Mass Media Funk is a commentary on mass media stories about the scientific, the paranormal, the supernatural, and anything else that yanks at my eyebrows.

Robert Todd Carroll

©copyright 2007





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October 25, 2001. This was a good week for skepticism in the media. Last Saturday the Sacramento Bee's Jennifer Garza did a piece on firewalking that noted the severe burns several participants walked away with, comforted perhaps by inane comments such as "I'm a Leo and I love fire" or "I love the idea of defying logic." Saturday evening, firewalking and other physical feats were discussed on "Science Mysteries: Physical Feats" shown on the Discovery Channel. This was in part a rehash of the film "Guru Busters," which followed members of the Indian Rationalist Association (IRA) as they go from village to village pretending to be godmen or fakirs. The IRA considers the godmen to be frauds who use trickery, legerdemain, conjuring, deceit, and other unfair means of convincing ignorant villagers that they possess miraculous powers. Some of the godmen gain international reputations like Sai Baba, but most make a living from the offerings of villagers. The IRA firewalk and explain anyone can do it without a need for supernatural intervention. They walk on glass, lay on nails, pull cars with hooks poked through the flesh on their backs, jab long needles through their cheeks and tongues, etc. The goal of the IRA is to debunk the godmen and reduce superstition among their countrymen and women. They are obviously having some notable success, for the Indian media consult them regularly.

Another part of the "Physical Feats" program dealt with Tibetan Buddhist monks who can raise the temperature of their hands and feet by 15 degrees through “tummo”, a kind of meditation, thereby enabling them to spend the night meditating outside in subzero weather. Martial arts masters also demonstrated amazing physical powers at smashing pieces of wood or concrete with their hands, feet, or shins. Some of these feats are truly difficult and require years of training and discipline, but they do not seem to be necessarily connected to anything spiritual.

Finally, NOVA's program on "Secrets of the Mind" was excellent. V. S. Ramachandran's work on the brain, based on patients with blindsight, phantom limb pain, anosognosia, and temporal lobe epilepsy. The latter case was the most interesting for skeptics, since it involved a young man who was having religious ecstasies because of his epilepsy. Ramachandran thinks that the part of the brain that identifies objects of experience as significant goes haywire in the religious experience so that everything from a grain of sand to a spider's web to spindrift blowing on the surface of the ocean become imbued with significance. Ramachandran's Phantoms in the Brain : Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind (with Sandra Blakeslee) (Quill, 1999) discusses these fascinating cases and offers a glimpse into the nature of consciousness. The NOVA program also brought home the dilemma of treating someone whose disorder has the pleasant side effect of making him feel omnipotent and omniscient.

October 17, 2001. Eileen McNamara of the Boston Globe reports on the latest anthrax terrorist attacks in the United States, only she notes that the attacks have been going on for three years with no arrests having been made and no public furor over the attacks. Why? Because the anthrax scares have been made against abortion providers. According to McNamara,"110 letters claiming to be laced with deadly bacteria....arrived at abortion clinics in 13 states this week....Since 1998, mail purporting to be laced with anthrax has been delivered to clinics in 16 states." The campaign of terror against the abortion clinics has gone virtually unnoticed by the press and the government. It certainly hasn't received the attention that attacks on the press and the government have received.

Gloria Feldt, the president of Planned Parenthood, notes that dealing with the terrorist threat of anthrax contamination has been a way of life at abortion clinics for several years. They have developed several protocols for dealing with the threat. She called Tom Ridge, our new director of Homeland Security, to offer him some tips. I wonder if he'll call her back? Probably right after John Ashcroft expresses his disgust at the terrorism.

McNamara's article is a reminder that America has its own religious fanatics who believe terror and murder are justified if done in the name of God. In its trademark blasphemous way, the Onion has jackhammered home the same message: the American Taliban's effort to rid the world of "evildoers" by terror and murder is wrong. Jesus is depicted as a pro-life terrorist who opens fire in an abortion clinic. The image is so startling that it may stifle the obvious message: Jesus wouldn't approve such evil.

Neither would Mohammed and neither should our government. Perhaps now is the time to deal with these evildoers at home. Make no mistake about it. We need to smoke them out and bring them to justice.

October 3, 2001. There was a full moon last night and nothing much happened out of the ordinary. In fact, the week has been fairly typical on the lunacy front. Amway lost a court appeal with Proctor and Gamble over rumors spread by several Amway agents that their competitor is run by a group of devil worshippers. The Amway people claimed they were just exercising their First Amendment free speech rights when they spread false rumors about P & G's logo being a sign of Satan, who is worshipped at P & G. A lower court had ruled that lying to hurt the competition isn't protected speech and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed by refusing to hear and making no comment on Amway's appeal. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that speech is not protected by the First Amendment if the "speakers' motives in spreading the Satanism rumor were economic."

