Topic: Media

Matt Lauer and the Medium: Accessory to Deception

One of the unsettling things about watching Paddy Cheyefsky’s 1976 classic film “Network” is the realization that much of what the film presented as satire then has become reality today. For example, the successful evening news show in “Network” included a regular segment featuring a psychic, as screenwriter Cheyefsky showed how all journalistic integrity had been sacrificed to sensationalism and ratings. And on November 16, 2006, “Today” host Matt Lauer delivered a fawning and completely uncritical interview of television medium Lisa Williams, star of the cable TV show “Life Among the Dead,” who claims to “see dead people.” Lauer described her abilities as “jaw-dropping,” but what was truly jaw-dropping was the spectacle of a venerated NBC morning news show’s anchor appearing to accept as fact a woman’s claim to the kind of supernatural abilities that have been thoroughly debunked for more than a century.

Serious investigators into supposed paranormal abilities have essentially given up hope of finding genuine psychics, mediums, and telepaths. Taking their inspiration from the magazine Scientific American, which once offered a cash prize to any person whose supernatural skills could pass a series of tests administered by, among others, Harry Houdini, many organizations offer significant monetary incentives for psychics and mediums to prove that their abilities are real. Prime among these is the foundation established by magician James Randi, which offers one million dollars “to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power.” Lisa Williams and others of her ilk seldom submit themselves to legitimate scientific scrutiny because they can make millions fooling gullible marks like Lauer and risk losing it all if they are exposed as frauds. This was the fate that befell every world-acclaimed, “jaw-dropping” psychic who tried to convince Houdini and the rest of the Scientific American panel in the 1920s. Why risk exposure when the same journalist whom NBC assigns to interview politicians and world leaders will tell its audience of millions that he believes you when you tell him, as Williams did on the air, that a ghost is standing next to him?

Lauer’s conduct, not to mince words, was embarrassing and disgraceful. Mediums and psychics scam millions of people out of millions of dollars every year, aided and abetted by television shows like “Medium” and “The Ghost Whisperer,” which present characters with paranormal abilities as heroes who can solve crimes, heal broken psyches, and prevent disasters. Yes: these shows and others are self-evidently fiction and entertainment, and it is not the fault of the producers that many Americans still regard them as mirroring truth. But Lauer is supposed to be a journalist. His job is to apply his skills as a journalist to report facts, challenge deception and uncover truth. Instead, he used his credibility to support the most incredible of claims, without a smidgeon of actual evidence and in defiance of science, logic, and history.

Some transgressions of journalistic ethics are so serious that they forfeit an individual’s right to be called a journalist at all. Lauer actually had the gall to make the distinction between himself and “skeptics and cynics” regarding Williams’ powers, when it is he, as a journalist, who is obligated by his profession to be the skeptic, and to insist on separating fact from opinion, self-promotion, and fiction. Williams said that she sees and talks to dead people; she also claims that her son has “healing hands.” That was good enough for Matt Lauer, and it is likely to be good enough for many of the millions who trust the Today hosts; remember that his partner, Katie Couric, moved directly into the news anchor’s chair at CBS. Lauer didn’t challenge or investigate a likely instance of public deception; instead, he endorsed and participated in it.

As the subject matter of this deception is ghosts and messages from beyond the grave, this marks him as a fool. It also marks him as a pseudo-journalist unworthy of respect or public trust.

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