Jim Harold explains why mainstream media outlets stick to conventional “giggle factor” reports of the paranormal.

Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with author, and host of the Paranormal Podcast, Jim Harold.  During the interview Harold explains how the mainstream media reports on the paranormal:

Alex Tsakiris: You’re covering an area that has a great deal of interest to the general public, but one that still doesn’t get a lot of serious mainstream media coverage. Are you surprised more media outlets haven’t jumped into it just for the numbers?

Jim Harold: I wish I knew the answer to that because that’s my problem with the mainstream media when it comes to something like the paranormal. I can’t tell you why it is. I don’t know that it’s a conspiracy. Maybe it is that people who are in the mainstream media understand this area has a “giggle factor.” They’re almost afraid to treat it seriously because they’ve been trained otherwise.

And I think in some cases it may not be a conspiracy. They just think — this is the way we cover the paranormal. We laugh at it; we giggle at it; we play The X-Files music; we put it as the kicker to end the broadcast and we’re done. So I think it’s more of a convention than anything else.

Alex Tsakiris: I’m not going to jump too quickly on the conspiracy idea, but I do think we have to go there a little bit. We have to go back and ask — who created the template in the first place?

Jim Harold: True.

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Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome Jim Harold to Skeptiko. As host of the super-successful “The Paranormal Podcast” show, Jim covers all manner of paranormal topics including ghosts, hauntings, UFOs, parapsychology, and many others that we will get into today.

Jim, I’m a long-time fan of your show and I want to welcome you to Skeptiko.

Jim Harold: Well thank you, Alex. That’s very gracious of you to ask me to be on the program and I’m honored.

Alex Tsakiris: You know, you do have a great show, a unique show. I thought we could start just by telling folks who maybe don’t know about it a little bit about The Paranormal Podcast, some of the history to it. What I’m particularly interested in is your overall perspective on covering the paranormal, if you have any thoughts on that.

Jim Harold: Sure. Well, The Paranormal Podcast is my flagship podcast. It’s the one I started out with. Actually, here in about four days from when we’re recording this, July 29th will be my 6th year anniversary. I’ve done 200 shows of which the 200th went up today and that is with Michael Shermer, the super skeptic. It’s kind of branched off from there.

I have several other shows now. I have “Jim Harold’s Campfire,” which are personal ghost stories. I have “The Paranormal Report,” which is a paranormal news show with Clayton Morris from the FOX news channel. I do another show called “Weird News Radio” with Kate Patello, if folks remember her from TechTV. She used to co-host with Leo Laporte. That’s kind of a funny show. And then I have a Plus Club, so really The Paranormal Podcast has kind of blossomed into almost a mini-network of shows I do. I’m an independent content creator like you, Alex, right here from my home studio.

In terms of my thoughts about covering the paranormal, I’m in my early 40s and a program that I loved growing up was “In Search Of.” It was hosted of course by Leonard Nimoy. It would do these weekly exposes on different stories. When I started to podcast six years ago, I was searching for a topic and because I had a love for broadcasting and I thought, “If I go into a bookstore, what’s the first section I go to?” I have many interests like most of us—history, music, sports, news, politics. But all those things I thought I really couldn’t add anything to the discussion.

Then I thought, “I’m fascinated by the paranormal and I’d bet there’s at least 10 or 20 people out there who are interested in it, too. And not from the kind of let’s go act crazy and go into a house and chase ghosts, and things like that. I don’t want to cast too wide of a net on that because I don’t want to pooh-pooh all ghost hunting, but that wasn’t what I was interested in.

I was interested in having people on my program that had a particular point of view, had a book, had a theory about UFOs, had a theory about ghosts. And to just have them on and hear them out, not argue with them, not say if they were right or wrong, but just say, “Okay, Mr. Author, Mrs. Expert, tell us what you think.”

The funny thing I’ll tell you, Alex—I don’t want to be too longwinded here—but I’ll tell you my philosophy at the beginning was this is going to be great. I’m going to do this show for about six months and I’m going to get to talk to all these different experts and things. I’ll have this paranormal stuff figured out. Well the truth is, six years in, I have more questions than I have answers but it’s been a fascinating journey.

