Unco Junto: Should Skeptics Be Paid for TV Work?
July 6, 2016I've been doing investigations and appearing on TV shows for well over a decade, but an unresolved issue plagues skepticism: Should experts should ask (or demand) to be paid for appearing on TV shows beyond expenses? It's a bit of a tricky issue.
On one hand journalists are ethically obligated not to pay subjects for stories or interviews, but on the other hand many of these TV shows are for cable channel "reality" shows and not quite "journalism." Is there a difference between being interviewed for a local TV show, or a national one?
Of course the TV producers also often don't want to pay because they feel it's free publicity--that they're doing you a favor by asking you to be on their show. There is some truth to that, but of course the same could be said for people who want any expert or artist to work for "exposure," which drives down the value of everyone. It's difficult for artists to earn a living and get a fair wage when their competitors are willing to donate their time and talents to projects in hopes of being seen.
As an erstwhile expert, my colleagues and I have all had the situation where TV producers waste your time and pick your brain for information and references, stringing you along for days, weeks, or sometimes months. It's annoying and frustrating to spend hours talking in good faith with a TV producer about ideas for a show, only to never hear from them again because they went in another direction, got another expert, and so on.
Many of us have worked for years or decades to get to a position in which we are respected and well known within a certain community. Skeptic or believer, we deserve respect for the time and effort we put into our body of work. But this is also a world which is plagued by self-appointed experts, which complicates matters. Our credentials and credibility are known to colleagues, but may not be immediately apparent to audiences or TV producers. This is why a self-styled "skeptic" or ghost hunter or Bigfoot hunter has nearly as good a chance of getting on a show I do.
We've all had the grinding experience of seeing an amateurish "colleague" who is not nearly as knowledgeable doing a show and making errors or otherwise causing some embarrassment. It's a wild west out there, and if we balk at jumping through unpaid hoops, there's a dozen unknowns out there who proclaim themselves "paranormal experts" and who are desperate to be on TV. Often we figure that an unpaid, quality expert is better than an unpaid amateur, but it's a Catch-22. (In my case I deal with a bit of a gray area because part of my job at the Center for Inquiry is media outreach, so even when I don't get paid by a TV show to appear, my time to do so is being compensated.)
I asked several colleagues to comment on it. This month the guest contributors are Mark Edward, Kenny Biddle, Richard Saunders, and Loren Coleman.
For What It's Worth
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 do it. 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; as such things as ghosts and poltergeists have yet to be quantified as anything science can measure, so this "anything goes" strategy leaves the door open for any television reality programming to basically seek out anyone who has a black tee-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 myself 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 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 "sciency" 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 know this and so drag 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 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 mind 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 programming unless you 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. You have to 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 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 like 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, "sciency" 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 uneducated 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 is an artist, skeptic, professional magician, and author of Psychic Blues.
Addressing your first question, "Is there a difference between being interviewed for a local TV show, or a national one?"...yes and no. There will be differences in quality of the interview (questions, follow up questions, knowledge of the interviewer) as well as the initial viewing audience. However, with social media and YouTube, we've seen clips about alleged ghosts, Bigfoot, and chupacabra from small town local news outlets go viral in a day or so.
I think the real issue is what type of show it was, and not necessarily how far they reach. The news is so-so on real journalism anymore, especially on pieces that deal with fringe topics. However, they're still obligated not to pay for information or interviews. And I totally agree with that, since being paid could easily influence someone to say what they think the interviewer wants to hear, rather than an honest opinion.
TV producers are producing entertainment, whether it's a weekly drama, sitcom, or the all-too popular "reality" show. Free publicity is nice, but it's only good if someone actually watches that particular show. It doesn't equate to a TV commercial, or a billboard, which will be viewed by thousands who don't watch the show, or even read one of your books. It's not a favor to expect "free publicity" to be a fair exchange for your time, knowledge, and experience. If a TV producer is coming to you, wanting you to be on their show...you've already got enough publicity going for you. And are any of the others on the show doing it for free?
I also do photography as a second job. I invest a lot of money (in equipment, gas, tolls, software, etc) and time (travel, hours on the shoot, hours of editing, etc) in doing the best job I can. I've had people ask me to work for "publicity," and expect that to be of equal value. It's not. And I see my work with skepticism in the same way. I've invested a lot of my own time and money in order to gain the knowledge, experience and insight over the years...by attending paranormal events and conferences, skeptical and science events and conferences, experimenting with photography techniques, reading up on the latest news and equipment, and so on. The decision to do work in exchange for promotion...is mine, not a TV producer's. However, I also get the Catch 22 issue of self-proclaimed "paranormal experts," as well as the self-proclaimed "skeptic" (who tends to believe by the next commercial break). Yes, there are so many who are desperate to be on TV, and I've known more than my share. Sadly, many have been told what to say...and agree to it. I see this kind of behavior and it burns me to the core. And it does bring out the feeling of obligation in me...to want to do it myself, just so I can get the right information out there. It's why I do what I do now...I write a blog, I've written an article for the Skeptical Briefs newsletter, I've written a few for the JREF, I do videos...but I don't get paid for any of it. I do it because I feel an obligation to fight the pseudoscientific bullshit that plagues the public.
As for demanding to be paid for TV appearances, it's honestly never gotten that far. There has been a few that approached me, but they usually stopped communication when I refused to be "somewhat a believer," or that I would get a script to follow and I kindly declined. To be honest, I'm hesitant to agree to any show, the thought of giving editing control over to an unknown someone is not particularly appealing to me.
