What Price Fame? Exposing CBS By Tom Malone The gospel according to Andy Warhol promises t

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What Price Fame? Exposing CBS By Tom Malone The gospel according to Andy Warhol promises that each of us will one day be famous--if only for 15 minutes. Well, imagine my astonishment when I learned only a few weeks ago that my turn was indeed at hand. I refer to the recent offer to appear on one of those infamous CBS specials about the "actual truth" behind the stories of the bible. It all began one day when I found a message on my telephone answering machine from someone working with CBS. CBS? The CBS? For a few exciting hours around the house, the question on everyone's lips was, "Is Daddy gonna be on TV?" Unbeknownst to me, Sunn Classic Pictures, the company CBS hired to produce these Bible propaganda pieces ("Ancient Secrets Of The Bible," and "In Search Of Noah's Ark"), had asked Dan Barker of the national Foundation office for the name of a skeptic in the Atlanta area who might present opposing viewpoints on future episodes. I faxed in a brief biographical sketch and waited. I was especially eager to hear from the producers because even though the "shoot date" was just days away, I still did not know on which topic I would be asked to offer an "expert" opinion. They had mentioned the Ten Commandments, David & Goliath, Samson & Delilah or the story of Daniel. Having only superficial knowledge of each of these topics, I was anxious to receive as much advance warning as possible. After all, my game plan was to call up Dan Barker and say, "All right, so what do I say?" As flattered as I was to be considered for the spot, I was still wondering in the back of my mind why would a major, prime time TV production company seek out a guy who has no more credentials than that of a high school history teacher and a grass-roots organizer? The fateful day came when I received another answering machine message informing me of the precise date on which the production company would fly into town, interview me in my study at home and fly off to another location. How exciting! And if all this weren't good enough, the topic was to be my preference, the Ten Commandments. Some final details had to be worked out, so busy schedules and a 3-hour time lag between Georgia and California necessitated a late-night telephone conversation. After nearly all of the logistical details had been confirmed, the Sunn Classic representative said something like, "Okay, we'll send you the script for your part, and you can practice it to see how long it takes you to get through it, but the filming crew will have a Teleprompter, so you won't have to worry about memorizing it word for word." "A script?" I asked in astonishment. "How do you know what I'm going to say?" "Oh, well, our researchers have looked into all of this, and we have to present a final script to CBS long before the final tapings, so we can't do actual live interviews like some shows are set up to do," she answered. Still puzzled, I asked again, "But since you all have an opposite viewpoint from ours, how do you know what I would say about the Ten Commandments or any other topic, for that matter?" A little frustrated that her previous explanation had not sufficed, she said, "Well, we feel that we have scripted pretty good representative viewpoints, but if you're not satisfied with the content, you can decide not to do it." At this point, we agreed that since she did not have the script with her, I would call the office the next morning and speak with the program's producer, Dave Balsiger, who could then read for me what my opinion of the Ten Commandments was to be. Because I must avoid even the appearance of impropriety at the public high school where I teach, I make all calls related to freethought business during my lunch half-hour, preferably from the pay phone at the bank next door. At the assigned time, I hurried to the phone to find out just what I had been scripted to say. As easy as it is to tell from even a superficial viewing that these programs lack all intellectual honesty, I could not imagine that my opinion of them could sink much lower until I had this conversation with the project's producer. I was offered a part in which I would present "a skeptic's response" to the story of the Ten Commandments. I was assured that if I didn't like this part, there were a couple of others for which I could read! The part read basically as follows: "The validity of the Ten Commandments story boils down to one question: 'Do the tablets exist?' Without the tablets, the story amounts to nothing more than just another tale from ancient mythology." Recalling the format of previous shows, I then asked, "Is someone then going to come on who says he has found the tablets?" A little surprised at my prediction, I think, Mr. Balsiger said, "Well, yes, we have a rabbi who says that the tablets do exist in the Ark of the Covenant." "You mean the one under the ruins of the Temple of Solomon," I guessed. "Right," he confirmed. Just shaking my head and wondering how much worse this could possibly get, I rather despairingly asked him to read the next part. Flipping through his script, Mr. Balsiger finally found my next "spontaneous response" and dutifully read it to me. The topic was "Daniel and