Alex Tsakiris: That’s great and I can certainly relate to the joy of just being able to talk to so many knowledgeable, well-informed people and getting to ask them questions. It’s kind of fun.

Jim Harold: It is.

Alex Tsakiris: And it’s certainly fun to hook up with you and then network into all the guests that you’ve had on. But I have to say, I think you really did a pretty good job of summing that up. It opens up a lot of questions. You do a great job; you come on with a straightforward show, a very nonjudgmental approach.

One thing I guess I wonder, particularly about your show, you’re obviously covering an area that has a great deal of interest to the general public. We still, even in this age, 2011, we don’t get a lot of serious mainstream media coverage. Are you surprised that more media outlets haven’t jumped into it with just a straightforward approach, not a giggle approach or not a wildly conspiratorial approach? Just a straightforward ‘here’s a high-quality author that’s put out an interesting book. Let’s talk to him.’ Why don’t more of them do it just for the numbers’ sake?

Jim Harold: I wish I knew the answer to that because that’s my problem with the mainstream media when it comes to something like the paranormal. I mean, I think those of us who—and later on I can talk about my personal beliefs although I try not to inject too much of that into the program. I treat it more as a straight news program with some personal opinion.

But my theory is I could go into any local newsroom and write the script according to them for a UFO story. You would put it towards the end of the broadcast. You would have, “Well, Springfield residents today say they may have seen a UFO and it’s a visit from The X-Files. Joe Johnson will tell us more.” Then they have The X-Files music playing. They go in and they have the arched eyebrows and they’re giggling. It’s just annoying.

Every person listening to this can see that news package in their mind’s eye. That tells me that it’s clichéd because news coverage that is good is not clichéd. It should have some surprises. And it’s funny. There have been some good things done in the mainstream media, but they’re few and far between. One of the best things I ever saw was the late, great Peter Jennings right before he got sick, did what I thought was a pretty good, probably 2004 or 2005, a really good long form ABC program on UFOs.

Alex, I can’t tell you why it is. I don’t know that it’s a conspiracy. I think maybe part of it is this. Maybe it is that people who are in the mainstream media understand this area has a “giggle factor.” They’re almost afraid to treat it seriously because they’ve been trained—everything they’ve seen, everything they’ve been taught over the last 15 to 20 years—the template is ‘let’s arch our eyebrows. Let’s giggle and let’s play The X-Files music.’

Local television in particular is a job of conventions. They have a set of things. If they cover a fire story, you could probably see 20 fire stories all around the country that are going to look basically the same. And I think in some cases it may not be a conspiracy. It’s just this is the way we cover the paranormal. We laugh at it; we giggle at it; we play The X-Files music; we put it as the kicker to end the broadcast and we’re done. So I think it’s more of a convention than anything else.

Alex Tsakiris: I can see where you’re coming from. Certainly I’m not going to jump too quickly on the conspiracy idea. But I do think we have to go there a little bit. We have to roll back and say, “Who created the template in the first place?”

Jim Harold: True.

Alex Tsakiris: Who keeps driving it? We’ve found in the kind of topics that we cover here and care about here on Skeptiko, particularly like near-death experience science. We always approach it from the science angle. We’re digging into research studies and talking about statistics and all that kind of stuff.

But it amazes me that we’ve run into the same kind of thing where there will be this study—we featured not too long ago this small group of Slovenian doctors that did a small case study with 11 people and it just blows up as international news because they found evidence that kind of contradicts the mainstream story that you want to do, which is near-death experiences are all just a figment of the imagination. They’re illusions. So that story was in that vibe so it was like, ‘Great. This is going to go huge.’

And then you’ve got all these other guys, a tremendous amount of evidence suggesting that there isn’t a conventional medical explanation. Those barely get any coverage. So that makes me kind of wonder. But the other thing that really makes me wonder is just the way that it’s done and the quality of the people involved. It doesn’t seem to always balance.

