed, and when I personally became afflicted with similar grief I was chagrined that I should ever have been guilty of such frivolity and for the first time realized that it bordered on crime.
Of course tricking people in order to educate them is not the same as deceiving them for crass personal gain, but to toy with their deepest emotions-however briefly and well intentioned-is to cross a line I prefer not to do. Besides, I believe it can be very counterproductive. It may not be the alleged medium but rather the debunker himself who is perceived as dishonest, and he may come across as arrogant, cynical, and manipulative-not heroic as he imagines.
As well, an apparent reproduction of an effect does not necessarily mean the cause was the same. (For example, I have seen several skeptical demonstrations of “weeping” icons that employed trickery more sophisticated than that used for “real” crying effigies.) Far better, I am convinced, is showing evidence of the actual methods employed, as I did in collaboration with Dateline NBC.
Although John Edward was among five “highly skilled mediums” who allegedly fared well on tests of their ability (Schwartz et al. 2001)-experiments critiqued elsewhere in this issue (Wiseman and O’Keeffe, see page 26)-he did not claim validation on Larry King Live. When King (2001) asked Edward if he thought there would ever be proof of spirit contact, Edward responded by suggesting proof was unattainable, that only belief matters: “. . . I think that to prove it is a personal thing. It is like saying, prove God. If you have a belief system and you have faith, then there is nothing really more than that.” But this is an attempt to insulate a position and to evade or shift the burden of proof, which is always on the claimant. As Houdini (1924, 270) emphatically stated, “It is not for us to prove the mediums are dishonest, it is for them to prove that they are honest.” In my opinion John Edward has already failed that test.
I appreciate the assistance of Tom Flynn who helped me analyze the video clips mentioned in the text and refine the hypothesis that Edward may have glimpsed a reflection. I am also grateful to Tim Binga, Barry Karr, Kevin Christopher, Ben Radford, and Ranjit Sandhu for other assistance.
Ballard, Chris. 2001. Oprah of the other side. The New York Times Magazine, July 29, 38-41.
Barrett, Greg. 2001. Can the living talk to the dead? Gannett News Service, published in USA Today, August 10.
Edward, John. 1999. One Last Time. New York: Berkley Books.
—. 2001. Crossing Over. San Diego: Jodere Group.
Gibson, Walter B. 1977. The Original Houdini Scrapbook. New York: Corwin/Sterling.
Gresham, William Lindsay. 1953. Monster Midway. New York: Rinehart, 113-136.
Houdini, Harry. 1924. A Magician Among the Spirits. New York: Harper & Brothers.
Hyman, Ray. 1977. Cold reading: how to convince strangers that you know all about them. Skeptical Inquirer 2(1), (Spring/Summer): 18-37.
Jaroff, Leon. 2001. Talking to the dead. Time, March 5, 52.
Keene, M. Lamar. 1976. The Psychic Mafia. Reprinted Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1997.
King, Larry. 2001. Are psychics for real? Larry King Live, March 6.
McHargue, Georgess. 1972. Facts, Frauds, and Phantasms: A Survey of the Spiritualist Movement. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 44-45.
Mui, Ylan Q. 2001. Bring me your dead. New York Post: TV Sunday, July 8, 105.
Nickell, Joe. 1994. Camera Clues. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 147-149.
—. 1998. Investigating spirit communications. Skeptical Briefs 8(3) (September): 5-6.
—. 1999. The Davenport Brothers: Religious practitioners, entertainers, or frauds? Skeptical Inquirer 23(4) (July/August): 14-17.
—. 2000. Hustling Heaven. Skeptical Briefs 10(3) (September): 1-3.
Nickell, Joe, with John F. Fischer. 1988. Secrets of the Supernatural. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 47-60.
Nordlander, Charles. 2001. Letter from executive producer of Crossing Over to Time, March 26.
Schwartz, Gary E.R., et al. 2001. Accuracy and replicability of anomalous after-death communication across highly skilled mediums. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, January: 1-25.
