A Summer of Psychics

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  June 26, 2011 — 23 Comments

CNN got a bit of flak for doing a puff piece this past Thursday on psychic prognosticators making predictions about the American (and global) economy. Roger Ebert helpfully clarified that, “no, this is not an Onion news report” (a point reiterated by Sheril Kirshenbaum at Wired). Nicole Belle at Crooks and Liars calls the report “more insidious than stupid,” while Josh Feldman at Mediaite called the segment “the most mind-bogglingly idiotic thing I have ever seen on cable news.”

I’m not sure why this particular piece of filler should be the breaking point that makes critics groan and shake their heads ruefully. CNN has long dabbled in what I affectionately call “the woo.” Just look at the career of Nancy Grace, or former CNN stalwart Larry King, who fell head-over-heels for the now-convicted “Secret” peddler James Arthur Ray. Nor is CNN alone in this, just check out the special Nightline “Beyond Belief” Summer series that looks at psychics, exorcism, and out-of-body experiences.

“ABC’s “Nightline” is creeping into prime time this summer — or maybe it’s just getting creepy. The late-night show begins a summertime series at 10 p.m. EDT Wednesday, covering topics such as satanic possession, religious miracles, psychics and out-of-body experiences. […] Following the Anthony hour, “Nightline” will begin a five-part series titled, “Beyond Belief,” an exploration of topics that defy easy scientific explanation. Bill Weir travels the world to investigate episodes where people claim to have seen and communicated with the Virgin Mary, while Terry Moran looks at a belief that satanic will or demonic possession can cause people to commit acts of evil.”

The fact is, people love psychics and tales of the paranormal. I can’t even keep track of how many paranormal/ghost-hunting reality shows there are these days. We live in a world where psychic tips get attention (though not as much as some people would suspect), much to the chagrin of those who’d prefer a far more logical and rational news media. I personally see fortune telling as more a psychological/social tool/aid than as a pole-star to guide my life, but why does the mainstream media go into these phases of covering psychics and fortune-tellers, giving them valuable airtime in the news?

I have three theories:

  1. According to the Pew Forum 15% of Americans have consulted a fortuneteller or a psychic. That’s a lot of people. Summer is a lull time for programming, and fewer people are watching television. So anything that might draw attention is welcome. As CNN previous reported, the psychic industry is recession-proof (though perhaps not entirely). It’s a no-brainer to do the occasional spotlight on these topics.
  2. News outlets like Time Magazine and the BBC have recently looked at regulatory push-back against psychic practices, which has forced psychics and fortune-tellers to organize and become more public in asserting their rights. That coupled with the high visibility of psychic practitioners on reality television has made these businesses and practitioners more newsworthy in general. In 2010 alone towns and cities created subcultural “red light districts”stood by total bans, and argued over whether psychic services could be classified as “spiritual counseling”, while in Canada, obscure laws against “witchcraft” were used to pursue fraud cases. We also saw a big win as the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that fortunetelling and other psychic services are protected speech, setting a precedent that could affect laws across the country. Like it or not, psychic stuff is “news.”
  3. The producers and reporters are true believers. There a lot of followers in the “Church of Oprah”. Many of them are powerful people with influence and an ability to get on television. The trial and conviction of James Arthur Ray may have taken some wind from the sails of the New Age movement, but you can bet they’ll retool and be back riding high again soon. So they’ll keep sending “skeptics” to Sedona to be converted, and Oprah-anointed figures like Dr. Oz will keep on endorsing Reiki.

Very likely a mixture of the three reasons above helps produce all this coverage. The simple truth is that we as a society have always searched for answers to questions that seem impossible to predict by mundane means (the harder the times, the further we seek). Psychics have been handing out stock tips since there was a market, and so long as people are listening, reporters will be right behind them to see if their mojo actually pans out. For modern Pagans who engage in divination, or even make their money performing psychic services, we should keep an eye on this coverage. How these topics are approached and treated can tell us a lot about how the religions who engage in these practices are likely to be received as well. As for the skeptics? It’s Summertime! File it away with bigfoot, and head to the beach (or watch the new season of True Blood), everyone knows that nothing serious happens until September (at least as far as television programming is concerned). Besides, mockery and scorn bounce off this stuff like bullets off Superman, save your ammunition for certain politicians or climate science denial.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Looking at this video clip it doesn’t seem like CNN was asking psychics to predict the future so much as they were using psychics to dress up a report about market speculation. In the end I think CNN kept it quite grounded by pointing out that the psychics were saying the same thing everybody else was saying (i.e., they don’t have any greater knowledge than the rest of us.)

