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TV Skeptic: 'Nightline' moves beyond credibility

July 1, 2011 |  3:02 pm

Et-NightlineBeyond One of the defining moments in television journalism occurred in November 1979, just days after Americans were taken hostage at the U.S. embassy in Iran. ABC launched a nightly half-hour national news program that aired at 11:30 p.m. to cover the crisis. Hosted by Ted Koppel, the program later became known as "Nightline," and featured a new format that covered topics in-depth and intelligently.

But, oh, how the mighty have fallen. Koppel has long since left the network, and this once serious news program has adopted a breezy, lighter, magazine format. On Wednesday, ABC launched a new edition,"Nightline Primetime: Beyond Belief," that promises to explore different paranormal phenomena. In the premiere, host Juju Chang tackles the "Psychic Twins" and the notion that identical twins are able to communicate telepathically. 

This is what happens when news divisions get taken over by entertainment. The journalistic standards go right out the window.

The production has a very Jekyll and Hyde feel to it. At times, they use the creepy music and cheesy special effects -- at others, it reverts to a more formal news magazine format. Chang herself reels between insisting that even the shakiest evidence provides proof of a psychic connection and then mocking the very idea -- sometimes within the same sentence.

As for the "evidence" presented, most of it is unreliable and undocumented anecdotes based on incidents that occurred years ago.

The attempt at "scientific" study of the phenomena is laughable. Seriously LOL laughable. Each pair of identical twins studied are separated for an experiment. One gets hooked up to a polygraph, while their twin, in a separate room, gets startled with sudden loud noises, over and over again as the researcher checks the isolated twin's polygraphs for any sign of a reaction.

Then the twins trade positions and the process repeats. While this makes for amusing TV, it is not science. There is no blinding in the experiment to remove bias; there is no control; the standards for the results are never made clear, and, as Chang explains, the results can not be repeated.

Still, Chang remains entirely credulous throughout. And she has got that wide-eyed look of wonderment -- with the mouth slightly agape and the eyebrows arched -- down pat.

The show hits a low point with Terry and Linda Jamison. They promote themselves as "the Psychic Twins" and say their paranormal powers include predicting the future. They claim to have foreseen the 9/11 terrorist attacks, for example, and we are treated to a snippet of audio where they seem to prophesize the attacks occurring in 2002.  

It seems the Psychic Twins take a shotgun approach to prophecy. In a 1999 radio appearance, they made more than three dozen predictions including many natural disasters in 2000; a cure for AIDS in 2002; a cure for cancer in 2007; a drug that prevents breast cancer in 2003; the ability to clone body parts 'in the not too distant future'; advances in spinal cord injury treatment that would allow Christopher Reeve to walk, with assistance; Quebec separating from Canada within a year; school shootings in specific dates and places across the country; a stock market crash in 2004 or 2005; an attempt to assassinate the president in 2004 or 2006; and a race riot in Tennessee in the year 2001.

They also predicted that President Bush would win the 2000 election and later predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. 

As for the 9/11 terrorist attack predictions they said: "We are seeing terrorists attacks on the Federal Government, excuse me, Federal buildings. Particularly South Carolina or Georgia, by July 2002, and also the New York Trade Center, the World Trade Center in 2002."

The tragic failure here is not just that this psuedo-scientific nonsense -- the "woo, woo, woo" as Chang calls it -- is being embraced by a major broadcast network. The real tragedy is that the credibility of the "Nightline" franchise, which once set the standard for serious journalism on television, has been reduced to the level of hocus pocus and cold readings. That is truly beyond belief.

-- Ed Stockly

Photo: JuJu Chang interviews a pair of London twins, Joy and Gay Nicholson. Credit: Gary Shore / ABC