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Talking to Heaven Through Television

Generation sXeptic

Matt Nisbet

March 13, 2001

How the Mass Media Package and Sell Psychic Medium John Edward

CNN’s Larry King Live is just the most recent example of the mass media’s package and sale of John Edward and other psychics. Spirit mediums have emerged as top-grossing media personalities, the result of a synergy between recent trends in the media industry, and a likely increased public appetite for “crossing over."

"Gifted” Psychic Showman John Edward

John Edward speaks to dead people, or so he claims. According to the official bio on Edward’s Web site, “John exhibited psychic abilities from an extremely early age, and was deemed ‘special’ by many in his family.” Born and raised in Long Island, apparently no one in Edward’s family made a “fuss” over his abilities, as Edward took up the habit of divining family history or events that took place before his birth. After college, Edward worked in the health care industry, and as a dance instructor, but according to his bio “due to the large demand for his time and ability, John now devotes his time to pursuing his psychic work full time."

For Edward, “full time psychic work” translates into lectures and seminars across the country, and appearances on various afternoon television talk shows where he promotes his books including One Last Time, a “non-fiction” treatise on his abilities, and his new novel What if God Were the Sun?, an “account of a family that weathers tragedy, bonds together, and passes on healing messages of love from generation to generation."

In July 2000, The Sci Fi Channel premiered Crossing Over with John Edward. The typical format for the half-hour program features fast-talking Edward in a darkened amphitheater, surrounded by risers packed with audience members. As various investigators have observed, Edward walks around the enclosure, pointing his attention to different sections of 20 or so audience members at a time, throwing out fast successions of general and random statements like “I’m getting something about a George over here. I don’t know what this means. George could be someone who passed over, he could be someone here, he could be someone that you know,” and then turning to focus on individuals that respond to Edward’s guesswork by nodding their heads, breaking out in tears, or raising their hands in excitement (Shermer 2001).

Edward’s psychic shtick is nothing new. He is the latest in a century-and-a-half lineage of full-time flamboyants that have laid claim to spirit communication, ranging from the nineteenth-century rappings of the Fox sisters to present-day media celebrities Rosemary Altea, Sylvia Browne, and James Van Praagh. But what is unique about Edward is that he has emerged as the right kind of psychic, in the right place, at the right time.

Part of Edward’s current success may be attributable to an apparent increase in public fascination with spirit communication over the past several years. A Gallup survey conducted in 1996 indicated that 20% of Americans believe that it is possible to communicate with the dead, while another 23% are unsure about the possibility. There is a significant gender difference on the topic, with 24% of women indicating belief in comparison to 16% of men. There are also differences across religious affiliations, as 27% of Catholics believe in spirit communication in comparison to 16% of Protestants and 9% of Jews (Gallup 1996).

"Without a doubt, visiting spirit mediums is becoming amazingly popular,” author Cathy Cash Spellman told the New York Times last October (La Ferla 2000). Spellman’s novel Bless the Child, about a girl with psychic abilities, was released as a film with the same title by Paramount this past fall. Panned by critics, the film grossed a disappointing $30 million. Bless the Child, however, was the second major film featuring psychic mediums over the past two years. Walt Disney’s Sixth Sense, starring Bruce Willis as a child psychologist who administers to a boy traumatized by visions of dead people, grossed an extraordinary $300 million in 1999.

Spellman attributes spirit medium popularity to a growing public embrace of the New Age. “We live in a world where many people have an acupuncturist, understand that there is energy, and practice the martial arts. People are so much more open minded about the unseen” (La Ferla 2000).

While a trend among the general American public is difficult to assess because of an absence of relevant polling data gathered since 1996, some observe that spirit mediumship has captured the fascination of the trendy urban elite. “Quite a lot of people in the fashion world are paying visits to people they have lost,” Nadine Johnson, a New York publicist, told the New York Times. “ I wouldn’t call it booming, but it’s harder to get appointments with mediums these days, so you know the business has increased tremendously. To hear it from the people I know, mediums are a hotter commodity than the Prada bowling bag” (La Ferla 2000).

