The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

The Incredible Mysteries of Sun Pictures
Copyright © 1993-1997 by David Bloomberg

[The following article appears in Skeptic magazine, vol. 2, no. 3, and is copyright 1993 by the Skeptics Society, 2761 N. Marengo Ave., Altadena, CA 91001, (818) 794-3119 (individual subscriptions $35/year, $25/year for students). Permission has been granted by the author and the editor of Skeptic for electronic distribution.]

Note: This article first appeared in the September issue of The REALL News, the official newsletter of the Rational Examination Association of Lincoln Land, before George Jammal had talked to anybody about the hoax. It has been updated for this publication.

Over the past year, CBS has shown several specials produced by Sun International Pictures, Inc. These shows have all dealt with the Bible in one way or another and have been heavily biased towards the pro-literalism, pro- creationism side. Skeptics are included for short segments that believers then seemingly tear apart, along with acting clips supporting the stories as they appear in the Bible. There have been a number of reports questioning the veracity of these previous shows, but new information warrants another, much closer, look at Sun and their methods.

As reported in earlier articles, Time magazine and the Associated Press (AP) ran stories claiming that George Jammal, one of the claimants who appeared on Sun's The Incredible Discovery of Noah's Ark, actually fabricated the entire story to expose Sun's shoddy research. This he did with the help of Dr. Gerald Larue, a professor emeritus of biblical history and archaeology at the University of Southern California and Skeptics Society advisor, who had appeared in an earlier Sun production.

Jammal's story, as told on the Sun show, was that he and a companion had gone to Mt. Ararat to search for the Ark. According to the story, they found it and took a number of pictures, but Jammal's companion was killed and all of the photos were lost. Jammal had one bit of evidence to show for his trip--a piece of wood that supposedly came from the Ark. This entire story has now been shown to be false.

However, when Larue first described the hoax to Time and others, Jammal did not immediately address the issue. During a telephone interview before he began discussing the issue publicly, he said that, under his lawyer's advice, he had no comment at the time. According to Skeptics Society Director Michael Shermer and Dr. Larue, Jammal was not saying anything because he was afraid of getting sued by Sun and/or CBS. In a phone interview at that time, Sun's David Balsiger was asked what would happen if Jammal came out and admitted that the story was fabricated. Balsiger said that there may be legal implications to hoaxing a network. He also said, "CBS attorneys were trying to speak to Dr. Larue and he would not get back to them." To this day, Larue says he has never been contacted by CBS or their attorneys. Since that time, Jammal did face the issue at the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) convention on October 23, and now discusses it freely. Balsiger said, in a recent telephone interview, that there are no plans for Sun or himself to take legal action against Jammal or Larue, as it would probably be "impractical" (Jammal has no money) and the press might construe it as being an attack by CBS behind the scenes.

But Sun's actions before Jammal discussed the hoax deserve some attention. After the Time article, Sun fired back with a six-page response (see Skeptic Vol. 2 #2) while CBS remained mostly silent. The Sun response sought to address four issues: Who is making the claim that Jammal fabricated his account? Did Sun perform due diligence in its research of the Jammal account? Was the piece of wood alleged to have come from the Ark authentic? Is Mr. Jammal's account still factual?

In answer to the first question, the response talked about Dr. Larue. They claimed the following: "Dr. LaRue [sic] is probably conducting some type of a vindictive campaign against Sun." They went on to say, "Since 1982, Dr. LaRue has served as chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, a group dedicated to refuting Bible claims; was the consulting editor (1987-1989) and Emeritus President of the National Hemlock Society, a euthanasia advocacy organization; and is the senior editor of Free Inquiry, a humanist magazine published by the U.S. Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism, another group with goals of removing religion from society and Bible oriented programs from public broadcast."

But what did this have to do with whether or not Larue coached Jammal, or whether the story, as printed by Time, was true? Nothing, but apparently Sun was trying to imply that because Larue is a secular humanist and is upset at Sun, his claims of having aided Jammal are automatically false. Rather than trying to defend against his claims or find out the truth behind them, Sun began by attacking the man making those claims, the classic ad hominem attack.

