Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Oversights, oversights?

Well folks, as noted, 20/20's "Promises, Promises" segment came and went without trekking very far into SHAMland, which means we're still waiting for somebody in mass media* to do a serious investigation of self-help. I gotta be honest, I just don't get it. I do not understand why no one seems to feel that this topic is ripe for an exposé—or if not an exposé (since the journalist isn't supposed to approach a story with a jaded mindset), at least a delving reportorial examination of the sort the media undertake daily regarding every other aspect of the American marketplace. With upwards of $10 billion-a-year at stake here, soon to be upwards of $12 billion, you'd think that some enterprising media type would want to follow the money. Heck, it could even be made into a service piece in its own right, presenting consumers with a survey of the self-help options available to them, ranked by proven effectiveness. Or lack of same.

The (default) explanation I keep coming back to is the same one I've used in explaining to my radio hosts—over 150 of 'em now—why I may be the only author of a major work on a major cultural trend who never got booked on any of the morning shows (Today, GMA, etc.): There's just too much institutional resistance to the idea. The networks, quite simply, are in bed with self-help. Those morning shows drip with bright-eyed, "empowering" content (the latest diet, the latest relationship strategy, the latest program for surefire self-actualization). More to the point, the queen of SHAM and the very keeper of the keys to its kingdom, Oprah Winfrey, is ABC's marquee star and wields enormous clout (which, by all accounts, she is never shy about using). Meanwhile, over at CBS we have Dr. Phil, who's happily kingdom-making in his own right, and who, like his mentor, is no shrinking violet when it comes to throwing his weight around. Still, the idea that everyone else cowers in fear of these two self-help super-novas...though it's the best I've come up with, it doesn't really wash for me. Network news departments do tons of reporting on stories that clearly run counter to their parent companies' best interests. NBC News is not going to kill coverage of a dangerous product that's manufactured by GE, which owns NBC.**

See, the question I keep asking myself, the question that keeps playing scales in my head on nights when I can't sleep, is this: How could there be no media pushback against something as plainly ridiculous as, say, The Secret??? (It's still too early to tell, but it's possible that The Secret may one day be remembered as the single biggest con in self-help history.) Why are supposedly savvy people like Larry King and supposedly well-meaning people like Oprah falling all over themselves to promote it instead of examining it? In King's case in particular: Why does the ultimate cynic and a man who's been known to ask impertinent questions of presidents and CEOs seem so thoroughly enamored of the smarmy Joe Vitale or the surreally weird Michael Beckwith? In several opportunities now, eating up several hours of live television, King hasn't seen fit to bring up one freakin' thing about the glaring logical problems, internal contradictions and other weaknesses of these assorted schemes, uh, programs.

Bottom line: Shouldn't the excesses and absurdities of the SHAMscape be worth at least the 10 minutes that 20/20 devoted to $16,000 pocketbooks? Very few of us buy Hermes handbags, but you know, we're all consumers of second-hand self-help.

* Oh, there've been random snipings here and there, notably by Penn & Teller in their delightfully irreverent Showtime series, Bullshit. But the networks have avoided self-help the way Howard K. Stern avoids paternity tests.
** Which is not to say that network news divisions won't sometimes underplay sensitive stories, or bury them in relatively inconspicuous parts of the telecast. When Dan Rather ran into his notorious problems with the George Bush/National Guard story, for example, CBS wasn't exactly johnny-on-the-spot in its self-coverage. The episode will not go down as the network's finest hour.


Cosmic Connie said...

Good points, Steve. More and more mainstream writers, such as NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd, are taking potshots at "The Secret," but so far the news media in general have been silent. Maybe they think the claims made in "The Secret" are just too ridiculous for serious investigation. And actually, it's difficult to prove or disprove the effectiveness of some of "The Secret" stars' most extravagant claims -- whereas diet pills and the like are at least subject to the scrutiny of mainstream scientific research.

But you'd think that some news organization somewhere would be concerned about the phenomenon of so many sophisticated people buying into this stuff. You'd think someone (preferably without a religious agenda) would want to do a report about the possible effects (social apathy, delusions of grandeur) of "The Secret's" magical thinking.

Maybe we just need to keep hammering at them.

Citizen Deux said...

Right on! The continual consumption of half-truths and "easy path" claims is more damaging than anyone can really quantify. There is a nice and tidy summary of why the Secret and LoA are being misappropriated here at David Portney's site.