But if I was to agree to do a show, then I see no reason why I shouldn't be paid a fee for my participation, on top of expenses. It's a job, it's work. I'm going there to provide a skeptical point of view based on my knowledge and skill set... I'm not an "extra" in the background. I don't think any producer (or agent working on their behalf) should expect someone to work for exposure. Would they produce one of my videos for exposure? Chances are they'd laugh at the idea.
Kenny Biddle is an author, blogger, podcaster, photographer, lecturer, advocate for skepticism, and science enthusiast.
In Australia you are never paid to appear on a news item or on a "Today" type show.... The ones I go on are national (instead of local) and still no payment. However they will offer to cover the taxi!
As for TV producers wasting your time and picking your brain for information and references, stringing you along for days, weeks, or sometimes months... Oh yes indeed. I have been in many meeting like this. It's always painted as a great project and you'll be involved. I'm lucky in that one time it did lead to work on TV. As for the issue of credentials and credibility, TV producers often don't have the time to worry about the background of someone they need for a segment. What they want is that you are from whatever organization.
I am often asked to appear on various TV shows to comment on everything from ghosts to UFOs to psychics and so on. Generally in Australia it is understood that if you're appearing on a news type show, be it in the studio or even filmed at your work or home, you don't expect to be paid for your time. Also, if you are contacted by a producer who wants to pick your brain about a new show that will showcase your point of view (I get those contacts every year or so) don't expect to get paid. The one and only exception to this was when I was asked to be part of a TV series. That was a completely different situation as it meant asking me to make a commitment to the TV network and put in many hours of work.
Getting back to the more day-to-day TV appearances, we can look at the argument that being on TV does bring you and your point of view to people. While this is true, it can backfire if the show in question decides that you are the "nutjob" and this can happen. TV shows, especially those shown mid-morning, usually are not to interested in what is true, but in what will bring in high ratings. Skeptics in particular need to keep this in mind. Producers often don't care about the truth unless it is the better angle for them and normally just don't have the time to discover where the real evidence lies.
So, I am happy to appear on TV shows from time to time and not get paid. It normally does not take up much of my time and does help keep my profile up so to speak. But if and when there is a question of devoting more time and effort, then I would indeed seek some sort of payment, and not necessarily money. One radio station offered me tickets to a show in lieu of money-however I declined at the time.
During my presentation on "cryptoconsulting" at the Texas Bigfoot Conference, I called on researchers, authors, and Bigfooters to stand together in looking at who is making money from the popular cultural subject of Sasquatch and other cryptids-and demanding your fair share. While I agree that interviews that are breaking news, of eyewitnesses, should be not constructed with paid footage, we have to start examining how reality television programs and other creations are being made and used by others to make money.
Who makes money off Bigfoot? It sure wasn't Bob Gimlin and Roger Patterson, despite rumors and half-baked theories saying otherwise. Think about it. It's been the beef jerky sellers, car companies, toy makers, multinational news organizations, reality television programs, and the media in general, most often with silliness created by hoaxers or fringe interviews, often tinged with ridicule, who are making big bucks. Forums, email back-biting, and other outlets act as if the problem exists with a marginal hundred dollars here or an appearance there that is suppose to have made alleged money for someone. While not true, it causes a distraction away from the real people making money from Bigfoot. A few outfitters, authors, researcher organizations, and consultants make peanuts compared to what the majority of non-Bigfoot people make off of us...yes, you and me. We are in this together, after all.
I issued a challenge to Bigfooters and Sasquatch researchers during my talk to quit guilt-tripping each other, fighting over the scraps thrown in our direction, quit eating our own, and look to standing shoulder to shoulder in demanding a business-like relationship with the media, reality television and others-with signed contracts, compensation, credit-for payment for our work. No one is funding this research but money is being made by the source corporations that keep using our raw materials.
Whereas producers, executive producers and production costs can easily be in the budget for almost two-thirds of the cost of the average $275,000 per hour total for a cryptozoology documentary, most "experts" and "research organizations" who make up the bulk of the footage get nothing and a thank you or something like $500 to $1000 in fees. And don't forget, look at who is making money from the ads in between those "search parties" during these programs looking for hairy hominoids. Do you think any of these people care as much about Sasquatch as we do, or are they only interested in the popular appeal of the icon of the mystery of Bigfoot in the woods?
The unfortunate reality is that people want to appear on television so much, often for attention-seeking and ego-related reasons, the media and reality production companies take advantage of this, often going with free appearances by individuals who end up not representing Sasquatch research with the same respect you and I have for the topic.
As part of my presentation, I showed the following video that has things that need to be heard from a different topic area about this problem in our field. (Some dramatic language is used to make the points raised by Harlan Ellison in Dreams with Sharp Teeth, which I purchased, by the way, to use in my presentation.) If we all were paid as much for what Bigfoot was worth in our society, we won't have to rely on each other to assist with supporting organizations and collections like the ICM. But it is the ten and twenty dollar donations, here and there, from each other that keeps us in the game. Thank goodness for community.
This piece is adapted from Coleman's post "Pay The Bigfooters," a direct summary of his presentation "CryptoConsulting: Advice on Dealing with the Media," that was on given on September 26, 2009, at the 2009 Texas Bigfoot Conference, Caldwell Auditorium, Tyler, Texas.
International Cryptozoology Museum.
I'd like to thank the writers who offered their insightful thoughts, comments, and reactions on this topic. Obviously we could have additional responses to these responses (and so on), but the format isn't really conducive such recursion. I hope you found the pieces as interesting as I did, and readers are of course welcome to come back next month for a new topic!