About the Author
Joe Nickell is author of many books on the paranormal, including Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings.April 19, 2002 at 4:57 pm #76565
Nickell’s article is full of holes, illogical conclusions, based on false assumptions and improper expectations. He has no problem accusing John Edward of weaseling and pretending, and will not allow the reader to consider that even if John is NOT speaking to the dead, he is convinced HIMSELF that he is. No, Edward can’t possibly believe, based on his own beliefs as a Catholic, and other beliefs based on an after life that what he does is real. Nickell wants us to accept that John Edward is knowingly cheating people. Hardly a balanced article.
Nickell did his homework on the history of the spiritulist movement, but he’d have his reader think that spiritualism began with the Fox sisters. The truth is, that’s when debunkers started documenting the weeding out of frauds. Spiritualism goes back to Old Testament times, for example the story of the “Witch of Endor” who, according to the story, accurately connected with a prophet. But his mistake is the illogical “if one fraud exists, then all are frauds.” No logic there, and no denying here, that the Fox sisters probably had vivid imaginations and enjoyed the additional attention more than they were really communicating with the dead. There’s also no love lost between myself and other “spiritualists” that he mentions, but just because I don’t recognize their validity, doens’t mean that I can’t recognize another’s. The logic doesn’t follow. But, Nickell is counting on his reader’s subconcious connection between several parapraphs of questionable characters of suspected ill-repute, and the focus of his article: John Edward.
My other problem with this presentation of information by cynics-in-skeptic’s- clothing, is the constant reference to this guy, Michael O’Neill. Now, if you were a reporter, wouldn’t you be jumping at the chance to interview Michael O’Neill? If you were Michael O’Neill, wouldn’t you be jumping at the chance to tell your story on national TV, or in the nation’s syndicated newspaper, so that you could tell your story, and be the one who saved all those poor sheep from being fleeced? Where did he go with his story? He emailed the Amazing Ego Randi. Boom. That’s the extent of his testimonial. Randi in turn shared it with his cynic-pretending-to- be-skeptic friends, who took one person’s perception, and ran with it. Several eye witnesses have rebutted O’Neill’s claims, but we never heard from O’Neill again. Where is Michael O’Neill now? Bring me the head of Michael O’Neill! Believe, me, I’ll listen to his head talk!
Cold reading, hot reading, VERY hot reading, inflating hits (as if we all agree on what makes a “hit”!) And then to turn to an “entertainment” segment from Dateline, and refer to it, as if it were actual investigative journalism! All you have to do is read Laura Ballweg’s expose, below, to see that Dateline can cut and slice a story to whatever conclusion will get people talking about their show, and thereby increase ratings. Remember the fiasco where Dateline rigged an explosive fire in the gas tank of a GM pick up truck? It was a huge embarassment to Dateline, and they had to admit they rigged the truck, and apologized. Perhaps Dateline learned a lesson there, but to go so far as to use them as a resource, is to ignore the possibility of “editing” that skeptics love to refer to when talking about Crossing Over – even if they do ignore the fact that John works like and unedited in seminars in front of thousands of witnesses.
I don’t write any of this to convince anyone that John Edward is real or not. I write to show that Nickell and CSICOP have an agenda. In “Parapsychology: The Controversial Science”, by Richard S. Broughton, Ph.D., psychologist, scientist and former Director of Research at the world renowned Institute of Parapsychology, he relates a conversation between himself and the prior editor of CSICOP’s Magazine. The editor stated that their mission is not to investigate the possibility of paranormal activity but to “argue against it.”April 19, 2002 at 4:57 pm #76566
Laura Ballweg, A high school English teacher, and “former card carrying member of CSICOP” used the Dateline segment on John Edward to teach her young students a lesson in journalistic integrity:
Ballweg, Laura J, et al. Review of Dateline’s “Sixth Sense?” Nov. 25, 2000
(Ed: All quotes are taken from the segment being reviewed: Hockenberry, John; Deborah Trueman, Producer. “Sixth Sense?” Dateline, NBC, aired November 17, 2000.)
