Incredible Mysteries of Sun Pictures by David Bloomberg Over the past few months, CBS has
Incredible Mysteries of Sun Pictures
by David Bloomberg
Over the past few months, CBS has shown several
specials produced by Sun International Pictures, Inc. These
shows have all dealt with the Bible in one way or another
and have been biased towards the pro-literalism, pro-
creationism side. Skeptics are included for short segments
that believers then seemingly tear apart, along with acting
clips supporting the stories as they appear in the Bible.
REALL has reported on the most recent two of these shows,
The Incredible Discovery of Noah's Ark, which aired on
February 20th ("REALLity Check", March 1993; "REALLity
Check", July 1993) and Ancient Secrets of the Bible, Part
II, which aired on May 15 ("Logic Abuse and CBS", June
1993), but new information makes it necessary to take
another, much closer, look at Sun and their methods.
As reported in the July "REALLity Check", Time magazine
and the Associated Press (AP) had stories claiming that
George Jammal, one of the people who appeared on the Noah's
Ark show to tell his story about finding the Ark, has
actually fabricated the entire story to expose Sun's shoddy
research. This he allegedly did with the help of Dr. Gerald
Larue, a professor emeritus of biblical history and
archaeology at the University of Southern California, who
had appeared in an earlier Sun production.
Jammal's story, as told on the Sun show, was that he
and a companion had gone to Mt. Ararat to search for the
Ark. According to the story, they found it and took a
number of pictures, but Jammal's companion was killed and
buried in a landslide, along with all the photos. Jammal
had one piece of evidence to show for his trip, a piece of
wood that supposedly came from the Ark. This was the story
that Larue claimed had been fabricated by Jammal and
Sun fired back with a six-page response to the Time
article. CBS has remained mostly silent. The Sun response
seeks to address four issues: Who is making the claim that
Jammal fabricated his account? Did Sun perform due diligence
in its research of the Jammal account? Was the piece of
wood alleged to have come from the Ark authentic? Is Mr.
Jammal's account still factual?
In answer to the first question, the response talks
about Dr. Larue. They bring up the following information:
"Dr. LaRue (sic) is probably conducting some type of a
vindictive campaign against Sun. This may be the result of
his appearance as a skeptic in our show, Ancient Secrets of
the Bible I which aired on May 15, 1992. According to Time
magazine, Dr. LaRue felt he was `set up as a straw man.'"
They go on to say, "Since 1982, Dr. LaRue has served as
chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of
Religion, a group dedicated to refuting Bible claims; was
the consulting editor (1987-1989) and Emeritus President of
the National Hemlock Society, a euthanasia advocacy
organization; and is the senior editor of Free Inquiry, a
humanist magazine published by the U.S. Council for
Democratic and Secular Humanism, another group with goals of
removing religion from society and Bible oriented programs
from public broadcast."
But what does this have to do with whether or not Larue
coached Jammal? Apparently Sun is trying to imply that
because Larue is a secular humanist and is upset at Sun, his
claims of having aided Jammal are automatically suspect.
Rather than trying to defend against his claims or find out
the truth behind them, they begin by attacking the man
making those claims.
The Sun response then goes on to defend their research
of Jammal's story. They say they interviewed Jammal, looking
for flaws and inconsistencies in the story, and then gave
the interview tapes to a psychiatrist, Dr. Paul Meier, who
served as the field physician on an earlier Noah's Ark
expedition. Meier told Sun's Chief Researcher, David
Balsiger, that he found the accounts "totally believable."
Meier recorded an interview that had to be cut from the
show, in which he said of Jammal, "we would call him an
`obsessive-compulsive with histrionic features.' What this
really means is that he's a perfectionist performer." Later
in the interview, he says that Jammal wept while discussing
his alleged companion who had been killed by a rock slide.
He uses this show of emotion as evidence to support the
reality of the story. But earlier, he had already admitted
that Jammal is a "perfectionist performer"! He knew Jammal
was an actor, but apparently ignored the possibility that
Jammal was acting.
In that interview, Meier also admits that he does not
know Jammal personally and has only studied him from the
tapes. So, there is a psychiatrist who is certainly not
unbiased, working from tapes of an interview done with an
actor, giving testimony that it is accurate. This is what
Sun considers research?
In addition to the psychiatrist, Sun claims they
analyzed a map Jammal gave them showing expedition routes.
According to Sun, "it could not have been drawn by anyone
who did not have experience with the mountain." Sun does
not, however, explain why this is so.
The third portion of the response deals with the piece
of wood Jammal showed, claiming it was a piece of the Ark.
Sun begins by bluntly admitting that they do not know
whether it is real. However, con-tradictions then appear in
their response. They say, "It has not been the practice of
Sun or other production companies to spend money or time
testing and documenting artifacts shown on the air by
interviewees." That sounds fine, until it is compared with
Balsiger's comments in the AP article. He said, "We couldn't
test the wood in time for our deadline." On one hand, Sun
is claiming it is not their practice to test such things, on
the other, they are claiming they didn't have time to test
The remainder of that section defends Sun's refusal to
test such things by saying their shows are "entertainment"
and that they would have been creating news if they had run
the tests. This brings up the question of why they tested
Jammal at all, through the psychiatrist and the map. Where
does Sun draw the line? How much research is too much?
