Friday, October 25, 2002

Not So Expert After All

It was not the best week for TV pundits and "expert profilers."

In all the hours filled on all the telecasts dedicated to the sniper story, not one of them predicted that the DC sniper might turn out to be two black men driving a blue 1990 Chevy Caprice.

None of their analysis led them to a converted Muslim ex-military man. Not one of them said, "it's likely that we're looking for a homeless drifter who lives in his car with a teenage boy he's not related to."

Still, the media, particularly the 24-hour news channels, won't hesitate to call on those same "experts" next time we have a similar story. Never mind that their speculation couldn't have been more off-base. Never mind that the same faces showed up in the same places repeatedly (yes, I'm talking about you, Bo Dietl, who I saw on all three news channels within a two-hour span one day this week!).

What matters is that they were able to fill air time. You'll notice that none of them has been invited to explain why they were so completely wrong, but perhaps it explains why so many are "former profilers" and "former detectives."

The low point was when Fox's Rita Cosby contacted David Berkowitz (a/k/a The Son Of Sam) for insight into what might be going on in the sniper's mind. She's obviously watched "Silence Of The Lambs" once too often, and thought Berkowitz would be her Hannibal-like intuitive genius. Of course, he offered nothing more than blather, which she -- and several newspapers that quoted her story -- reported with a straight face.

I take that back. There was something even lower.

It was another amazing assertion from Sylvia Browne. She's one of those people who claims psychic ability, but has never proven anything more than a talent to sucker people into believing that she has a supernatural gift of some kind. Among the suckers are Larry King and Montel Williams, who have wasted far too much airtime giving her free publicity without holding her claims up to the light of reason.

Take a look at this transcript of a chat session on msn.com last night (10/24), in which Sylvia was no doubt promoting something or other:

Digital Dish Diva says:
Not to start off on bad note but we have so many people asking about the men who were caught this morning. Are they the snipers?

Sylvia Browne says:
Yes, they are. I can't say much about it, but I did work on this case.

Unbelievable, isn't she? Yet I don't seem to recall her going on the record before the arrests with any kind of prediction about who the suspect might be, do you? While we're on the subject, why didn't John Edward or James Van Praagh use their self-proclaimed powers to find out from any of the murder victims who had "passed over" something about the circumstances of their death that might have helped the investigators?

My other favorite part of Sylvia's chat, while unrelated to the sniper story, was this, which began with a question from someone online:

I'd like some help for my sister if it is possible. Someone is INVADING her privacy and she just wants it to stop.

To which Sylvia replies, and I quote:

I would get a PI on this and call anything that has to do with communications like the FTC. It's a man and a woman bugging her. Have the PI sweep the place for bugs.

The people at the FTC will be surprised to get that call, since the Federal Trade Commission has nothing to do with communications. She might have meant the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, but they also would have absolutely no jurisdiction over an invasion-of-privacy matter -- unless it took place on a TV or radio broadcast.

Ah, but why bother with accuracy when you're just throwing random darts and you don't care where they land?

My point is that too many people are allowed to escape accountability, while being given far too much free access to cameras, microphones, and newsprint. Blame must be placed on those who make baseless claims they can not prove -- but even more blame must be placed on the media outlets that allow them to promulgate.

While I'm at it, I still haven't heard a cogent explanation of why you would want to catch a duck in a noose. I've never heard a single duck hunter say, "Quick, Charlie, I see one, get the rope!" But I bet I can find four people on TV to tell me what kind of duck it is -- and a psychic who can read its mind.