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For What It’s Worth

Mark Edward

Skeptical Briefs Volume 26.4, Winter 2016/2017

I’m always happy to talk to anyone who will listen to a rational interpretation or my particular opinion on what’s paranormal and what’s not. I have worked hard for over thirty-five years to get to this precarious little plateau. Lately, I’m being a lot more choosey about who, for, where, and when I doit. This is unfortunate. I’ve spent a considerable amount of my life searching out and performing experiences that defy critical thinking. That’s been my job as a magician and mentalist: to create these kinds of interludes, package them for consumption by the masses, and reap the meager benefits of doing so.

Along the way, I’ve grown accustomed to people asking, “How did you do that?” So much so that while researching for my book Psychic Blues, I learned not to offer any explanations. People deeply involved with psychic matters (and consequently themselves) aren’t interested in facts—they want the magic to be real. Even with a rational explanation, many preferred to think of me as “Poor Mark, he’s really quite mediumistic, but he just can’t handle it yet.”

Well, “yet” came and went twenty-five years ago.

We have reached a point in the media and society where the same is true. Years of X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and now decades of reality-show ghost hunters have left in their wake a whole generation of “paranormal investigators” who offer their services to opine and freely supply their interpretations of any event they can’t understand. Rationally speaking, there’s not much we can do about this; because such things as ghosts and poltergeists have yet to be quantified as anything science can measure, this “anything goes” strategy leaves the door open for any television reality programming to basically seek out anyone who has a black t-shirt and a flashlight.

These homegrown “experts” frequently arrive on the scene young and fresh-faced with little or no training in criminology, psychology, or the techniques of deception. This is especially true in the area of self-deception.

It’s certainly possible I may be self-deceived in my own thinking, but I have the backing of evidentiary science to back my views. Science is all we have unless you choose to go backward in time or become mired in theology. Peer reviewed professional papers and journals don’t get peer reviewed if they reek of self-deception. That’s why they are peer reviewed.

Part of this instilled paranoia is an outgrowth of the well-known distrust of the scientific method and the mad scientist trope about out of control materialism creating monsters and atom bombs. Even “conspiracy theories” are now conspiracy theories. Yes, I know we don’t know everything through science, and please don’t trot out that tired “. . . more things in heaven and Earth Horatio” quote again. I’m sick to death of it.

I get that.

Problem is, the very people who should be thinking things through and applying science get away with making the most outrageous “sciencey” sounding claims that by and large most media reporters fall hook, line, and sinker for. News people seldom care or have time to research past their own noses. I recently had an investigative reporter for Inside Edition seriously ask me this question after watching mentalist Oz Pearlman on America’s Got Talent, “. . . You mean he really isn’t reading minds?” I was speechless for a stage beat or two.

So now we come to the crunch. These so-called experts with their flashlights and ghost-breaking toys have become the go-to people! Since they haven’t reached a point where they have a book, peer reviewed paper, agent, or any visible means of credibility, they are hungry for every bit of media attention they can grab.

The media knows this and so drags out a roast beef sandwich on a string in front of whoever they can get to show up for free. Don’t kid yourself; the same savvy media people also know that people who speak the truth (or what science and rational thinking tends to point to) are too busy actually out there in the real world making a difference (and a living) to bother with being the lone voice of critical thinking in the present day sea of shell games and con-artistry. Consequently, those die-hard paranormal seekers will gladly speak their minds for free. I can’t tell you how many times I have been contacted and promised a “great piece of tape” or “massive exposure.” I don’t want to sound too braggadocio—but I have a whole shelf of “exposure.”

The media in America don’t seem to have the time or inclination to ask the big questions. They seek the gloss and sell the soap flakes. They know where the ratings are and that’s all they care about. This situation is deplorable, but all we have to do is look at “Dr. Phil” and his tacit acceptance of all things psychic while at the same time paying lip service to reality by frequently announcing he’s the “biggest skeptic out there” to see which way the wind is blowing.

Without going into too many details, I have had very bad experiences with the media because I was often too anxious to please them and leapt without looking into the who, what, and where of the direction the editors were going to tilt the material.

Even if and when you get paid, interviewees or on-screen performers never get any “editorial privilege” in these types of programs unless they are a Bill Cosby or Bill Clinton. The snippets cut-to-fit are usually brief, subject to out-of-context editing, and completely out of the performer’s control.