And yet, as you alluded to before, and I guess you didn’t go there, but even when we do get a balance on these stories, it seems like in a lot of cases it’s a forced balance, you know? A lot of really good quality work. People have gone and done the UFO thing. They have the radar matched with the on-site observations matched with all these other eyewitness reports and video. And then on the other side to balance it out, we have some half-baked debunker who has some theory.

Jim Harold: This is true. A good example of that is actually—I think it’s on the Internet. I think you can find it in some places like YouTube and so forth.

I’ll just tell the story real quick for folks who haven’t heard it. I had Robert Hastings on the show who is the major guy between the whole thing where in 1967 at Malmstrom Air Force Base, ICBMs were supposedly taken off-line and at the same time there were UFO sightings in the area. Last September there was a big press conference at the National Press Club to go over this. So I was talking to him and I was going through his book.

After the show I said, “There’s this one story in here that seems very familiar to me. You had a gentleman who had been an Air Force film officer who was in charge of filming tests of missiles in the early ‘60s in, I believe, Big Sur, California. He said that he saw something shoot down a missile. Something not of the U.S. Air Force stock and he was basically hushed up.” I said, “I think I know who that is.”

He said, “Who?”

I named the name, “Dr. Bob Jacobs.”

He said, “Yeah, that’s him.”

It turns out that I’d heard the story 20 years before when Dr. Jacobs was a professor of mine, before I ever got into this. But to exactly your point, let’s fast forward 20 years later. He was on Larry King a couple of years back, telling his story.

This guy, a Ph.D., professor for many years, very knowledgeable about video and film, saying, “Hey, in the early ‘60s I had this experience where I saw something shoot down a missile. What it is, I don’t know. But basically it came up to the missile and went around in 360 degrees and basically disintegrated it, and I had it on film.”

So anyway, it was Larry King. I believe it was Bob Hastings and then they had on also Bill Nye, The Science Guy, who obviously knew nothing about the case and was just throwing out things. And that’s the thing that gets me with skeptics throwing up general objections, not specific objections. Kind of what you’re saying. Just throwing up whatever. ‘Oh, it could have been water vapor,’ or whatever he was saying.

Dr. Jacobs, to his credit, lit into him. He’s like, “Pal, I was there. I know what I saw. It was not a…” So if anybody wants to see that you can probably look up Larry King and Bob Jacobs, Bill Nye, The Science Guy on YouTube. Or somewhere out there there’s a video of it.

Alex Tsakiris: I’ve seen the video. It’s really…

Jim Harold: I know Dr. Jacobs. Yeah, he’s a great guy. And really, this is a guy, a professor. What does he have to gain, 40 years after the fact, by going on national TV and saying this happened? He didn’t write a book. He didn’t make any money off of it. What did he have to gain? Nothing.

Alex Tsakiris: Right. And this is the point I guess I was driving at and I want to pursue it a little bit further because I think it’s really interesting. It’s maybe a little bit of inside baseball but when the heck are we going to get a chance to talk inside baseball? And that’s that this pattern that you just laid out I’ve seen repeated over and over and over again in a variety of different fields.

So if you want to go into telepathy and parapsychology and psi stuff, which is really unrelated to the near-death experience stuff that I was talking about—completely different. That’s done by people in hospitals, medical researchers, doctors; parapsychology is obviously often done by psychologists and researchers like that. The pattern is repeated over and over. You go into the UFOs and the pattern is repeated again and again.

So it makes me think that there is a little bit more to it. Aren’t all these topics that we would categorize in the paranormal, aren’t they so threatening to the institutions that are in control that they’re just bound to stir up this kind of controversy? This kind of push-back in that shouldn’t we expect that there’s going to be some games being played behind the scenes that we can’t even be fully aware of?

Jim Harold: I think it’s that to an extent. I also think that just as we believers—and at some point I want to give you my general theory of the paranormal—but we as “believers” have blind spots and we have biases. Scientists and skeptics have blind spots and biases. I think that in general—I’m not speaking about every skeptic, but many times skeptics and scientists will say, “I am scientific. I am skeptical. Therefore I am totally objective and I’m not subjective at all. Therefore I am the arbitrator of what is right and what is wrong and what is true and what is false.”