So what is it about Edward that allows him to capitalize on a possible growing public appetite for his claimed abilities over other more established psychic mediums? For one, Edward as television show host holds certain personality and stylistic traits that lend advantages over contemporaries Van Praagh and Browne. Edward exhibits greater personal and physical charisma than the rotund and twitchy Van Praagh. He also doesn't attempt the arcane mysticism that typifies Browne. Instead, Edward offers audiences a brand of psychic “street smarts.” To get a sense of his appeal, imagine a Brooklyn taxi cab driver who can channel your dead relatives. Or as one journalist observed of Edward’s Crossing Over routine, “He’s like a psychic short-order cook, barking out personal messages then moving on to the next person” (Browne 2001).

In terms of technique differences between Edward and Van Praagh, one critic estimates Van Praagh’s hit rate at between 20 to 30 percent, while Edward only scores 10 to 20 percent of the time. What Edward lacks in accuracy, however, he makes up for in sheer volume of guesses. After a recent analysis conducted in conjunction with ABC News, the consulting skeptic wrote in an e-mail commentary that “the advantage Edward has over Van Praagh is his verbal alacrity. Van Praagh is Ferrari fast, but Edward is driving an Indy-500 racer. In the opening minute of the first reading captured on film by the ABC camera, I counted over one statement per second (ABC was allowed to film in the control room under the guise of filming the hardworking staff, and instead filmed Edward on the monitor in the raw). Think about that—in one minute Edward riffles through 60 names, dates, colors, diseases, conditions, situations, relatives, and the like” (Shermer 2001).

Appearing five days a week, the Sci Fi Channel’s Crossing Over follows on the success of the television talk-show format that includes programs like Oprah, Leeza, Sally, and Montel, all of which have packaged and sold New Age self-help. Crossing Over also mimics the more recent success of unscripted television programs like MTV’s The Real World and CBS’ Survivor. For the producers of Crossing Over, the situation is ideal. Edward is the only actor on the payroll, the producers don’t have to worry about employing writers, and they don’t have to hassle with booking guests.

Since its premiere, Crossing Over has increased Sci Fi Channel ratings 33% over the same time period for the previous year, to a daily average of 533,000 households. The program is also attracting more female viewers to the network’s traditionally male-dominated audience. While women generally make up 45% of the network’s audience, Crossing Over’s audience is comprised of 60% women (Brown 2001).

The popularity of Crossing Over, combined with Edwards’ well-oiled publicity machine, and the corresponding media attention across entertainment and news media outlets have made Edward’s One Last Time a national best-seller. In order to measure a possible correlation between media coverage of Edward and sales of his book, I ran the keywords “John Edward” and “psychic or medium” through the Lexis-Nexis Universe database. My search identified for the past year the population of articles featuring Edward that appeared in major U.S. newspapers, and the population of relevant transcripts from major national television news programs, talk shows, or large media market local newscasts. The results provide an indicator of the amount of media attention to Edward across time. I also tallied the average position for each month that Edward’s One Last Time appeared on the New York Times' weekly paperback non-fiction bestseller list, providing a less precise, indirect measure of book sales.

Figure 1 indicates that a spike in Edward’s media profile over the past year precedes each of One Last Time’s sales jumps. For example, after an increase in both print and television attention in July 2000, One Last Time appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for the first time. Later, after a major media blitz during the month of November, including appearances by Edward on NBC’s Today Show, CBS’ This Morning, and NBC Dateline, One Last Time jumped for the month of December to its highest best-seller position to date. The pattern of increased media attention preceding a jump on the best-seller list occurred again for the months January to February 2001.

figure 1

Figure 1. Relationship between media coverage of John Edward and sales of Crossing Over

Journalist-Skeptic Leon Jaroff

John Edward’s emergence on the public and media agenda has not gone without strong criticism from skeptics. Over the past two years, both Paul Kurtz (2000) and Joe Nickell (1998a; 1998b) of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) have critiqued Edward and other psychic mediums in articles published in Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and in press releases or public statements. In covering Edward, however, many mass media reporters have either favored the norm of “journalistic balance” in their coverage, or have honored the American media tradition of uncritical coverage of topics related to religion. The result has been a serious failure on the part of journalists to question Edward’s claims.

Enter veteran science writer Leon Jaroff. “Clairvoyants who claim to communicate with the dead—and warnings not to listen to them—go back at least as far as the Old Testament, yet psychics continue to flourish in back parlors and storefronts across America,” wrote Jaroff in his lead to a March 6 Time magazine feature. “None today is better known or more listened to than John Edward, a fast-talking former ballroom-dancing instructor who is cleaning up on his proclaimed ability ‘to connect with energies of people who have crossed over.’ Died, that is” (Jaroff 2001).

