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

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