The Sun response then went on to defend their research of Jammal's story. They said they interviewed Jammal, looking for flaws and inconsistencies in the story, and then gave the interview tapes to a psychiatrist, Dr. Paul Meier, who served as the field physician on an earlier Noah's Ark expedition. Meier told Sun's Chief Researcher, David Balsiger, that he found the accounts "totally believable."

Meier recorded an interview that was cut from the show, in which he said of Jammal, "we would call him an 'obsessive- compulsive with histrionic features.' What this really means is that he's a perfectionist performer." Later in the interview, he says that Jammal wept while discussing his alleged companion who had been killed by a rock slide. Meier uses this show of emotion as evidence to support the reality of the story. But earlier, he had already admitted that Jammal is a "perfectionist performer"! He knew Jammal was an actor, but apparently ignored the possibility that Jammal was acting.

In that interview, Meier also admitted that he did not know Jammal personally and has only studied him from the tapes. So, the evidence Sun is using to show their "diligence" is a psychiatrist who is certainly not unbiased, working from tapes of an interview done with an actor, giving testimony that it is accurate. This is what Sun considers research?

In addition to the psychiatrist, Sun claims they analyzed a map Jammal gave them showing expedition routes. According to Sun, "it could not have been drawn by anyone who did not have experience with the mountain." Sun does not, however, explain why this is so. It has now been shown, through Jammal's admission of the hoax, that this obviously is not so. The third portion of the response dealt with the piece of wood Jammal showed, claiming it was a piece of the Ark. Sun began by bluntly admitting that they did not know whether or not it is real. However, contradictions then appeared in their response. They said, "It has not been the practice of Sun or other production companies to spend money or time testing and documenting artifacts shown on the air by interviewees." That sounds fine, until it is compared with Balsiger's comments in the AP article. He said, "We couldn't test the wood in time for our deadline." On one hand, Sun claimed it is not their practice to test such things, on the other, they claimed they didn't have time to test it. It appears that somebody needed to get their story straight.

The remainder of that section defended Sun's refusal to test such things by saying their shows are "entertainment" and that they would have been creating news if they had run the tests. This brings up the question of why, through the psychiatrist and the map, they tested Jammal at all. Where does Sun draw the line? How much research is too much?

The final section dealt with the question that sums it all up, "Is Mr. Jammal's expedition account of seeing the Ark still factual?" Sun said they still stood by the account as being accurate, even in the face of the evidence given by Larue. "Our position is not expected to change unless there is an admission by Mr. Jammal of an elaborate hoax, and how he managed to execute such a clever hoax to convince a professional psychiatrist and several experienced Ark-Ararat explorers that he was telling the truth...or until third party collaborating evidence can substantiate Dr. LaRue's account of the hoax."

As mentioned earlier, Jammal did exactly that. And Sun found that they had to change tactics. Since it was now obvious that Jammal perpetrated the hoax, they removed virtually all of their attack on Larue from their new "response", even though it had been their number one defense originally. Instead, they switched gears and claimed that no amount of research could have detected Jammal's hoax, since it was so well-executed. Elsewhere in this issue, James Lippard has made it clear that the hoax was not, in fact, all that well executed, and minimal research should have told them that the story was untrue (such as smelling the wood, which reeked of teriyaki sauce!). And they still seem to miss the point that simply testing the wood would, in fact, have given them the information they needed to determine that it was a hoax. Also, they are again trying to play both sides of the field by, on one hand, claiming that no amount of research could have detected the hoax, and, on the other hand, saying that they make entertainment shows and don't do research.

Jammal's hoax served to bring out into the open questions regarding Sun's methodology in writing and producing these shows. For example, as the Time article stated, Larue does believe that he was set up as a straw man by Sun. In a telephone interview, Larue said that when Sun came to him for their piece on the fall of the walls of Jericho, they brought a statement and asked him to read it. He said it wasn't exactly the statement he would have made, but it was mostly in accord with his views. He went on to say, "I read this and was given the opportunity to expound on why I didn't believe it was a genuine historical happening." However, all of that was cut out, and all that was left in when the show aired was the original statement that Sun had brought to him. This was followed, according to Larue, by Dr. Bryant Wood, who went on to give a lengthy discussion of his point, which countered Larue's and favored the Biblical interpretation to which all three of Sun's recent shows have been slanted.