Jaroff is one of America’ senior science journalists. Named Time magazine’s chief science reporter in 1969, Jaroff has won numerous awards for coverage ranging from space exploration to anthropology. In 1980, Jaroff became the founding managing editor of Discover magazine, and like many science writers of his generation, he exhibits in his reporting a strong enthusiasm and appreciation for the scientific paradigm. A long time fellow of CSICOP and friend of magician James Randi, Jaroff has reported on several controversies related to the paranormal and the pseudoscientific, including Randi’s efforts to expose psychic Uri Geller.

Therefore, for Jaroff, Edward’s performances were less than remarkable, and merited critical coverage. In the Time magazine article, Jaroff explained Edward’s “psychic” success as a likely result of two very earthly techniques. First, there was the old fortuneteller’s technique of “cold reading,” a succession of quick generalizations about individual audience members made by Edward that were meant to elicit a response, followed by a series of educated guesses based on demographics. Second, there was what Jaroff referred to as a “hot reading,” a variation on the cold reading in which the medium takes advantage of information surreptitiously gathered in advance. (For a full discussion of cold reading techniques, see Hyman 1977)

In support of his assertions of Edward’s possible hot readings, Jaroff detailed the experience of Michael O'Neill, a past audience member on Crossing Over who had been the subject of a reading by Edward. According to O'Neill’s account, producers of the show had spliced into the final program clips of O'Neill nodding yes into the videotape after statements by Edward with which he remembers disagreeing. In addition, according to O'Neill, most of Edward’s “misses,” both in relation to him and other audience members, had been edited out of the final tape.

O'Neill also claimed that before the show, assistants to the producers had gathered information about audience members, including their names and family histories. O'Neill also told Jaroff that most of the conversations among the audience while they were seated in the stands waiting the start of the show were about dead loved ones, information that could have been picked up by microphones strategically placed about the amphitheater.

As he notes in his article, Jaroff did not include in his article reaction from Edward, since upon contacting Edward’s publicity people, Jaroff was informed that the medium does not respond to criticism.

The Psychics, the Philosopher, the Rabbi, the FBI Agent, and the Maverick Scientist

With Jaroff’s article appearing in Time magazine, the stage was set for the March 6 edition of CNN’s Larry King Live. Host Larry King has long been a promoter of psychic mediums, in recent years providing hour-long platforms for both James Van Praagh and Sylvia Browne. (For a review of Van Praagh’s 1999 appearance on Larry King Live, see the CSICOP web article by Joe Nickell).

King’s failure in previous programs to include guests who could provide a scientific rebuttal to the psychic’s claims has enraged many skeptics. Last year, CSICOP’s Kurtz and Nickell sent a protest letter to King, provoking an angry response by telephone from the show’s producers.

Besides Larry King’s preference for all things psychic, other factors likely contributed to the decision to air a special program on Edward. Jaroff’s article provided an opportune moment for parent company AOL/Time Warner to promote both the company’s flagship magazine and the longest running talk show on its leading television network.

The line-up of guests and the ultimate format for the March Larry King Live program was subtly stacked against criticism of Edward. In his Los Angeles studio, King sat at his desk with Van Praagh and Browne, while Edward was interviewed via satellite hook-up from the CNN studio in New York City. Jaroff appeared via satellite from Boca Raton, while CSICOP chair and philosopher Paul Kurtz was interviewed via feed originating from Buffalo, New York. On satellite from London, England, the panel also included Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of various self-help books including Kosher Sex : A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy, and the forthcoming The Psychic and the Rabbi: A Remarkable Correspondence , co-authored with psychic Uri Geller and spiritual guru Deepak Chopra.

Boteach appeared on the program supposedly to present criticism from the perspective of a traditional religious leader, while Van Praagh and Browne were framed by King as an unbiased jury of Edward’s “psychic” peers, able to objectively attest to the legitimacy of Edward’s abilities. In reality, however, all three individuals have economic ties to Edward’s success, as they all share a book publisher with Edward. Table 1 outlines the publishing links between Edward, Van Praagh, Browne, and Boteach.

Table 1. Shared publishers among Edward, Van Praagh, Browne, and Boteach.