Anonymous said...

Right on, Steve! Well done for writing such a good and well informed article.
In your time of exposing sham have you come across any "good self-help books and authors". Who and what are they?
I notice you don't take the p*ss out of Brian Tracy, why is this so?

From A (remember me Steve??)

Steve Salerno said...

I don't think it's really appropriate for me to name names--and that's something that has come back to haunt me in the past, especially when I'm doing it in a flattering way (for reasons that would take a while to explain). Let's just say, as a general thing, that the more specific the advice, and the higher the odds that it's actionable, the less likely I am to rip it to shreds. This is why I think that some of the career books aren't too bad; they give you specific, step-by-step formulas. I'm OK with SOME of the financial books, too, but not the ones that make extravagant promises and/or contain the word "millionaire" in their titles. In evaluating a self-help book, I'd suggest that you always ask yourself this question: When I finish this book, am I likely to know SPECIFICALLY what I'm supposed to do to succeed? I.e. NOT just what you're supposed to "think," and not just how you're supposed to "feel," and not just what you're supposed to "say"--but what you're supposed to DO. I think that one caveat goes a long way towards separating the wheat from the shaft, as it were.

a/good/lysstener said...

We were all brought up to believe, Steve. To believe in something. For some of us it was god, capital G or small g. For some of us it was belief in ourselves. For some it was America, democracy, whatever. We survive on myth. As a society we survive on exaggerations because we need more than facing the reality of life to get us through. Even in my own experience as young as I am, I see the way my friends fight tooth and nail to cling to the myths that get them through, that despite the craziness of dating they're going to have a wonderful husband, a happy marriage and beautiful, successful kids. That despite the statistics, they're going to be the ones (each of them) that make it. When it comes to living our life, I think people don't want to hear too many facts, and they don't want your logic to contradict the myths they've built up for themselves. That's what you're up against, and that's why no matter how hard we fight for common sense, it's always a losing battle when the enemy is a pretty myth. I hope you don't consider this somehow "anti-Shamblog" to say this, but let's face it, the kind of news show you want to see on TV, even if were totally based in fact, would never win a ratings battle against Oprah and her myths.

Steve Salerno said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cosmic Connie said...

Alyssa, I think you have named the core problem. People enjoy the feel-good stuff, and when anyone criticizes this tendency, or actually attempts to deconstruct some of the self-help/spiritual gurus' material, defenders come forward to proclaim that the critic is obviously working on "the dark side."

You've seen how many times Steve has been criticized for being "too negative." And just the other day, a "Secret" defender called me "Captain Bringdown" and said my blog is a "garbage barge." (Naturally, I had to take the boat metaphor and run with it. Or float with it.)

One of the prominent stars in "The Secret" finally decided to address "Secret" critics on his blog yesterday. By far most of the comments to his post have been supportive. One person who said she is normally a hard-nosed skeptic (though she describes herself as an intuitive reader or something like that) has now decided she's a big fan of "The Secret" and the blogger in question. In her comment to him she wrote:

"People who enjoy being the source of power for others' belief systems will be threatened by you.

"'Dang, what will I do now if I can't herd all these sheep into the pen and shear their wool for my own benefit?'"

What it comes down to is that defenders of the faith almost always resort to questioning the motives of the critics, thereby hoping to discredit them. It's a common ruse, but it gets them through the day with their myths intact.

moi said...

I want to add, regarding that comment about myths, that not all myths are equal. Some do much more harm than others. Moreover, not all spiritual beliefs are myth. You can't qualify something as delusional just because you can't see it with your eyes or touch it with your hands (like qi, for example). However, the Secret, as I mentioned on Connie's blog, is a mix of some of the worst trends in post-modern spirituality with american consumerism. It takes people away from reality IMO and gives them a second rate myth. Surviving on the kind of myth the secret offers is like building a castle on sand.

Steve Salerno said...

Nicely put, moi. I do think it's dangerous to start ranking myths in terms of their....myth-iness. I.e., the personal appeal they hold for us as individuals. This is something that we all tend to do, and that, IMHO, is one of the more indefensible social tendencies: this notion that MY myth is just fine, thank you, but YOUR myth is just plain stupid. However, if what you're really saying is that there's more evidence for some "myths" than others, then obviously I'd have to agree.

Steve Salerno said...