They don’t see the fact that they themselves have their own biases. I’m very willing to recognize and acknowledge my biases. So I think sometimes even moreso than an intentional quashing, although I do think that happens, don’t get me wrong. I think it happens. I think sometimes it’s people quashing things because ‘that can’t be the case.’

As I mentioned earlier, I had Michael Shermer on the show and I said, “Well, Dr. Shermer, isn’t it true that scientists make mistakes too? For example, ether. Scientists thought there was ether and I’m quite confident if you were to talk to those scientists at that time and said there absolutely is no ether they would have laughed at you and said, ‘You are ridiculous. I am a scientist.’” And he acknowledged that. But it doesn’t seem to happen very often where there’s that acknowledgement.

I think science sometimes can be like religion. People are dogmatic about that religion and it’s like, “Well, it can’t be.” This NDE thing that you talk about, this near-death experience study. That flies in the face of what they believe so therefore they’re going to say the study is flawed or the sample size isn’t big enough or there were intervening variables or it was contaminated experimentation or whatever the excuse is. It’s kind of like the excuse du’jour. So I think that a lot of times they’re just so dogmatic about it that it can’t be true, so of course it’s got to be one of these 10 standard excuses.

Alex Tsakiris: Let’s drill into that a little bit. Michael Shermer’s a great example because bringing it back to the NDE case, I’ll give you a little story on Michael Shermer. One of the best known NDE researchers in the world is a guy named Pim Van Lommel from The Netherlands. About 10 years ago, he published his first batch of research, his first paper on that. It was reported by Michael Shermer in Scientific America and Shermer completely got it wrong.

He completely misrepresented what Van Lommel had said, which was that these near-death experiences defy conventional medical explanations. Shermer pieced together a story that said just the opposite.

Well, Van Lommel called him on it and publicly published a letter saying, “You got it wrong. That’s not what I said. The conclusion of the study was the opposite.” So what do we do in that case? What do we expect from Michael Shermer, skeptic, journalist? A retraction? A correction? We get neither. We get none.

So again, I’m not sure I’d be as generous of spirit as you are to Michael Shermer and the other skeptics I’ve encountered that I think are of the same ilk. Don’t we have to drive for that truth? Do we always have to fall back into this “Well, they have an opinion. We ‘re all biased.” Sure, that’s true but ultimately the whole idea of science is that we can sift through that and we can find or at least nudge a little bit closer to the truth.

Jim Harold: Well, I agree that we need to try to get closer to that truth. I’ll share with you my philosophy on this, because here’s where I have the issue with the skeptics. I believe probably the vast majority of things that are reported as paranormal fall into several categories. A very small percentage that reflects something that’s truly inexplicable—the smallest percentage probably.

Then you have hoaxes. You have people with mental issues. You have people who are well-meaning but who are just mistaken. And those are just a few of the categories. But again, if you take something like UFOs there’s thousands upon thousands upon thousands of cases every year. Let’s say that only 3% of those cases have something to them. What does it hurt—and here’s where I have the problem.

When I talked to Shermer he said something to the effect, “Well, we just put that aside and we realize we can’t explain everything.” That’s okay to an extent, but let’s try to explain it and let’s really delve into it because that 3% may turn everything else on its head. Let’s go after that 3% or 5% or whatever it is. One guy that I had on, Joe Nichol, who is a skeptic said, “Well, you’re one of the five percenters.” You betcha I am because I don’t believe for a minute that all of this stuff is explicable by science or at least current science.

Maybe it is explicable by science but I often say it’s the science of the 25th Century or something. It’s just the dogmatism in saying, “It can’t be. It can’t be. It can’t be,” that’s extremely disheartening. And maybe there is a conspiracy to quash all of it but I don’t think that’s going to work because I think we live in a time where we have shows like yours. We have shows like mine. We have so many more outlets. I think you’re seeing cracks in the mainstream media, what you talked about earlier. I think things are starting to get out more.

If you look at a book like Leslie Kean’s book, UFO Generals: On the Record, a fabulous book done by a real journalist with some great reporting of very, very credible witnesses. Very detailed. What we need, I think, are more of those. I think we as paranormal—I hate to use this word—believers need to have more works like that with more facts behind it.