As a high school English teacher, I find myself using media as a starting point to encourage students to learn classical lessons in writing. When I came across Dateline’s trailer for a journalistic debate over After Death Communication with Crossing Over host/psychic John Edward, I made plans to record it for my classes. My original intent was to air the segment in class as an example of (pro-con) debate reporting; students were to watch the Dateline piece for equality in timing for debate, and especially for the type of questions each side received (the journalistic five W’s, the debate answer/ rebuttal). I asked a film student friend to record the report, as he had capabilities of recording the program with a recorder that shows by transcript splicing the copyediting done on the piece. The film student (a graduate assistant in copyediting) and a TV journalist friend (a reporter with a local news station since 1991) joined me, a writing and psychology teacher, in watching the segment. Of the three only I had any previous knowledge of John Edward, with my perception admittedly limited to a handful of Crossing Over episodes. Nevertheless, upon our first casual observation the errors in copyediting and nonsequitur questioning by the reporter warranted another look. In watching the segment, the misleading questioning to those being interviewed inhibits the ability of the viewer to make an unbiased decision about communicating with the dead. Below, originally class notes, is a revisited listing of those involved and our findings as to how they were misrepresented in Dateline’s segment.
Segment producer: The material presented in the segment is obsolete: Schwartz’s ongoing study that was partially published in June 2000 was “not complete” when the segment was filmed, Edward’s price has increased since filming, Edward’s SciFi show is only mentioned in the intro piece (obviously filmed after the rest of the segment). Also, large transcript files missing or not correlating to the splicing timeframes gives the appearance of hours of interviewing with John Edward; are we to assume that there were several questions that gave him creditability that were scrapped according to the producer’s ideals? Skeptic Joe Nickell is not given equal time against Edward and Schwartz, cameraman Tony Pagano is caught not only filming himself in a mirror (why?) but is filmed by another cameraman (why?) at the dance studio… well, the list continues.
John Hockenberry: His “statements” approach to all parties was intriguing and usually intelligent, as it allowed those interviewed to form their own answers. However, it is tantamount for the reporter to continue a line of questioning in a debate; Hockenberry’s approach was to repeat, not continue, his statements. Prime example: when Edward is approached on talking to Dateline’s cameraman before reading him, Hockenberry leads Edward to admit to the previous communication. However, instead of continuing the thread (“Have you read others you have previously spoken to?”), Hockenberry repeats his line: “You’ve spoken to him.” He then waits for an answer from Edward, and, receiving only a shrug, Hockenberry again repeats the same thread, causing confusion from Edward. In fact, Edward himself pushes the question, as if he is searching for an answer for Hockenberry: “(The cameraman) raised his hand- it made sense to him….” Least proficient on Hockenberry’s part, however, are his biased voiceovers, which dominate Edward’s and Schwartz’s minutes but, interestingly, not Nickell’s. With a twenty minute segment, Hockenberry’s commentary, such as “during this four, often tedious, hour session” and “skeptics can be a bit closed-minded” show an editorial view on the reporters’ part.
Dr. Gary Schwartz: He puts his research and the University of Arizona’s reputation on the line by crediting mediums with “outstanding” abilities. That could be a career-damaging affirmation: until another researcher revisits his experiments and validates them, his findings are virtually alone in their field. It is interesting that he does not receive the same chance to review Dateline’s taping of Edward’s session as Joe Nickell.
Joe Nickell: Mr. Nickell’s own foundation, the Center for Inquiry Institute, is never mentioned in the segment; perhaps he is unwilling to publicize it. Fortunately, he does present his commentary fluently, and could be a credit to skepticism if his 1998 CSICOP article, a rehashing of Cold Reading tenets from pages of the Spring/Summer 1977 issue of the unaccredited magazine Zetetic, were up-to-date with Dr. Schwartz’s university research. It just does not merit the same effectiveness, bearing Hockenberry’s titling of Edward as a “modern medium”.