When I made an agreement back in 1997 to appear on NBC’s Secrets of the Psychics Revealed I was verbally guaranteed I would not be shown on camera doing the “secret move” allowing me to predict in advance a random audience created number. They showed it. I had nothing in writing and no editorial privilege. This national appearance nearly destroyed my magic career. I was tarred and feathered as an “exposer.” I still get flack for my part in it from mentalists around the world. Obviously, if I had known how things were going to be edited going in, I would have backed out. Yes, I got paid. But it wasn’t worth it in the long run. Pick your battles. . . .

Nowadays, I tend to ask for a lot up front and see what I can get in a “package” deal. That’s showbiz, folks. I guarantee: If you don’t ask, you won’t get paid. Even if you hold your ground and (thanks to people like Susan Gerbic) have a decent Wiki page or some previous solid creds, you are likely to be asked by a twenty-something apprentice who generally doesn’t know squat about anything and has been solely tasked to find out how hungry you are, to do it “for exposure.”

If you ask out front for a fee, you risk the chance of no call back or when pressed, hear the oft quoted phrase a few days later: “We have decided to go in another direction.” I have been met with this same Hollywood utterance after punching great holes in more than few ill-advised adventures into vampires, ghosts, and leprechauns as well.

On the other hand, professional organizations and big time news operations who recognize when they are dealing with a reliable source will gladly offer travel expenses, accommodation, and a per diem plus a customary consultant fee. This should be the rule and not the exception. While this sort of deal is of course negotiable, if you don’t ask, they won’t offer either.

These groups are generally asking for more than a five-second sound bite and have a level of class not normally on view in shows such as Nancy Grace or Inside Edition. Local news shows are a lost cause financially. If you can work it to your advantage, go for it. You get to know the situation in the first two or three minutes of phone conversation. It’s akin to doing a psychic reading. You learn to listen, stay chill, and wait for the pertinent facts to emerge.

People crave entertainment, not necessarily the truth, facts, or reality. A “reality” television program is anything but that. It’s a performance piece with no sets, no actors, no real writers, and very little direction. They “wing-it.” The producers get off dirt cheap. So why should they even consider paying anybody? And what happens with those voices who speak for rational thinking? Unless you have a contract, agent, or written deal, we fade into the background. Dare I say that truth is expensive?

We have a glut of non-information. Most of it coming from people who have a proprietary interest in self-promoting garbage they may even consciously know to be false. I see these misguided, “sciencey” ne’er-do-wells as a problem that’s only going to get worse.

Do we care?

Unless the public demands true parity and a fact-based both-sides-of-every-story approach, this trend of woefully un-educated gasbags will eventually become the norm. Talk show hosts are not educators. Political pundits are not engineers. We are being served the whole picture upside-down. Look at the recent Brian Williams fiasco, Fox News, and Trump. America is buying into lies, blatant deceit, and those who pander to it. We are already bearing the brunt of our willful ignorance in countries across the world. Now we get most of our hard news from comedians. We have to weed through our tendency to be entertained and intellectually do the math to come out with anything substantial.

After the past few months of reaching my limit with this unfortunate direction, I for one am going to be a lot more careful and cautious with any media attention I might attract, and this is sad.

I’m overexposed.

Mark Edward

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Mark Edward is a professional mentalist who specializes in magic of the mind. His book "Psychic Blues" cracked open the crystal ball on the psychic business and has been described by Mark Oppenheimer at The New York Times Review of Books: "Mr. Edward is staking his claim to belong to a very special subcategory of magicians and mediums: those who both perform their crafts and debunk them. From Harry Houdini to James (the Amazing) Randi and the duo of Penn and Teller, there is a long tradition of magicians who believe that it is their duty to inculcate skepticism in the audience." Mark is recognized for his television work as both primary consultant and on-air performer most recently in episodes of "Weird or What?," "Brain Games," "Nancy Grace." "ITV This Morning" and "Inside Edition." In addition to working with Inside Edition's Lisa Guerrero in 2012 to expose "Long Island Medium" Theresa Caputo, he recently completed another "Inside Edition" assigment with Guerrero on how psychics can easily convince us they are "reading minds" and be so accurate airing in April, 2016.