The final section deals with the question that sums it
all up, "Is Mr. Jammal's expedition account of seeing the
Ark still factual?" Sun says they still stand by the account
as being accurate, even in the face of the evidence given by
Larue. "Our position is not expected to change unless there
is an admission by Mr. Jammal of an elaborate hoax, and how
he managed to execute such a clever hoax to convince a
professional psychiatrist and several experienced Ark-Ararat
explorers that he was telling the truth...or until third
party collaborating evidence can substantiate Dr. LaRue's
(sic) account of the hoax."
So what does Jammal have to say about all this?
According to the AP article, he refused to talk to
reporters. According to Skeptics Society Director Michael
Shermer, and Dr. Larue, Jammal is not saying anything
because he is afraid of getting sued. When REALL contacted
Mr. Jammal, he said that, under his lawyer's advice, he had
no comment at this time. But the September 1993 issue of
Freethought Today has as its cover story an article saying
that Jammal will be speaking about the story at the Freedom
From Religion Foundation (FFRF) convention on October 23.
Larue adds that Jammal will lay out the entire story at that
convention. The story identifies Jammal as an actor and
mimer, and an FFRF member since 1986.
When REALL asked Sun's David Balsiger what would happen
if Jammal came out and admitted that the story was
fabricated, Balsiger said that there may be legal
implications to hoaxing a network. He also said, "CBS
attorneys were trying to speak to Dr. Larue and he would not
get back to them." Larue said that he has never been
contacted by CBS or their attorneys. Balsiger added that he
has talked to Jammal's attorney, and that Jammal won't make
any statements until he sees what legal ramifications might
result from Sun or CBS against him and Larue.
But even without a direct admission from Jammal, there
are questions about Sun's methodology in writing and
producing these shows. For example, as the Time article
stated, Larue does believe that he was set up as a straw man
by Sun. In an interview with REALL, Larue said that when Sun
came to him for their piece on the fall of the walls of
Jericho, they brought a statement and asked him to read it.
He said it wasn't exactly the statement he would have made,
but it was mostly in accord with his views. He went on to
say, "I read this and was given the opportunity to expound
on why I didn't believe it was a genuine historical
happening." However, all of that was cut out, and all that
was left in when the show aired was the original statement
that Sun had brought to him. This was followed, according to
Larue, by Dr. Bryant Wood, who went on to give a lengthy
discussion of his point, which countered Larue's and favored
the Biblical interpretation to which all three of Sun's
shows have been slanted.
Farrell Till, editor of The Skeptical Review, feels the
same way of his own appearance on Ancient Secrets of the
Bible, Part II ("Logic Abuse and CBS", June 1993). Sun came
to Till with a script, the same way they came to Larue. Till
was told he could change it, and he did so, with the
understanding that his changes would remain in the show.
Instead, his time was cut down to very little, mostly
representing what had been originally scripted, and he was
dropped altogether from one scene, replaced by Carol
Dickinson, a professor of psychology who simply read the
In his interview with REALL, Sun's Balsiger discussed
the interviews. "Being entertainment, it's a scripted show,"
he said. "But when it comes to the experts, they have the
liberty and the rights to [put] what they're saying any way
they want, the only requirements being that they cannot be
excessive on time, make [their] point fairly quickly, and
[they] can't go off on a tangent where [they're] going to
get five minutes, because it doesn't happen. Most of our
experts always changed something in the script." He said
they try to base the script on what they think the expert
will say, based on research that they've done, but they
don't hold them to it.
In the case of Farrell Till, Balsiger said, "he had
three scenes and wrote a better argument for all three
scenes and that's the way we shot it." But, he said, "even
though we shoot an interviewee doesn't guarantee it's going
to get in the show, it doesn't guarantee that their piece
may not be shortened, it doesn't guarantee that it won't be
edited in some way."
Why is the editing necessary? Again according to
Balsiger, "the show was over 2 hours too long. We haven't
done a show yet that hasn't been at least an hour [too]
long. What happens is that we attempt to keep as many
interviewees in as possible, [so] we have to shorten their
pieces. Maybe they were speaking for a minute, they get
shortened to 30 seconds. A sentence or two is cut off the
end or somewhere, not to change their point of view or
anything, but to let them make the longest point they are
making in shorter period of time."
