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Dead Air


Published March 20, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

Ever notice how no one on television uses the phrase “media circus” anymore? I suspect that’s because the electronic medium has largely degenerated into one big ’round-the-clock circus itself. Millions tune in to watch Tonya Harding duke it out with Paula Jones. Meanwhile, Ted Koppel can’t get ABC executives to return his calls. Can things get any weirder?

Well, sure. Every day, millions are tuning in to a talk show with the dead. “Crossing Over with John Edward” is touted by its distributor, USA Studios, as “the highest-rated new series in broadcast syndication.” Originally shown on, ahem, the Sci Fi Channel, the program is currently in its second season of national syndication; it airs locally at 9 a.m. on WCAX.

A former ballroom dance instructor, Edward arguably has become the most successful professional psychic in history through a shameless but undeniably shrewd combination of smoke, mirrors and time-tested sideshow tricks.

What’s so sleazy about the self-proclaimed medium, of course, is the way he preys on the susceptibility of people who have suffered the painful loss of loved ones. The host’s modus operandi is to stand surrounded by seated guests, approach a section of the studio audience and toss out vague statements — “I’m getting a George over here,” or “he’s showing me something red” — until someone takes the bait. At that point Edward homes in on the poor sap like a heat-seeking huckster and emits a rapid-fire series of questions so general and wide-ranging as to guarantee a handful of “hits.”

Routinely, audience members are reduced to tears as the show’s host convinces them the spirit of their departed family member or friend is present and using him as a conduit through which to impart messages from the other side.

What’s so shrewd about Edward’s paranormal guessing game is his gift for lending old tricks New Age luster. As analyzed in an article in the August issue of Scientific American, the psychic’s shtick relies on three tried-and-true ruses: cold reading, warm reading and hot reading.

Most of his act relies on the technique of cold reading. This is when a medium creates the illusion of reading someone without initially knowing anything about them. The author of the article counted about one statement per second as Edward “riffled through names, dates, colors, diseases, conditions, situations, relatives and the like” in his quest to come up with something that would stick. “He goes from one to the next so quickly,” the writer points out, “you have to stop the tape and go back to catch them all.”

Independent research conducted by a watchdog group has documented that Edward is accurate only about a third of the time. His hit-to-miss ratio seems higher on TV, but bear in mind that he gets to edit out real life misses before broadcast.

Warm reading exploits universal principles of psychology. Many grieving people, for example, wear a piece of jewelry that has a connection to a loved one. Mediums know this, the article explains, and often will say something like, “Do you have a ring or piece of jewelry on you, please?”

Hot reading is another term for cheating. Remember the healer Steve Martin played in Leap of Faith? He created the illusion of being able to divine people’s health problems by having Debra Winger pipe overheard bits of information to him through a hidden earpiece. Conclusive evidence that Edward engages in hot reading hasn’t surfaced, but the Scientific American story documented the case of one audience member who admitted that “once in the studio, we had to wait around for almost two hours before the show began. Throughout that time, everybody was talking about what dead relatives of theirs might pop up.” The writer points out the fact that all this chatter occurred under microphones and with cameras already set up.

To that I might add that it would be easy for show staff to mix anonymously among the waiting audience members and collect bits of data to be fed to the host. Just a thought. Edward’s direct line to the great beyond might be the result of nothing more mysterious than that. “Crossing over” might be a simple matter of eavesdropping.

A watchdog organization called Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal has labeled the program “a monstrous hybrid of talk show and psychic fair” and pointed to Edward’s use of cold reading techniques. The group’s Council for Media Integrity issued a report stating that “this program… takes advantage of the most emotional of subjects: the loss of loved ones. Memories of deceased spouses, family and friends put many people in an emotional state that leaves them vulnerable and susceptible to suggestion…”

It’s a sad testament to just how low some broadcasters will stoop for a buck these days. “Crossing Over with John Edwards” certainly is no laughing matter. On the other hand, I had to chuckle at a couple of delicious ironies when I logged onto related Web sites recently. The message board on the show’s official site was “temporarily shut down,” and the two sponsors running ads on his Sci Fi Channel site were the HBO series “Six Feet Under” and AT&T. Apropos for a guy who’s struck it rich by reaching out and conning someone every chance he gets.