Nicely put, moi. I do think it's dangerous to start ranking myths in terms of their....myth-iness. I.e., the personal appeal they hold for us as individuals. This is something that we all tend to do, and that, IMHO, is one of the more indefensible social tendencies: this notion that MY myth is just fine, thank you, but YOUR myth is just plain stupid. However, if what you're really saying is that there's more evidence for some "myths" than others, then obviously I'd have to agree.

Steve Salerno said...

Btw, Citizen 2, I've been meaning to thank you for the Portnoy link.

Anonymous said...

Steve, maybe this isn't my place and its your blog of course, but, I'd actually like to see you do more stuff on the kidns of things you often bury inyour footnotes, like CBS-Dan Rather and even Anna Nicole. I think you'd get more readership too, just a thought!

Steve Salerno said...

Carl, I appreciate the sentiment, and the vote of confidence it implies. I have always allowed myself the prerogative of commenting on whatever's going on at the moment in society-at-large. I actually think I've done a fair amount of that, and like everyone who blogs, yes, I am tempted to cast as wide a net as possible in hopes of becoming the next Daily Koz. But from a pragmatic standpoint, given the tens of thousands of people who are blogging regularly these days, I think my interests (and our readers') are best served by staying reasonably close to SHAMblog's founding mandate. As I noted some weeks back, you will be seeing subtle shifts in focus as time goes by. In the meantime, by all means, feel free to take whatever stories you feel are relevant and weave them into your comments. (Disclaimer: As always, I reserve the right to edit for propriety and content.)

David Portney said...

I want to thank citizen deux for helping me to spread my "the emperor has no clothes" message. I have even run across The Secret-worshiping sites saying "quit your job and visualize a better life..." they've GOT to be kidding, right?? I sure hope so... and I hope everyone goes to davidportney dot com and gets my free booklet - there's no sales pitch in it and I'm NOT doing list building so you don't have to give any information - you just click the link and get the booklet - it's called "the 5 biggest lies about the law of attraction, and it's pretty to the point about the situation. And, I welcome your comments and feedback, good bad ugly or otherwise.
Thank goodness there's apparently some other people out there who are willing to stand up and say 'the emperor has no clothes' too.
David Portney
PS: where the heck is the amazing Randi when we need him??

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

Could it be that, in some future, the self-help industry and the like could face fines under class or legal actions?

Vanessa from Paris

Steve Salerno said...

Randi has already weighed in on certain aspects of the whole PMA movement, especially Tony Robbins' "firewalk experience" and aspects of so-called "alternative medicine" that imply that you can fix anything that ails you through sheer exercise of willpower alone.

Steve Salerno said...

Re class actions: It's an interesting concept, but ironically, in most instances the promise is so vague/non-specific that it'd be hard to build a case that satisfies definitions of actionable fraud spelled out in most relevant statutes. Of course, when the promise IS more specific, class actions can be successfully brought--as Dr. Phil learned last year, when a number of disgruntled dieters banded together to rebel against his Shape Up! line of "nutrition" bars. He recently settled the case.

Cosmic Connie said...

It could be that Randi hasn't tackled The Secret yet because he feels it's too ridiculous, or that the claims are so ludicrous they can't be proved or disproved one way or the other.

Meanwhile, the Secret fans are on the defensive, with many claiming that those who criticize The Secret are just part of the centuries-old conspiracy to keep valuable knowledge from the masses. One Secretron wrote, "It's us versus them," and she went on about the centuries of persecution and how it was up to The Secret believers to fight for the truth.

It seems we have a religious war on our hands. :-)

Also, Steve, I agree with your plan to keep your blog more focused on SHAM-related stuff. That's what I come here for.

moi said...

"This is something that we all tend to do, and that, IMHO, is one of the more indefensible social tendencies: this notion that MY myth is just fine, thank you, but YOUR myth is just plain stupid. However, if what you're really saying is that there's more evidence for some "myths" than others, then obviously I'd have to agree."

Steve, What I mean to say is that some beliefs are more harmful to society than others. For example, the Secret says that we attract EVERYTHING that comes to us. As Connie has pointed out, from there it is easy to blame other people for the harm that comes to them.
So,yes, I do judge belief systems on certain factors, such as their credibility (evidence to support them) and the good they bring to individuals AND society. If they cause mental instability and social deviance, such as blowing up people, I tend to judge them unfavorably. .