CSICOP itself claims thousands of members, of which anyone can immediately join under the tenets that the group is not there to prove or disprove psychic abilities, “but to argue against them” (Skeptical Inquirer, see any issue). CSICOP’s Skeptical Inquirer is also not accredited by any institution or corporation, unlike Schwartz’s study, but funded by private donors. And for Mr. Nickell’s own cold reading references, the three critics viewing your commentary are not related to or friends with a Mary, July means nothing to any of us, nor do any of us wear rings or have a story about a family ring. Sorry.
The thirteen (although more in the room) people being read by Edward: Because little is known by the viewer about them other than what Dateline shows, we can only assume the following:
1. They paid to see a medium.
2. They did not know Dateline was going to be taping.
They have nothing to gain or lose by expressing validations or misses of Edward’s readings, making them credible witnesses. But if either assumption is wrong, Dateline has some explaining to do about their involvement in the session.
John Edward: Internationally known and accredited as a psychic/medium, Edward has everything to lose from bad press. Because of his popularity in the field, ADC (After Death Communication) would also be hard-hit were he convincingly proven a fraud. Premise is unlikely that even the coolest shyster would seek out a major network prime time debate, leaving two possibilities: either he is self-deluded or the real thing. Edward’s only flaw is his naiveté in interviewing: transcript times show hours of taping for his segments alone, and over three distinct periods of time (two from Dateline, the third a tape from the U of Arizona)—a PR director’s nightmare. It would seem that Edward would have had enough interviewing experience not to allow such an interview if he had something to hide—obviously he spent this exorbitant amount of time in order to open, not hide, himself from debate.
The most damaging content to Edward that Dateline could have found was his reading of cameraman Tony Pagano. It is intriguing, however, that in most of the Dateline interview Edward is wearing a tie, but when approached about Pagano’s reading the tie is gone and shirt button undone—a good sign that he had finished interviewing, perhaps even was previously experiencing ADC before taping this part of the segment (assuming he never wears ties while in such a state). Pagano (as previously mentioned) also curiously tapes himself in a mirror and is taped innocently by the other cameraman outside of the session, which is suspicious for a trained cameraman. Moreover, if Edward somehow culled enough information from Pagano for a cold reading, why would the cameraman (and Dateline for that matter) play along in front of a room of people?
Nevertheless, when asked about the incident, Edward’s facial expressions are consistent with being off guard, starting with confusion (Tony who? How am I supposed to remember everyone I read?), followed by disdain (I’m not going to change your mind no matter what I say) followed by composure (common practice for someone who has presumably met with this question before). In the debating field it is unofficially called “slamming the door”: if caught short in an argument you cannot win, you back off and wait for the next fight. Which, if Dateline is any measurement, Edward has met before and will meet again.
True, Dateline could not have shown every second they taped with everyone involved in the interview. As a news magazine, however, Dateline has the responsibility to equally show both sides of a topic in order to allow the viewer to judge for themselves which avenue they choose to accept. Judgment on Dateline’s part for this segment, however, was not reserved. Nor was it unnoticed. None of the three critics viewing Dateline’s “Sixth Sense?” segment were swayed by Hockenberry’s commentary. Neither were eighty high school journalism students. Informally polled in a writing assignment (11/21/00), not one of the students changed their beliefs about ADC because of the Dateline segment. In fact, more questioned Dateline’s journalistic integrity in reporting on past and future story assignments than in questioning Mr. Edward’s mediumship.
Can John Edward effectively communicate with the dead? Maybe. It seems, however, that the question posed on November 17, 2000, was not whether or not it was possible for Mr. Edward to communicate with those who have “crossed over”, but whether or not Dateline could communicate a journalistic debate with its viewers. For this reviewer, that debate is still unsolved.July 6, 2002 at 5:14 am #78370
Who can believe anything Nightline puts on the air? How many of us remember the GM truck fiasco that involved Nightline? Nighline has lost all crediblilty with me.
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