Some twenty years ago, several of Amway's devoted distributors began spreading the lie that the man in the moon used by P & G in their logo is actually Satan. The rumors included a claim that the president of P & G had gone public by announcing on a television show that he worshipped Satan. The absurdity of such a claim was matched by the zeal with which Amway evangelists spread the good news. In the beginning, Amway Corporation maintained that the rumors were the work of a few bad apples, but in the end the corporation was the one making the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Amway claims it has spent over $30 million in legal fees on the matter. Several lawsuits were filed against Amway (now called Alticor) in the 1980s and the last one was settled in 1991, but apparently several more bad apples revived the rumors in 1995 after a zealous distributor used the company voice mail system to revive them.

Amway must have been especially disappointed that the Supreme Court would not hear their appeal. They had hired Ken Starr to defend them.

The Scientologists have their oven coven of lawyers, so they don't need Ken Starr, but they too were turned away by the Supreme Court this week. Ten years ago they sued Time magazine for libel because of an article entitled "Scientology: The Cult of Greed," which called Scientology a "ruthless global scam." A lower court had ruled that the article wasn't written with malice, so it wasn't libelous under the law. The Supreme Court must have agreed for they refused to hear Scientology's appeal.

On another equally loony front, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was back in the news with a plea for wealthy Americans to send him one billion dollars so he can build facilities for a gathering of 40,000 yogic flyers who will bring world peace by bouncing around together in his compound in India. He believes that if enough people hop while seated in the lotus position, they will create a force field that can repel hatred and spread happiness in the world's collective consciousness. His belief is based upon many years of sitting on his butt and thinking about this in his hut.

The Maharishi is the one who turned on the Beatles to the good life after introducing them to Transcendental Meditation®. Reciting a mantra he has been using for many years, the Yogi was quoted as saying: "If I had the support of money, I have all that is needed to ... completely stop all this violence." It is rumored that the Beatles originally planned to call their hit tune "All you need is money," but their guru convinced them that love would be easier to sell.

The absurdity is that the Maharishi has already collected $40 million from benefactors according to Mario Orsatti, a spokesman for the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfax, Iowa.

Finally, there was some news about religion and how many people were turning to God after September 11th. In addition to the Scientological vultures mentioned below, reports that "Within two hours of the attacks, the American Tract Society had begun designing a new pamphlet advertising their faith in light of the tragedy. Robert Briggs of the American Bible Society said his privately funded group had published a booklet of tragedy-relevant scriptures and hymns within two days of the attacks and has since distributed more than 600,000 copies of the booklet." Where others see obstacles, some see opportunities. "This is a ripe opportunity for hope," said Reverend Trevon Gross of the American Bible Society in his Manhattan office. "We are not trying to capitalize on this tragedy, we just want to share in the strength of hope." Right. In any case, the horror of September 11th has given America's Taliban an excuse to pray at public school football games, post the Ten Commandments in courthouses, and rant and rail about our secular ways. It is amazing that these moral busybodies and their minions can't see that the America they want to create already exists in places like Afghanistan. "I think you're going to see more Americans not putting up with those secularists trying to make the public square a religion-free zone,'' said Richard D. Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. I think Mr. Land's prophecy is a safe one. It is going to be a rough road ahead for atheists and agnostics, and for organizations such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Red River Freethinkers. The utter emptiness of theism has been exposed as mass murderers claim they are serving God by their actions, preachers claim God is punishing people by acts of terror, and the hope peddlers swoop in to claim terror is God's way of bringing out the good in those who survive. How anyone can worship a God that they think had anything at all to do with September 11th is something I will never fathom.

To be fair, it is not just the militant Christian fundamentalists that are the card-carrying members of the American Taliban: the deluded patriots who are attacking anyone who doesn't look "American" enough to them are also in this clan. It is not just American Muslims who are in danger of being attacked by these self-anointed ethnic cleansers. Locally, these militant foot-soldiers for America's jihad have attacked and terrorized not only Arab-Americans but Hindu-Americans, Sikh-Americans and Mexican-Americans. President Bush has condemned these attacks, but some people ignore anyone who disagrees with them. They follow their own law. Or worse, they think they are entitled to do what they do because they have been chosen to enforce what they think is God's law.
[thanks to Joe Littrell]

September 19, 2001. Scientology, based on Lafayette Ronald Hubbard's Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (1950) has been waging a war against psychiatry for years. Several years ago I received in the mail a magazine called "Psychiatry - Destroying Religion" with a sidebar in large red capitals that read "Creating Evil."  A menacing, fanged snake with forked tongue protruding and body coiled around a cross stares out from the cover, which has a notice claiming the magazine was "published as a public service by the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR)." There is even a seal for this organization printed above the notice. The truth is that the magazine and the CCHR are the work of Scientology. The only religion Scientology cares about is Scientology. Unlike other religions, Scientology claims it knows the cause and cure of all mental and physical disorders. Mental Health professionals, therefore, are seen as competitors. Like many other religions, unfortunately, Scientology would like to rid the world of its competitors. Hence, the war against psychiatry.