Author Books Published by Penguin Putnam Books Published by Signet Books Published by Hay House
John Edward One Last Time (2000)   What If God Were The Sun? (2001)
James Van Praagh Talking to Heaven (1998) Reaching to Heaven (2000)  
Sylvia Browne   The Other Side and Back (2000) Adventures of a Psychic (1998), God, Creation, and Tools for Life (2000)
Shmuley Boteach w/ Deepak Chopra     Integrating The Masculine And Feminine In The Spiritual Traditions Of Judaism And Vedanta (2001)

Source: Amazon Books.

Making a cameo appearance on the program was physicist Dale Graff, author of two books recounting his version of the CIA’s attempt to use psychic “remote viewing” for spy purposes. Also appearing in a cameo role was Cliff Van Sant, a former FBI profiler able to offer first-hand familiarity with Bureau and police agency use of psychics to assist in crime solving.

Throughout the hour-long program, the in-studio, “stage center” presence of Browne and Van Praagh allowed the duo to dominate the program’s dialogue. Both psychics took turns interrupting other guest’s comments or reframing responses. Van Praagh appeared well-coached and practiced in his comments, while Browne, with a seat next to King, was able to maintain a visible screen presence throughout the program, often lowering her head as if in meditation, or frequently closing her eyes, cultivating a persona of mysticism for the studio cameras.

Larry King played the role of stage master, carefully controlling and managing commentary from Kurtz, Jaroff, and Boteach. If Van Praagh and Browne were stage center on Larry King Live, the other guests, including Edward, were side stage shows only to be revealed when King directed questions their way.

In order to measure the “talk time” allocated each guest, I analyzed the full text of the transcript of the television program using CATPAC, a software package developed by communication researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo for use in quantitative content analysis. As an indicator of a guest’s “talk-time,” I tallied the number of words spoken by each guest during the program. The total number of words for each guest can be considered a function of the individual’s verbal speed, the number of opportunities to offer commentary afforded by King’s questions, and the time allocated by King for a response.

Not surprisingly, Table 2 indicates that at 2,244 words spoken, Larry King dominated the program, accounting for 26.3% of the total talk time. The three psychics combined for 36.6% of the total talk time on the program, in comparison to just 13.8% of the talk time afforded the two skeptics. The disparity was a likely result of the nearly twice as many questions asked by King of the psychics (34) then the skeptics (18). The disparity may have also been caused by Van Praagh’s and Edward’s talent for quick speech, and Larry King’s tendency to cut-in on answers by either Jaroff or Kurtz. King’s management of responses by guests and the impact of the fast-talking mediums are reflected by the measure of average number of words spoken per question asked, with “Ferrari-fast” Edward (153.3) and almost-as-quick Van Praagh (80.4), able to get more out of their allocated time on camera than either Kurtz (68.4) or Jaroff (62.4).

Table 2. Distribution of “talk-time” across guests, number of questions asked, and average length of answer per question.

Note: Estimate of the average words spoken per question is approximate since part of the “total words spoken” for several guests is also accounted for by remarks that may not have been in direct response to a question by King. The “total” program estimate of average words spoken per question was calculated by dividing the total words spoken by guests only (6281) by the total number of questions asked by King (63).


Individual “Talk Time” As Number of Words Spoken Percentage of Total “Talk Time” Number of Questions Asked by King Avg. Words Spoken per Question
Larry King 2,244 26.3% NA NA

Psychic Mediums “Talk Time” As Number of Words Spoken Percentage of Total “Talk Time” Number of Questions Asked by King Avg. Words Spoken per Question
James Van Praagh 1045 12.3% 13 80.4
John Edward 1533 17.9% 10 153.3
Sylvia Browne 574 6.7% 11 52.2
Psychics (Total) 3152 36.6% 34 92.7

Skeptics “Talk Time” As Number of Words Spoken Percentage of Total “Talk Time” Number of Questions Asked by King Avg. Words Spoken per Question
Leon Jaroff 616 7.2% 9 68.4
Paul Kurtz 562 6.6% 9 62.4
Skeptics (Total) 1178 13.8% 18 65.4

Others “Talk Time” As Number of Words Spoken Percentage of Total “Talk Time” Number of Questions Asked by King Avg. Words Spoken per Question
Shmuley Boteach 1037 12.2% 8 129.6
Clint Van Zandt 546 6.4% 1 546.0
Dale Graff 368 4.4% 2 184.0
Total 8525 100% 63 99.7

In addition to comparing the time allocated to each guest’s perspective and input on the topic of psychic ability, I also used CATPAC to provide an indicator of the major themes that each guest emphasized. Table 3 indicates the most frequently used unique words for each of the seven guests and Larry King. The prominence of each individual’s themes was measured by assigning a coefficient equal to the individual’s percentage of talk time contributed to the program.