  • I don’t see how a psychic would be any worse than Cramer at “Mad Money”.

  • Anonymous

    Ah yes… the new season of True Blood… tonight, even. I want a psychic to tell me if they’ll be able to recover from their miserable third season. Even ratcheting up the sex and violence- which they did nicely- couldn’t spare them from lame story lines, needless character assassinations, and more insufferable Anna Paquin as Sookie. The added touch of the Wiccan who showed up at the end and performed the worst pennyroyal tea administration ever seen was just the new-age icing on the cake: and she had to have been the most realistic depiction of a Wiccan yet seen on television. (Her invocation of the “Goddess” was majestic- up to and including her “Okay, she’s here!” announcement after glancing up into the air above her circle.)

    I think I speak for everyone when I say: Eric, grow the long hair back and stop getting skinnier… Pam, please get your lesbian on more… Jessica, please get more camera time and less clothing on… Lafayette, you are awesome and you need to become the main character, not whiny annoying Sookie. And if your brujo boyfriend has any power, make sure you learn from him. And Sam: please stop being a douche and turning out to be a killer with a bad temper. We know you’re really a nice guy, no matter how much the writers want to add a ridiculous “dark” dimension to your character which is totally unnecessary.

    The Second season was probably the best, so long as you could ignore the equation of Dionysos with Satan. Beyond that, superb. Good and realistic characterization of fundy Christians. Good show, really. I hope it gets good again.

    • HAHA! +1 on every single thing you said.

      I must admit I am so looking forward to weekly viewings of Alexander Skarsgård again. *dreamy sigh*

    • We’ve been waiting for like… what a year? Feels like a lifetime.

    • Pagan Puff Pieces

      I lost interest with the show after the first season. Screaming “SEX!!! DEATH!!!! RELIGION!!! METAPHORS!!!!!” at the top of your lungs doesn’t make a show deep and edgy.

      • Anonymous

        No, but hot chicks, bare breasts, and sex is a good consolation prize.

        • Mathews55

          But what if hot chicks and bare breasts don’t turn you on – because you don’t swing that way?

          Oh, yeah. For us, they offer a Civil War Era gentleman, a nice doggy bar and grill owner, and, drool, drool, a Viking.

          Patricia Mathews, rather wishing Sookie and Sam would have been a couple. But never happen. He’s her boss.

          Me, I want Tara to find some nice sweet quiet football-player type, settle down, start her own business, and stop being the perpetual loser they keep making her out to be.

          • Anonymous

            If you don’t “swing that way”, that’s fine. More for me, and one less swinging cock I have to worry about competing with (and one less guy I have to find a way to penis block or kill). But as you pointed out, yes, even our sly cousins have their own eye candy on the show. Between you and me, the Viking looked way better with longer hair. You want your Vikings rogue, not corporate. At least, if I wanted a male one, I’d want him rogue, not corporate.

        • Pagan Puff Pieces

          From my point of view, hot chicks, bare breasts, and sex are too overly abundant in culture, even at its most prudish, to be a consolation prize.

          • Anonymous

            You clearly don’t have the prudes around you that we have around us down in this hellhole. If your prudes give you nudity and other such godless gratuities, consider yourself lucky. And I only have one word for you- Jessica. Or better yet, that Stripper that Bill went and “procured” for the King of Mississippi. Yes. Forget Jessica. That Stripper.