And I think that the skeptics are going to do what they’re going to do. I think it’s up to us to try to provide more facts and do a better job than just saying, “Hey, here’s more evidence. Here’s more evidence. Here’s more evidence. You can’t ignore it and we’re going to blow the horn loud to let people know that it’s out there.”

I know myself, I believe that almost universally the people that call me on Campfire, I believe they’ve experienced something. These are things that happened 20, 30, 40 years ago. There may be a few people who have overactive imaginations or whatever, but for the most part these people are very sincere and I don’t think they’re lying.

Alex Tsakiris: I’m with you, Jim. I also think your approach makes a lot of sense in terms of you have to keep bringing the data over and over again and being relentless with it. I guess I do feel like you also need to explore—or we as a group, a community of believers—need to explore that other side. I think sometimes people don’t want to go there because they don’t want to be labeled with “conspiracy,” or they don’t want to deal with the larger issues.

But I think one thing that impresses me about the UFO phenomenon, the way that it keeps growing and morphing and all the great work that’s been done there. I have to tell you this—we’ve never done one show on UFOs. It’s just not really in our strike zone there but since I have you on and it’s something you cover a lot it gives me a chance to talk about a topic that I find fascinating.

But what I was going to bring your attention to and wanted to chat with you about is the recently confirmed memo from JFK back in the ‘60s…

Jim Harold: Oh yes, the CIA memo.

Alex Tsakiris: …that clearly indicates that he was aware of a UFO presence and his concern was that, “Hey, let’s make sure that we give the Russians a heads up so that we don’t start a nuclear war.”

Jim Harold: Exactly. Now here is an instance where I will say I will fully go with you on that conspiracy train. I think it is fascinating to me that not only did he release this memo but if you look at the dates on the memo, the memo was right before his assassination. And then all of a sudden, nothing else comes up of this whole topic under the Johnson administration in this regard, at least that we know of. To me, that’s very suspicious.

I believe, if you talk about conspiracies I think there is a wide range of possibility that the UFO phenomenon is subject to at least some cover-up by our Federal government. I don’t think there’s any question about that whatsoever. I don’t feel the least bit weird saying that I believe in a conspiracy in that regard because I think that the government would say, “Well, we can’t tell.” Let’s say the government did know about ETs. I could very easily see governmental officials saying, “We can’t tell people. They’ll go crazy. They’ll panic.”

And there’s been stories done about Winston Churchill felt that way, going back to some sightings way back. I do tend to think that there’s some conspiracy possibilities.

One book that I would recommend that people read, which actually there’s explanation for the Roswell crash that I’m not sure that I buy into, but if you want to see how capable our government is of deception, just read Area 51 by Annie Jacobsen. Very well-sourced. She talked to a lot of the people who were still alive and worked at Area 51 and listened to some of the deep cover and some of the different things the government did. It renewed my belief in our government’s ability to deceive us. [Laughs]

Alex Tsakiris: Right. And I think you can look in any number of areas to get that same confirmation, if you will. Then the question becomes just as we would with a person, if you’ve deceived me here and you’ve deceived me here and you’ve deceived me here, then where is my real confidence that you’re not deceiving me in all these other places. Shouldn’t that then be presumption that there is a deception going on?

Particularly the pattern that seems to be repeated is a term that you mentioned earlier and that’s “status quo.” Wherever there’s this need to defend the status quo. If we jump back into the topic that’s hot for us, near-death experience and survival of consciousness, what institutions are most threatened by that? Well, clearly it gets into the culture war issues of science has a strong vested interest in things staying the way they are in terms of this materialistic mind equals brain model we have.

We can go into UFOs and go into ghosts but over and over again there are institutions with a strong vested interest to maintain the status quo. It seems to fit quite nicely with ‘Let’s ridicule it. Let’s give it the giggle factor. Let’s relegate it to the back page, if you will, and the sensationalized.’