Farrell Till, editor of The Skeptical Review, feels the same way about his own appearance on Ancient Secrets of the Bible, Part II. Sun came to Till with a script, the same way they came to Larue. Till was told he could change it, and he did so, with the understanding that his changes would remain in the show. Instead, his time was cut down to very little, mostly representing that which had been originally scripted, and he was dropped altogether from one scene, replaced by Carol Dickinson, a professor of psychology who simply read the script.

In the interview before Jammal's FFRF speech, Sun's Balsiger discussed the interviews. "Being entertainment, it's a scripted show," he said. "But when it comes to the experts, they have the liberty and the rights to [put] what they're saying any way they want, the only requirements being that they cannot be excessive on time, make [their] point fairly quickly, and [they] can't go off on a tangent where [they're] going to get five minutes, because it doesn't happen. Most of our experts always changed something in the script." He said they try to base the script on what they think the expert will say, based on research that they've done, but they don't hold them to it.

In the case of Farrell Till, Balsiger said, "he had three scenes and wrote a better argument for all three scenes and that's the way we shot it." But, he said, "even though we shoot an interviewee doesn't guarantee it's going to get in the show, it doesn't guarantee that their piece may not be shortened, it doesn't guarantee that it won't be edited in some way."

Why is the editing necessary? Again according to Balsiger, "the show was over 2 hours too long." Continuing:

We haven't done a show yet that hasn't been at least an hour [too] long. What happens is that we attempt to keep as many interviewees in as possible, [so] we have to shorten their pieces. Maybe they were speaking for a minute, they get shortened to 30 seconds. A sentence or two is cut off the end or somewhere, not to change their point of view or anything, but to let them make the longest point they are making in a shorter period of time. I'm not sure exactly what happened in [Till's] case. It may not have been the duration of what the interview was. We also have some other requirements that we attempt to meet in each show: What is our ratio of women in each show? Also, does a person make more than two appearances? He could have been dropped on his third appearance because he already had two appearances and another factor may have been that ... we were way down on our females. There's a lot of factors that go into these shows, and to the viewer it looks like we're rigging something.

Indeed it does. For example, if they only allow a person in twice, why shoot three scenes with him and not tell him beforehand that one would probably be cut? If they base the script on their research of a particular person's views, why did the psychology professor who replaced Till read the exact remarks that Sun presented Till? Did their research indicate that she had the exact same views as he, and would express them in exactly the same way? Why were both scenes with Till and Larue cut down such that essentially only the original statements, scripted by Sun, were left, even though Balsiger admitted that Till came up with better arguments? Why doesn't Sun ask the interviewees ahead of time which of their arguments should be cut first, if necessary? Balsiger said that they have never done a show that hasn't been too long, so shouldn't they think about editing ahead of time? Why give the interviewees the impression that most or all of what they say will be in the show when it simply doesn't happen? Sun needs to answer all of these questions about their procedures if they expect viewers to stop wondering if they are "rigging something."

Jammal has never been to Mt. Ararat. He was coached by Larue on what to say to help back up his story, and aided by a copy of his original interview with ICR given to him by that organization. Larue said, "Jammal's part was designed to expose the hoax that Sun International was pulling on the people. We felt that the whole CBS program was a hoax." He went on to say, "It talks about the discovery of Noah's Ark. That's a lie. They never discovered Noah's Ark." He said that calling it "The Search For Noah's Ark" or something similar would have been much more honest. Larue was very blunt in describing his views. "There was no discovery. The title is a lie. The idea that it was a documentary is a lie. The third lie is that they are now explaining it as entertainment only. That was never given clearly in the text."