Deception is one of their tactics in this and all their other wars. For example, they managed to harass through lawsuits and then buy in bankruptcy court an organization (Cult Awareness Network) that tried to help people whose loved ones had joined cults. They not only then got access to all the records of this organization, they now work the phones and manage and direct all incoming calls.

After the mass murders on September 11th, Scientologist somehow got the Fox network to post a phone number to their organization, only the phone number was said to be that of National Mental Health Assistance. People were apparently encouraged to call the number for psychological counseling. The number? 800-FOR-TRUTH. I wish this were false, but it isn't.

For more information on other devious tactics used by Scientology to recruit new members during this time of crisis see Rod Keller's page on Scientology.

further reading on Scientology

August 10, 2001.  James Taranto's columns ("Best of the Web," The Wall Street Journal) for July 23, 2001, July 24, 2001 and August 6, 2001 took the mass media, particularly Fox News, to task for their junk journalism concerning the Chandra Levy missing person case. No, he didn't criticize Hannity of Hannity and Colmes or Geraldo Rivera for smooching up to some pseudojournalist from the National Enquirer because that beacon of investigative fiction was able to find Darrell Wayne Condit. The hype was that that the Enquirer did what the FBI couldn't do: find a fugitive. This so-called fugitive had an outstanding warrant for violating his probation for a drunken driving conviction, not a very high priority item. Only the stars of cable news and the Enquirer would think it important to locate Gary Condit's younger brother because only they would assume the congressman must be involved in the young woman's disappearance and may have hired his "criminal" brother to eliminate her. (Hannity and Rivera reminded me of Dan Rather's fulsome praise of Larry King's interrogation methods while being interviewed by a fawning, softball-lobbing King.)

No, Taranto didn't mess with this side of trash journalism. He was upset because Fox News was interviewing psychics Sylvia Browne and James Van Praagh in their quest to discover what happened to Levy. They both say she's dead. Van Praagh claims she was strangled and all but implicated the congressman as the strangler, which Taranto found to be "the most outrageous example of journalistic irresponsibility we've seen in a long time." Taranto was especially displeased with Judith Regan who gave Van Praagh the forum for his "occult claptrap." Says Taranto: "Regan acted as if it's a matter of dispute whether the proclamations of the charlatans who call themselves 'psychics' are legitimate news. She began her show by reading four letters from readers cheering Fox on for putting 'psychics' on the air, and two letters from critics." The old "majority of satisfied customers" test is well-established in alternative medicine, so why not in alternative journalism?! Then she brought on another "psychic," John Monti, "who offered his own crackpot theories about what happened to Chandra."

Taranto also criticized Paula Zahn for consulting "spiritual medium Rosemary Altea" and  "world-renowned psychic Sylvia Browne" for her news shows on July 12th and 17th, respectively. Zahn did a follow-up, asking whether she went too far in consulting psychics (as if there should be any doubt in the mind of a "real" journalist). 

The last of the Fox News stalwarts denigrated by Taranto was Bill O'Reilly who interviewed "handwriting expert and psychic Paula Roberts." Comments Taranto: "O'Reilly--normally a swaggering skeptic who calls his program "the no-spin zone"--was so ovine in his credulity that we expected him to sprout wool."

The New York Times, which recently (July 22, 2001) ran feature articles on "psychic consultants" who claim to communicate with animals telepathically and on John Edward ("the Oprah of the other side"), had the chutzpah to criticize Fox News (July 30, 2001) for its psychic endeavors. The NYT also took to task Larry King for his panel of experts who evaluated Congressman Condit's facial expressions. King, of course, regularly schedules psychics for his "panels" of experts on the topic du jour. I'm surprised he hasn't yet featured Miss Cleo on one of his expert panels. Maybe she could use the money since her company's psychic hotline was recently fined $75,000 for violating Missouri's no-call law.

It is comforting to know that not everyone in the mass media has gone mad. James Taranto is a refreshing voice in the wasteland of what passes for journalism these days.

Another light in the dark is Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, who writes: "Bill Shine, executive producer of prime-time programming, says psychics are 'part of the story' because the Levy family has consulted some. 'We've just put them on to get another opinion, another side of the story,' he says, adding that other guests have criticized psychics as not credible. Shine concedes he's worried about Fox's image and 'that's why we don't go overboard with it.' What a relief."

I can understand reporting that the Levy family has consulted psychics, but I don't understand how you get from there to the conclusion that therefore psychics are part of the story and can legitimately be consulted for their opinions. Must be some sort of alternative logic at work here.
[thanks to Joe Littrell & Barry Karr]





©copyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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