Larry King and the Paranormal

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Cable News Network calls itself “The Most Trusted Name In News.” One of  CNN’s best rated shows, the award-winning “Larry King Live,” has contributed to that trust with candid interviews of such prominent guests as Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Vladimir Putin, Jimmy Carter and Margaret Thatcher, as well as by hosting the memorable 1993 debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot.

     But host Larry King has undermined the impact of those interviews by also repeatedly inviting a motley collection of UFO enthusiasts, paranormalists, seers and mediums to his show. Writing in the current issue of Skeptical Inquirer, columnist Chris Mooney pulls no punches. “CNN may be a respected news network,” he says, “but in its irresponsible presentation of paranormal topics and themes, ‘Larry King Live’ compromises that reputation.”

     What apparently set Mooney off was a show this summer that King claimed would explore “the incredible events of fifty-six years ago at Roswell, New Mexico.” His guests included the same group of eccentrics, publicity seekers and losers who for decades have been living off the legend that an spacecraft crashed near Roswell, that bodies of little aliens were found and spirited away by sinister Federal agents and that the that Feds ever since have been guilty of a monumental cover-up.

       The show also included video clips from a TV production entitled “The Roswell Crash: Startling New Evidence,” aired earlier on The Sci-Fi Channel, which is best known for programs containing little Sci and an abundance of Fi. Notably absent from “Larry King Live” were any officials or scientists who could have presented evidence that the wreckage at Roswell was that of a secret (at the time) Project Mogul balloon designed to gather evidence of Soviet nuclear tests. Indeed, none of King’s guests took issue with the “little aliens” theme.

        King has devoted other uncritical programs to UFOs and little aliens. But his greatest transgressions have involved literally dozens of shows devoted entirely to “psychics” and spiritualists like Sylvia Browne, who claims the gifts of psychically locating the bodies of missing people, predicting the future, and seeing angel wings on some people. (She told King that he had four such wings). Another frequent guest is John Edward, who uses magicians’ “cold reading” and other trick techniques to buffalo audiences into believing that he is a go-between for people wishing to contact deceased loved ones who have “crossed over.” Wendy Whitworth, senior executive producer of "Larry King Live," downplays the appearance of off-the-wall guests. "Over the course of 2003," she says, "fewer than two percent of our original shows have bee devoted to the paranormal. That represents a very small slice of a very large and diverse programming palette." 

       True, King occasionally, but rarely, includes skeptics to counter the claims of his wafty guests. (In fact, I was invited to appear on one show featuring the trio of Browne, Edward and another well-known psychic, James Van Praagh, and I characterized what they do as “baloney.”). But invariably, the featured guests, spinning their fantasies, are given more air time than afforded to the skeptics.

       Does Larry King really believe the nonsense spewed by his far-out guests? When asked that question by Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, King replied, “For the most part, I’m a skeptic, like you.” Then why does King seem so credulous and approving when his guests utter sheer nonsense?

       I have a suggestion for CNN. Why not launch a show, along the lines of “Crossfire,” that would pit skeptics against paranormalists, giving each side equal time for rebuttals? The friction would be monumental, the rational case could be made, and the network could restore some of the credibility — and trust — lost by Larry King’s occasional forays into the supernatural.