    • Iaraschamber

      I think they should have stuck with the books…the show is SO DIFFERENT from the books…The books were AMAZING and Sookie was completely different in them. in fact everything was completely different. But I can’t stop watching the show because I love the books so much : / You should read them Eric is in them a lot more and he never cuts his hair or gets skinny 🙂

    • Reasons why I quit watching the show and started reading the books…

  • Anna Helvie

    With the conviction of Ray, can I just say that it sounds as if the entire New Age movement is being indicted as worthless — and I have problem with that. I disagree with a lot of New Age thought, and yes, it has been rife with exploitation, hypocrisy and assorted other ills … but no more nor less than any other religious/spiritual/magickal movement, including Paganism, Wicca, “Traditional” Witchcraft, Thelema, the various forms of ceremonial magick, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. Ray was a bad egg, but when I think of my New Age friends who are working hard (and effectively) at helping people to heal and find meaning in their lives, I have to salute them.

  • Charles Cosimano

    The New Age stuff has not been affected at all by the Ray affair. He’s considered just a bad apple that got into the barrel but it has not made a dent.

    • mep

      Actually, it’s kind of encouraging to realize that there are enough of us “New Age” people out there to even HAVE a barrel big enough to contain a “bad apple!”

  • I’m just saying, if any of them could sit through an attunement when I call the sun Buddha and we ask the ancestors to be there to welcome a new healer; and I poured that energy into them. They may get it.

    People would know what the hell we’re talking about. In my way it isn’t the ball or the cards, tho they do have a principle of resonance that attracts the insights, it’s the power of the work. Tangible. Most folks confuse the tools with the trade.

    Again, IMO, my experience.

    All that aside, I’m happy for the attention but I prefer to ask and receive the seekers that come my way. News may or may not help. *Shrug*

    love your blog.

  • Anonymous

    You could take a random flyer from the bulletin board of a random New Age bookstore, call the psychic advertised on the flyer, and get a more honest and accurate analysis of the American economy than 90% of what passes for “hard” economic news.

    Of course this is like saying that you could grab a random person off the street and that person would be more honest and reliable than your typical sociopath.

    Whenever they faced difficulties, the Romans turned to the Libri Sibyllini. Flavius Stilicho, a powerful Christian political figure, had the sacred books burned in 405 AD. Three years later Stilicho was assassinated, and two years after that the city of Rome, which no foreign power had conquered for eight centuries, was sacked by the Visigoths.

  • Alex Pendragon

    As long as I am in any way associated with this crap parlayed on television as “New Age” and “Spiritualism” and “psychic” and all this continuing baggage, I will continue happily to practice my Wicca as a solitaire. I did not hand in my brain to walk this path.

  • Anonymous

    I am trying to figure out how to divine with Angry Birds. But they are not telling me much.

  • Guest

    Just another materialist approach to a metaphysical subject. Snobbery abounds in occult circles. Curanderas, healers, psychics, palmists are the ones in the trenches doing the work that so-called ritualists are afraid of. High Magick/Low Magick, I can always tell a snob when they start throwing the word ‘fortunetellers’ around in a derisive way. More insidious than many critics, because really, ritualists should know better.

  • mep

    Frankly, I think it’s a sign that psychics, spiritual counselors, Tarot readers, Reiki healers, and other metaphysical practitioners are gaining a foothold in the mainstream. Or is that “RE-gaining?” After all, in some cultures, seers, sages, shamans, and oracles have been a highly respected part of the community for as long as there have BEEN communities! In modern Western society, for any phenomenon to become an everyday thing, it’s a numbers game, a gradual build-up of acceptance: a certain tipping point must be reached before something is considered “normal.” But once that tipping point IS reached, then – taDA! – a paradigm shift across the culture in general! For example, think about how we used to view divorce, or mixed-racial marriages, unwed mothers, or even bankruptcy and so-called “late bloomers,” aka adult college students! All of these things have lost their former stigma. The metaphysical community is slowly approaching that tipping point; we may still be viewed as flakes and “fluff” by some, but the number of other people who take take us seriously is growing all the time, and we’re fast becoming integrated, not so…well…fringe. And I say “we,” and “us,” because I myself am a Tarot practitioner, and I take my work seriously. – – mep

  • Michael

    Like the post. Video has been removed from YouTube though 🙁