the Fiery Inferno," and here I was to assert that the Book of Daniel was doctored to look as if it had been written at some earlier, ancient date, but actually it was much more modern than traditionally regarded and therefore without foundation. Having caught on to the game by now, I said, "Let me guess. Someone will then come on claiming that it actually was written at the more ancient date." I suppose somewhat embarrassed by this time, but still unashamed, Mr. Balsiger softly responded, "Well, yes." At this point, I felt like James Stewart portraying George Bailey in the classic film, "It's a Wonderful Life," when he came within inches of having allowed himself to be wound tight in old Mr. Potter's web of self-serving control and manipulation. So, naturally, the only response was to give one of those impassioned Jimmy Stewart-style speeches. "I am offended that you would have so little respect for me personally and for freethinkers in general that you think I am so eager to see my face on TV that I would play the part as your stooge just to give you the opportunity to chop us down and discredit us. Don't you think I care a little bit more about myself and the freethought community I represent than to let you use me for your own pre-determined purposes? My students watch these shows. They come back to school on days following your broadcasts asking me questions like, 'Mr. Malone, did you see that show; are you still an atheist?' It's incredible that you think I read your script just to give you the opportunity to make a fool out of me and everyone else in the freethought community. "Why don't you ask me what I'd like to say about the Ten Commandments instead of imagining that you know what we want to say? We don't care about the existence of some stone tablets. Anyone could carve up some stone tablets and say that God gave them to him. There's a guy out in Waco, Texas right now saying that he's talking to God. What does that prove? Would it prove that the Mormons are right if someone produces the legendary golden tablets? The existence of any tablets is irrelevant. What we would like to say about the Ten Commandments is that they are an entirely inadequate and irresponsible code of ethics and morality. Here God has a one-time chance to lay down the moral code for the entire world, and instead of mentioning some important things like slavery, child abuse and cruelty to women, he wastes them on such irrelevant issues as honoring a particular day, not taking the Lord's name in vain and having no Gods before him. "We'd also like to mention the moral depravity of a god who would punish an eternity of generations for the 'sins' of their parents. And for what? For eating from the tree of knowledge--something I and all other teachers try each day to encourage our students to do. And we're supposed to worship this god who later drowns the entire world's population--save one family--for nothing more than disobedience? If you or I behaved as the God of the bible, we would be deemed worthy of incarceration, and yet the bible tells us to worship him? We would rather join the underground and oppose such a tyrant. "Your whole show lacks all integrity because it attempts to give the pretense of academic balance when in fact your so-called skeptics are used as nothing more than props to shoot down their own arguments and reinforce a pre-determined conclusion. You can make all the bible-propaganda programs you want, but don't expect us to assist you in discrediting our position by having us read your scripts." At this point, I took a breath and wondered if Mr. Balsiger was still on the line. He was. And this was his response. "We don't try to provide balance. We have been contracted by CBS to produce an entertainment show, so the purpose is not to provide balance but entertainment." "But you pretend to provide balance by featuring token skeptics who aren't allowed to seriously oppose the premise of the show but are merely instructed to read your scripts," I interjected. Balsiger then said about the only honest thing I heard from him: "Well, you have to understand that the average TV viewer in America is not that intelligent, so what they want is entertainment and not intellectual debate. Shows then have to be brought down on a level that will appeal to the broadest audience." I replied, "You know, I spend an awful lot of time, money and energy on a cause (freethought and church/state separation advocacy) because I consider it so important. I wish that somewhere out there in TV land there were those willing to fight the unpopular battle of educating the TV audience instead of just pandering to the lowest common denominator." It won't surprise you to hear Balsiger's response: "Well, that might be nice, but it's just not the way things work." Not happy with my responses to the previously-mentioned bible stories, Mr. Balsiger had one more question for me: "What would be your response to the David & Goliath story?" Almost in disbelief at the incredible shallowness of his thinking, I laughed out loud and said, "You know, in almost ten years as a very active freethought activist, I don't think I have once heard anyone bring up the topic of David & Goliath. Every culture is full of tall tales about legendary giants, and whether they were inspired by genetic oddities or mere exaggerations is quite irrelevant. It's not the sort of thing that we find very useful to argue or that will make us fall down on our knees and confess that we've been wrong all these many years." Sensing that our conversation was rapidly approaching its end--and that the bell for fourth period was about to ring--I had to satisfy my curiosity on one more point. "Mr. Balsiger, how did you arrive at the questions you include in your parts scripted for a skeptic?" I was astonished when he said that his group had sought the assistance of skeptical consultants in writing the script. Incredulous, I expressed disbelief that any reputable skeptic could have been involved in formulating these particular questions, and I challenged him to name just one. He could not name a single one. Having argued away my first chance at prime-time stardom, I assured Mr. Balsiger that I would enthusiastically serve as a consultant or guest on any future program if it were planned in a spirit of integrity and fairness but that under current circumstances, I would have nothing to do with the project. It does not, in the end, require an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of Mr. Balsiger's team to reach the conclusion that these bible story productions lack even a hint of intellectual honesty and integrity. But it was nothing short of astonishing to discover how apparently eager he thought we would be to prostitute our good name in assisting his efforts to present his sack full of myths as historical and scientific truth. Any "15 minutes of fame" can't be worth that much. If I didn't know better, I would have thought someone had just asked me to sell my soul to the devil. Tom Malone is President Southeast of the Foundation and director of the Atlanta Freethought Society. -------------------------------------------------------------------- In Search Of Balance By Dan Barker After the airing of "Ancient Secrets Of The Bible" on May 15, 1992, the Freedom From Religion Foundation protested to CBS. In early February, David Balsiger, the producer, called and asked if I would consider giving a skeptical viewpoint on "Ancient Secrets Of The Bible, Part II." I immediately turned him down, giving him an earful. I told Balsiger that if Part II is anything like the sloppy, unscholarly, biased Part I, I would be embarrassed to be a part of it. The skeptics (including Dead Sea Scrolls expert Robert Eisenman and Gerald Larue, professor of biblical history and archaeology at USC) were "set up" as mere props, their erudite comments edited down to a sentence or two devoid of explanation. The "skeptical balance" was simply a ploy to pretend objectivity on a show intended (Balsiger agreed) to present the bible in a favorable light. I also told him that his production quality was something out of a 3rd-grade Sunday School class, with amateur actors in bathrobes wearing beards glued on crookedly. A couple of days later Balsiger called back, desperate to find a willing skeptic. He told me that the CBS airing of Part I was the highest rated program of the evening, with 40 million (!) viewers. He said that "authorities" (mostly on the other side) were "killing themselves" to get on the next show, and that this would be good exposure for me. I was hesitant, but I told him that I might consider contributing to the Ten Commandments section, on certain conditions. First, I would be allowed to present not just a bare objection to the Ten Commandments, but to give critical reasons, unedited. Second, I would be identified with the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin. All of this would be in writing. Balsiger said these conditions were unusual, but he might consider them. (He never said he had a script already written.) I mailed him my 60-second script and a bio. A few days later, after reading my script, he called back, and, alas, their plans had changed. Chicago was cut from the taping schedule and CBS could not afford (!) to fly me anywhere else. He wanted to know if I knew of any skeptical resources in Atlanta. Thinking, optimistically, that Balsiger was simply an innocent producer in need of education, and under the impression that perhaps I had convinced him to allow skeptics to speak their mind, I gave him Tom Malone's phone number. However, after the CBS airing of the laughable "In Search Of Noah's Ark" on February 20, also produced by Balsiger, I realized our thin hope for freethought balance was groundless. Balsiger, identified as author of a fundamentalist book about Noah's Ark, could never be trusted to present any critical balance. CBS should be ashamed of itself for financing and airing these programs. They make tabloid journalism look like healthy entertainment. Their documentary faade lends credibility to myth. This is part of the reason that ignorance and superstition are still strong in the 20th century. ---------------------------------------------------------------- This article is reprinted (with permission) from the April 1993 issue of Freethought Today, bulletin of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. For more information, write or call Freedom From Religion Foundation P. O. Box 750 Madison, WI 53701 USA (608) 256-8900 ------------------------------------------------------------------


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