On the frontier of healing, how far out is too far?
Originally published in Current, March 2, 1998
By Karen Everhart Bedford
Part of public TV's job has always been to "push the envelope," and air programs that commercial broadcasters are not willing or ready to handle. But some pubcasters say stations may be pushing too fast and too far with some spiritual thinkers who describe new ways to heal viewers' emotional and physical ills--in particular, Dr. Caroline Myss.
The so-called guru programs appear to be exempt from the programmers' review that would apply to public affairs or science documentaries, and are carried almost entirely during pledge drives, where emotionally appealing programs often lead directly to heavy pledging.
"I think we've gotten a little carried away with it," said Fred Esplin, g.m. of KUED in Salt Lake City and chairman of PBS's program policy committee. Esplin said he stated this view during a recent meeting of PBS's program service committee, a separate advisory group.
"I'm concerned that we do need to exercise some discretion about how many self-help programs we use and how legitimate they are," Esplin told Current. "We have a responsibility, by virtue of being a public service and educational, not to exploit our viewers and not to do something just because it will make a buck."
Viewers and programmers raised credibility concerns last December after stations aired two PBS specials featuring Caroline Myss (pronounced "Mace"), an author and lecturer who describes herself as a "medical intuitive" with a 93 percent accuracy rate at diagnosing patients' illnesses using her intuition. Myss holds a doctorate in intuition and energy medicine from Greenwich University, a nonaccredited institution in Hawaii. She teaches at the same school with Dr. C. Norman Shealy, a neurosurgeon who mentored and tested her as she developed as a practitioner.
A Florida programmer criticized one of the specials last December as "far too close to the realm of faith healing" in a chat group on PBS Express, but declined to comment on the program's content in an interview with Current. Another from a small western station said a Myss show was "a little tough to defend on the basis of credibility" in an e-mail, but did not respond to Current's request for an interview.
Station programmers are reluctant to criticize on-air pledging practices that work for others. Patty Starkey, a prominent fundraiser from KSPS in Spokane, said her station didn't schedule the Myss specials in December, and she declined to discuss the credentials issue. "The shows that do best for us are either music--like Andre Rieu--or stunts of Faulty Towers and Lawrence Welk. We tend to go in that direction."
While some pubcasters are reluctant to embrace Myss, many Americans enjoy her books and were glad for the chance to see her on television. Why People Don't Heal and How They Can, her most recent book, was released late last year, just as PBS debuted a pledge special with the same title. PBS also distributed The Three Levels of Power and How to Use Them last December. Former American Program Service programmer Pat Faust and Sandra Hay were executive producers of both specials.
Many major-market stations reported very strong responses to the Myss programs. "She's a terrific fundraiser," said Kurt Mendelsohn, director of creative services for KQED, San Francisco, where Myss appeared in the studios during pledge breaks.
Myss also had a "very successful run" on WNET, New York, according to Anne Gorfinkel, p.d. "We did get some callers from the more orthodox community asking, 'What is this about?' and 'Why are you putting this charlatan on?', but by and large the response was overwhelmingly positive."
Gorfinkel said self-help teachers have become a very important part of WNET's pledge schedule. "People get attracted to a subject and want to own the material so they can sort of chew on them and really use them."
When the e-mails questioning Myss's credentials circulated last December, Gorfinkel said she wasn't too troubled by them. "She clearly had a message that people appreciated hearing. I don't think she misrepresented herself."
In both programs, an announcer introduces Myss as a medical intuitive with a diagnosis accuracy rate of 93 percent, but her intuitive abilities are not the main focus of the televised lectures. Instead she encourages viewers to let go of wounds from their past, learn to forgive, and direct their energies toward empowering spiritual growth.
Skeptics can easily dismiss Myss's message as New Age mumbo-jumbo, but what it basically boils down to is a lecture on the power of positive thinking and an affirmation of transcendence.
"She captures the imagination and language for people who feel the materialist paradigm isn't adequate," commented Marilyn Schlitz, an expert on energy medicine who is research director for the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Sausalito, Calif. While Myss has not participated in well-controlled experiments that would help establish scientifically how medical intuition works, Schlitz said she respects her work as pioneering. "Caroline is a person who is describing something that we have yet to figure out how to capture."
"First, do no harm"
The editorial standards that guard PBS's reputation for quality are not applied as rigorously to guru specials as to some other program types.
In the case of the Myss specials, public broadcasters didn't check out her claims of diagnostic accuracy. Even Myss's own publicist was unsure of how they had been established.
As it turns out, Shealy tested Myss several years ago, using a research instrument that he had developed especially to measure the accuracy of medical intuitives, according to Mary-Charlotte Shealy, his wife. She acknowledged that the tests weren't randomized and double-blind--the scientific "gold standard" that Schlitz would like to see.
"When you're working with intuitives and you start nailing them down and get too scientific and too picky, you're bringing them down to the physical dimension that isn't where they're used to working," she explained.
Faust, who's played a key role in bringing all varieties of pledge programs to public television, said that production partners Faust Entertainment and Mountain Drive require talent appearing in an informational program to sign a release assuring that the material in the show is accurate and cleared for broadcast use. "The information has to stand either as fact or as the opinion of an individual coming from this background," she explained.
"Our evaluation tends to be on popularity--the thousands of books sold as an author," explained Alan Foster, director of syndication services for PBS, who oversees fundraising specials. A book deal with a "legitimate, major publisher" alleviates concerns about credibility, he said.
"You know, we do look at it like the Hippocratic oath--'First, do no harm,' he added.
Faust cited standards beyond popularity. "We like to feel that, additionally, we're working with people who are of high caliber," she said. She also looks for evidence that the work of a "guide and teacher" has benefited others and attracted a growing and loyal following over time.
Stations' concerns about credibility are "always valid and highly important," she said, and arise whenever "something slightly different or out of the mainstream" comes into the line-up. "But, shouldn't there be the same concern with every individual? There's an assumption when a person has a degree from a major university that there's nothing to question."
"I don't think the point of their message is whether they're a Ph.D. doctor or a medical doctor--it has to do with having an uplifting message for people, for millions of people," said Foster.
Whether PBS should be distributing "what some label as psychobabble" is a valid question, he acknowledged. If stations become "nearly unanimous" in saying they don't want to air any more gurus, he'll stop booking them. "A couple of stations have told me that, but others are saying, 'Well, not so fast.' "
"The bottom line with pledging is to raise dollars," Foster continued. "I tend to be vocal in saying we must have values in pledge programs that go beyond the bottom line. When one says that, it gets very quiet in the room because the folks want to raise the dollars. Until I'm told otherwise--that stations don't want them--we'll probably have a self-help show or two every drive."
This month, stations will try out APS and PBS specials that feature Christiane Northrup and Dean Ornish, physicians who talk about the mind-body connection.
For her part, Schlitz doesn't see any harm in PBS bringing Myss's message to a broader audience. "I don't think she's making big claims, and her ideas are presented in a grounded fashion. It's great to get these ideas out and start a conversation."
To Current's home page
Earlier news: Self-help speakers offer help in a secular world.
Outside link: Caroline Myss's web site.
Web page created March 1, 1998