"I'm not sure exactly what happened in [Till's] case. It
may not have been the duration of what the interview was. We
also have some other requirements that we attempt to meet in
each show: What is our ratio of women in each show? Also,
does a person make more than two appearances? He could have
been dropped on his third appearance because he already had
two appearances and another factor may have been that ... we
were way down on our females. There's a lot of factors that
go into these shows, and to the viewer it looks like we're
Indeed it does. For example, if they only allow a
person in twice, why shoot three scenes with him? If they
base the script on their research of a particular person's
views, why did the psychology professor who replaced Till
read the exact remarks that Sun presented Till? Did their
research indicate that she had the exact same views as he,
and would express them in the same way? Why were both
scenes with Till and Larue cut down such that essentially
only the original statements, scripted by Sun, were left,
even though Balsiger admitted that Till came up with better
arguments? Why doesn't Sun ask the interviewees ahead of
time which of their arguments should be cut first, if
necessary? Balsiger said that they have NEVER done a show
that hasn't been too long, so shouldn't they think about
editing ahead of time? Why give the interviewees the
impression that most or all of what they say will be in the
show when it simply doesn't happen? Sun needs to answer all
of these questions about their procedures if they expect
viewers to stop wondering if they are "rigging something."
So Larue did feel that Sun was setting up a hoax upon
CBS viewers, and his friends and acquaintances knew of his
feelings. George Jammal knew Larue for approximately seven
years, so when Sun came to him about his Noah story, he
contacted Larue. According to Larue in his interview with
REALL, Jammal started his Ark tale several years earlier to
expose faulty research by religious organizations, and had
been interviewed by a creationist organization then. Sun saw
this interview and called Jammal when they decided to put
together their show. Jammal saw this as a perfect
opportunity to expose Sun's lack of research. To help in
this endeavor, Larue says Jammal got a piece of wood from
his backyard, soaked it in various juices, baked it in the
oven, accidentally charred it a bit, scraped off the charred
material, soaked it in soy sauce, and put it back in the
oven. Thus he had his chunk of Noah's Ark. Jammal concocted
the story about his companion Vladimir, who supposedly fell
to his death, to account for his lack of photos.
Again according to Larue in his interview with REALL,
Jammal has never been to Mt. Ararat. He was coached by Larue
on what to say to help back up his story. Larue said,
"Jammal's part was designed to expose the hoax that Sun
International was pulling on the people. We felt that the
whole CBS program was a hoax."
Larue went on to say, "It talks about the discovery of
Noah's Ark. That's a lie. They never discovered Noah's Ark."
He said that calling it "The Search For Noah's Ark" or
something similar would have been much more honest. Larue
was very blunt in describing his views. "There was no
discovery. The title is a lie. The idea that it was a
documentary is a lie. The third lie is that they are now
explaining it as entertainment only. That was never given
clearly in the text."
In fact, the host of the Noah's Ark show, Darren
McGavin, stated at the beginning that this was a "non-
religious, scientific investigation." To the average viewer,
this makes them think of a documentary, not an entertainment
show. But Balsiger said all of Sun's shows are contracted
under the entertainment division; they're not news, nor
documentary. He calls them reality TV shows and says they
are "actually not allowed to create news. I personally have
gotten in trouble over this issue in the past. Being a
researcher, it is my inclination to check this or check
that, but on an entertainment type show, we are not
mandated, and matter of fact we [cannot] make news or create
news. On an entertainment show, we are actually forbidden
from doing that and instructed not to do that. I did it on
another occasion and when it was discovered that I had
tested an artifact, [which] proved what the interviewee was
trying to make, it ended up getting not used, period."
When asked about the narrator calling it a "scientific
investigation," Balsiger said it "may be splitting hairs on
something that was said by the host, but it should have been
pretty clear that our show was an entertainment." Asked how
this should have been clear, he indicated that it should
have been obvious from the context. He said that news shows
and documentaries are produced by the network news side of
the network, while this was not. He added, "We've only done
entertainment shows over the years. Reality TV shows are
entertainment. Always have been, always will be." Balsiger
said that he considers shows such as Unsolved Mysteries to
also be reality TV shows. However, Unsolved Mysteries makes
a point of telling the audience before every airing of an
episode, "This is not a news broadcast."
According to Balsiger, we can look forward to more
"reality TV" from Sun and CBS. Even though the AP story
says that CBS claimed they had no other Sun programs
scheduled, Balsiger said that they have a show, Ancient
Mysteries of the World airing on CBS in November, which is
presently in production, and one on UFOs that will probably
air in December. He said there are others under development
with CBS. Why didn't CBS mention these in the AP story?
It seems that there are a number of unanswered questions
regarding Sun and CBS. L.A. Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg
has called for an explanation from CBS (July 7, 1993), but
has gotten none. He called their stance an "incredible
double standard regarding truth in news and entertainment
So where are the answers? If Jammal admits to having
made up the story, will Sun and CBS retract the story
publicly and admit that they need to check into their
research procedures? Or will they both continue to say that,
as "entertainment," they don't need to do any research, and
can just present claims? The line between news and
entertainment is getting dangerously blurred. When a
narrator calls a show a "scientific investigation" but the
viewer is expected to somehow realize that it is just
"entertainment," that line has been removed altogether.
- 0 -
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank