X-Files and X-Fictions

January 2000
by Sheila Gibson

Kill your television.

I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.

Everyone has heard these sentiments. Many people agree with these sentiments. But how many people live these sentiments?

I’ve been off the plug-in drug cold turkey since July of 1998. As a child, I’d watch up to 10 hours a day without batting an eye or anything near that level of exercise.

My roommate installed a 25-inch monster set with speakers when she moved in during July of last year. Fifty gazillion channels of cathode-ray temptation sits in my den. Not only do I resist, I split the cable bill with her.

I’m not immaculate. I break my vow of tele-celibacy when Penn Jillette is a panelist on Politically Incorrect, and I watched as many episodes of Penn & Teller’s Sin City Spectacular as I could.

I decided I had better things to do than watch lousy sitcoms I didn’t like anyway. Cynthia Heimel said it best in her book Sex Tips for Girls: “When you’re old and gray, do you want the best story from your vanished youth to be how thrilling it was when Elizabeth Taylor was on General Hospital?” I promptly stopped watching and started doing. Not long after, I started doing skepticism as the Chairchick of the Massachusetts branch of NESS. My TV time is now spent reading, writing letters, seeing friends, using my treadmill, and NESS work. I have no regrets. But the idiot box still holds the power to piss me off royally. Why? Because I’m a skeptic.

Television beams content certain to offend thinkers across the nation all day, every day. We do win one now and again. Randi’s NOVA special, John Stossel’s recent Power of Belief special on ABC, and Michael Shermer’s Exploring the Unknown series on the Fox Family channel are examples. Overall, the deck is stacked against us. The skeptical viewpoint is railroaded, minimized, taken out of context, cut short, and otherwise abused—if we’re lucky enough to get our views presented at all.

Those who should grant us a fair hearing constantly break our hearts. A&E, The Discover Channel, The Learning Channel, and others which pretend to deliver the facts sandwich solid fare with gullible garbage. PBS, a network designed as an “ollie-oxen-free” zone for commercial influences, has buckled. Deepak Chopra and other pushers of pseudo-science run during pledge week hooey-a-thons.

Randi wrote to complain about this. Several times. On letterhead. The star of a 100 percent nonsense-free, highly popular NOVA episode claims to have received no response whatsoever from PBS. The experience convinced him to stop donating two years ago.

Stuff like this makes me mad enough to write a column about just how mad I am. What’s irked me lately is Geller on Leno. I didn’t see it, but I heard enough about it to get really riled.

Geller didn’t make me mad. We all knew what he was going to do. It was Leno who infuriated me. He ultimately decided Geller’s schtick was mere entertainment and let the notorious Israeli walk all over him. At one point in the performance, Leno allegedly asked someone, “Are you open-minded, or are you a skeptic?”


I called some skeptical friends for a head-check: Paul Jaffe, president of Washington’s National Capital Area Skeptics; James Randi; and Pat Linse, art director for Skeptic magazine, and talked about skepticism, television, and whether it was worth the fight.

Tilting at Video Windmills?

Everyone agreed that fictional shows, no matter how irresponsible, were bad targets for our wrath. Jaffe and others expressed fears for free speech and a reluctance to step into the same boat with fundamentalist Christians, who demand the cancellation of shows that offend them. Plus, attacking works of fiction because of their factual inaccuracies makes us skeptics look stupid. Jaffe and Linse said they enjoyed past episodes of The X-Files, as have I. You could argue that The X-Files has been good for skepticism. Gene Emery, in a recent lecture for NESS, pointed out that Scully and Mulder don’t run away from weird things—they run toward them and examine them. The X-Files also blasts stereotypes: the skeptic is not a grumpy old man, but a hot redheaded chick. We all know that never happens in real life—right?

When the paranormal appears on shows that pretend to resemble reality, things get messier. Attacks on uncritical pseudo-documentaries and news programs are necessary. What about those gray areas where “infotainment” shows such as the Tonight Show and Oprah Winfrey fall?

Randi endorsed the power of writing letters, PBS adventures aside. “Letters count. I am a great believer in that. If a station receives 8 to 10 letters a day, positive or negative, it can be very significant.”

If you don’t write, someone else with radically different views might. Stations that broadcast Randi’s appearances commonly receive complaint letters, he said. He recalled a chilling letter sent within the last six months from a mother who was furious over the ‘adverse’ effect Randi had on her teenage daughter. ‘I don’t want my girl thinking,’ she wrote, Randi said.

Not Ready for Prime Time?

Will skeptics ever land a Stossel-like series on a major network? I’m skeptical. Consider the tale of TV Nation. I feel it was the most skeptical show broadcast on a major network. Its escapades merit a column of its own.

Creator Michael Moore has sober words for skeptics with their sights on TV. “In the battle between art and commerce, commerce virtually always wins,” he writes in the afterward of Adventures in a TV Nation, a book co-written with series producer Kathleen Glynn.

“We wonder, as we look back, why more of television doesn’t aspire to something better than shows that reinforce stereotypes, won’t question the status quo, or appeal to the severely brain-dead. Don’t the executives read their own ratings sheets? The top ten shows in any given week are productions like ER, Seinfeld, 60 Minutes, The Simpsons, Frasier—the smarter shows. People don’t want to watch dumb TV. Hollywood should take that cue and start producing more risky, subversive television,” he wrote.

Hollywood did not take that cue, though the show won an Emmy in 1995 for Outstanding Informational Series the day after the final NBC episode aired. Fox didn’t take that cue when it ignored thousands of letters from viewers asking the network to keep TV Nation on the air.

“To us, it wasn’t just a TV show. It was a video Molotov cocktail we threw into a medium we hoped to shake up a bit,” Moore writes. “Did it work? It did if you feel like putting down this book and going out and raising a little hell yourself.”

How liberating! It’s also the reason why you will never again see a show like TV Nation on mainstream airwaves. Television is funded by advertising. What greater enemy of critical thinking is there than advertising? Advertisers don’t want to place their products next to video Molotov cocktails. They do not want people shutting off the TV, going out, and raising a little hell. They want people to sit there, passive and unchallenged, and buy.

Moore persists in the medium. The Awful Truth is the latest incarnation of what began with TV Nation. It screens on the Bravo Channel, deep in the backwaters of cable obscurity.

Kill Your Television? Why Not?

Linse restored my reason to hope. She and the stalwarts of Skeptic magazine mount a good offense by sending free copies to members of the media. “People say (the Skeptics Society) is not a lobbying group. The hell it ain’t!” she says, noting this tactic garners inquiries from creators of new shows, reporters, and others with influence.

She argued against skeptics turning their backs on the medium while acknowledging the TV business can be brutal, nasty, and awkward. Every episode of Exploring the Unknown is the product of “a long, elaborate series of compromises. We must be somewhat nice to the paranormalists or else they won’t come on the show,” she said.

She advised us to “enjoy your pissed-offed-ness. Let it motivate you.” As we spoke, she drew illustrations for a Junior Skeptic article about television and skepticism. “This Leno thing lit a fire under my tail to make this the best it can be,” she said.

As for the X-Files, she mused about creating a Junior Skeptic piece on “If Scully Were Real,” comparing the actions of the “TV Scully” against what a “Real Scully” would do.

She also hoped that someday, there would be money enough in the movement to nurture young, talented individuals—skeptical scholarships.
“Television is a terrific social influence. The question is, how can we influence it? It’s really an opportunity. We’ve got to give it our best shot, and stay optimistic.”

Now put down this newsletter, go out there, and raise a little skeptical hell yourself.