As host, King emphasized themes of “belief,” the impact and import of the Time magazine “article,” what “people” “think,” “psychics,” and aspects of “know"-ledge or certainty about the veracity of the psychic’s claims. At a prominence coefficient of .26, King’s themes carried greater weight than any other individual guest.

The psychics emphasized “people,” but concentrated mostly on transcendental themes of emotions, “spirituality,” “God,” and “energy.” The three psychics also highlighted the type of service that they promote, namely general “information” about “somebody” or “something.” Combined, the prominence coefficient of the psychic’s themes was a dominant .37.

Skeptics Kurtz and Jaroff emphasized themes of “reason,” “science,” “evidence,” “testing,” or “challenge” of claims, and what “people” might believe or “think.” At a combined prominence coefficient of .14, the skeptic’s themes comprised a minority perspective on the show, and were almost three times less prominent than the psychic perspective.

While the skeptics offered criticism from a scientific viewpoint, Rabbi Boteach framed his criticism in the light of Judaism. He emphasized “religion” and “God” while highlighting the religious “elitism” of mediums promoting themselves as self-proclaimed chosen ones able to “communicate” with God. Boteach also emphasized “ethics” and a naturalistic spiritualism based on “earth,” not in an “afterlife” or heaven. At a prominence coefficient of .12, Boteach’s themes were only slightly less than the combined prominence of the two skeptics.

FBI agent Van Sant emphasized that he was “open” to the possibility of psychic ability. He also highlighted his “experience” in police work, and his acceptance of psychic involvement in crime cases if it could “help” law enforcement efforts. Physicist Graff emphasized his “experience” working on the CIA “remote viewing” project, the general reaction of the scientific “community,” and his belief that the “data” supported the claim that psychic ability was “real.” As cameo guests on the program, the prominence coefficients of the themes emphasized by Van Sant and Graff were negligible at .06 and .04, respectfully.

Table 3. Individual thematic messages as measured by frequently used unique words/ prominence of themes based on percentage of talk time.

Note: The prominence of themes was assessed by assigning each individual’s emphasized themes a co-efficient equal to their proportion of talk time.

Individual Themes Prominence of Themes
Larry King believe; article; people; dead; psychic(s); know .26

Psychic Mediums Themes Prominence of Themes
James Van Praagh people; something; know; information; love; better; destroy; feel; God; spirit; hearing; understand; Earth .12
John Edward know; show; people; think; something; somebody; belief; energy; sense; dead .18
Sylvia Browne know; want; God; bible/biblical; .07
Psychics (Total) NA .37

Skeptics Themes Prominence of Themes
Leon Jaroff think; people; believes; fact; reason; challenge; show; .07
Paul Kurtz claim(s); evidence; people; think; facts; extraordinary; science/scientific .07
Skeptics (Total) NA .14

Others Themes Prominence of Themes
Shmuley Boteach think; earth; God; religion; psychics; believe; communicate/ing; elitist; afterlife; goodness; people; ethical .12
Clint Van Zandt psychic; enforcement; law; experience; information; FBI; help; open; kidnapped; victim .06
Dale Graff phenomena; program; real; work; data; remote viewing; research; community .04

Eternal Life Through Syndication and Spin-off

Despite the appearance of balance in the guest line-up for Larry King Live, the analysis of the program’s transcript presented here indicates that King and his psychic guests heavily dominated the hour-long debate, both in total ‘talk time,’ and in regards to the emphasis on themes highlighting the transcendental over the scientific or critical.

For television producers, spirit mediums are a new form of staged drama, able to capture audiences at a relatively low cost. Crossing Over with John Edward is already headed for syndication (Browne 2001), and based on the program’s ratings, it doesn't take a psychic to predict that other television studios will attempt to mimic its success.

Sources

Matt Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D, is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. From 1997 to 1999, he worked as public relations director for CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer.