What Price Fame?
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"You mean the one under the ruins of the Temple of Solomon," I
"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 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
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
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
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
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
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