Jim Harold: Let’s talk about NDEs for a minute. If you think about it, most skeptics are Atheists. Well, if there’s an afterlife, and NDEs would be a pretty good indication of that. If they’re not biological, what are they? Some kind of indication possibly of an afterlife. What could fly more in the face of something like Atheism? I don’t mean not believing in one certain religion but not believing in any higher power. Not believing in any afterlife. That would totally fly in the face of Atheism, which is a major tenant of skepticism.

Alex Tsakiris: Sure. Definitely. You’re right. What surprised me is the extent to which that same science, that same research, is very threatening to mainstream Christianity. So it really has a huge problem. It doesn’t fit either place. So if you want to go over into mainstream medicine and science, they don’t like it because it violates their Atheistic underpinnings, if you will. And then the same is true with mainstream Christianity that really wants to confine things to a very narrow set of tenants and dogma. It steps outside of that range, too.

Jim Harold: Oh yeah. Yeah, I know what you’re saying. The thing is I think the truth, if we somehow were enlightened and knew the truth about all these matters, it would blow all of our minds. I don’t know that anybody has the answers. I mean, everybody is out there saying, “I have the answers.” It’s this religion; it’s that religion; it’s this belief; it’s not believing in anything.

The more I learn the less I know that I know. I just know there’s something going on and I am not for a minute convinced that each and everything can be measured in a test tube or measured by a ruler. I think there are things out there beyond our understanding and beyond the most intelligent person in the world’s understanding, no matter how great a scientist they are.

Alex Tsakiris: That’s a pretty good capstone on where your journey with The Paranormal Podcast has brought you. Anything to add to that in terms of your perspective on the paranormal? You hinted that you might want to talk a little bit about your personal beliefs that you don’t always inject into the show. Where do you come down on some of these topics? Where do you come down on survival of consciousness? Where do you come down on the reality of UFOs?

Jim Harold: Well, it kind of falls into—I hate to put it in a neat little box but—that 5% rule. I just have the sense, and it’s basically my gut feeling. Somebody would say, “How can you back that up?” Well, I really can’t but again, I think when it comes to UFOs there’s a few percent that are not explicable. Could they be ETs? Possibly? Are they? Not necessarily. I don’t know. Do I believe in ghosts? Yes, I believe that there can be something that people see that’s not human. Are they necessarily people who are crossing over to communicate with us? I don’t know. [Laughs]

And you can go down the list and basically at the end of it is I believe there’s a small percentage, but I don’t know. I hate to say it but that’s been the take-home message for me in doing these programs for six years—I don’t know. We have a lot of things going on. We have jimharold.com. I invite everybody over there.

One thing that I’ve found very therapeutic has been our Campfire show, which we’ve done for the last couple of years. I thought it would be a nice little fun thing to do but it’s really been almost like a paranormal support group because people feel that they won’t be judged and they can tell people stories. These are stories people have had for 20, 30, 40 years. They’ve never told anyone but they’ve told them on our show and I’m very honored by that.

Just today I got a PDF of the author’s copy of my book coming out on September 15th, Jim Harold’s Campfire True Ghost Tales, so folks want to check that out at jimharold.com and we’ll have links to that. That’s coming up soon. And just continuing our shows there and additional shows over at jimharold.net Plus Club.

I’m just excited to continue the journey, and Alex, I hope someday we can get back together and I’ll be able to say, “You know when I said I don’t know? Well, now we know.” I hope that happens. I don’t know if it will, but it would be a great day if we could learn the secrets behind some of these great mysteries.

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah it would, Jim. You know what? You’ve wrapped it up so nicely I just can’t go any further. You’ve blocked me because that “I don’t know” is something that I’ve really pushed against pretty hard. Of course it’s the default position but we’ll have to leave it for another time to maybe push into that. I don’t know is also the hiding place for all the rascals on the other side who like to obscure things and not give us a straight-on answer. But that’s certainly not you.

You just keep doing that Paranormal Podcast and the rest of your great shows that I’m less familiar with. You’ve motivated me and piqued my interest to go and give those a look, too. So once again, thanks so much for joining me today on Skeptiko, Jim.

Jim Harold: Well thank you. It’s been a pleasure and I hope we get to chat again. Maybe sometime you can come over to one of my shows.

 

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