In fact, the host of the Noah's Ark show, Darren McGavin, stated at the beginning that this was a "non-religious, scientific investigation." The average viewer would probably think of it, therefore, as a documentary, not an entertainment show. But Balsiger said all of Sun's shows are contracted under the entertainment division; they are not news, nor documentary. He calls them reality TV shows and says they are "actually not allowed to create news. I personally have gotten in trouble over this issue in the past. Being a researcher, it is my inclination to check this or check that, but on an entertainment type show, we are not mandated, and matter of fact we [cannot] make news or create news. On an entertainment show, we are actually forbidden from doing that and instructed not to do that. I did it on another occasion and when it was discovered that I had tested an artifact, [which] proved what the interviewee was trying to make, it ended up getting not used, period."

When asked about the narrator calling it a "scientific investigation," Balsiger said it "may be splitting hairs on something that was said by the host, but it should have been pretty clear that our show was an entertainment." Asked how this should have been clear, he indicated that it should have been obvious from the context. He said that news shows and documentaries are produced by the network news side of the network, while this was not. He added, "We've only done entertainment shows over the years. Reality TV shows are entertainment. Always have been, always will be." Balsiger said that he considers shows such as Unsolved Mysteries to also be reality TV shows. However, Unsolved Mysteries makes a point of telling the audience before every airing of an episode that it is not a news broadcast. When this was pointed out to Balsiger in a more recent interview, he said that, in hindsight, it would have been a good idea to have such a disclaimer, but nobody at CBS or Sun thought of it. If he had it to do over again, he said he would add a disclaimer to every show of this type.

Before Jammal's speech to the FFRF, Balsiger said CBS planned to air more "reality TV" from Sun. Even though the AP story said that CBS claimed they had no other Sun programs scheduled, Balsiger said that they had a show, Ancient Mysteries of the World, planned to air on CBS in November, and one on UFOs that was supposed to air in December. He said there were others under development with CBS. Why didn't CBS mention these in the AP story? Well, it seems that the answer may be that CBS was, in fact, wising up. A letter from Balsiger, dated November 12, 1993 (addressed: To Whom It May Concern), said that CBS has cancelled all of the Sun shows in production. In addition, the letter states that Balsiger believes a weekly show on UFOs which Sun had planned for cable may be canceled due to the bad publicity. In the recent interview, Balsiger said that Sun has laid off much of its staff, including himself, as a result of the expose, and he does not expect to work for them again. He added that it is very unlikely that Sun will do any projects for network TV for at least two to three years, due to the "tremendous damage" caused by the bad publicity, and that he will probably be restricted in the kind of work that he can do. He said it is probable that he will only be able to work with non-network broadcast, such as feature films, and that he has a possible offer to work on a project for the public school market.

Have Sun and Balsiger learned anything from the hoax? Balsiger said that Sun's research practices did "tighten up" some after the hoax was initially revealed. "Extra measures," such as checking the credibility of their interviewees with third parties, and looking at previous publications by those interviewees, were used in the program they were preparing for CBS at the time. However, he said they still would not test "artifacts," and the extra measures got to the point that it "wasn't worth doing these kinds of shows any more." With the possibility of working on a project for the public schools, what kind of research will he be doing now, since he seems exasperated by even those few measures instituted by Sun in the wake of the Ark fiasco?

Even with the cancellations and layoffs, it seems that there are a number of unanswered questions regarding Sun and CBS. L.A. Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg called for an explanation from CBS (July 7, 1993), but has gotten none. He called their stance an "incredible double standard regarding truth in news and entertainment programming." Perhaps the cancellation of future Sun productions is CBS's unspoken response.

So where are the answers? Jammal has admitted to having made up the story; will Sun and CBS retract the story publicly and admit that they need overhaul their research procedures? Or are the few steps taken by Sun the extent of such an overhaul, while they continue to say that, as "entertainment," they don't need to do any research?

The line between news and entertainment is getting dangerously blurred. When a narrator calls a show a "scientific investigation" but the viewer is expected to somehow realize that it is just "entertainment," that line has been removed altogether.

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