While reading what is overall an interesting article about deliberate skeptical hoaxes at the Doubtful Newsblog, I noticed that James ‘The Amazing’ Randi’s infamous “Carlos Hoax” is described with these words:
With the “Carlos hoax”, Randi recruited a performance artist who played the part of a channeler communicating with a 2,000 year old spirit. The act was to show how uncritical the media were about such claims. Carlos continued the act that enthralled audiences. The press never questioned the authenticity or verified his claims. This exploit demonstrated how easy it was to manufacture a story whole cloth, dupe the public, and manipulate the gullible media, who just ate it all up. [my emphasis]
James Randi himself has said that the Carlos hoax – which he organised in 1988 at the request of the Australian version of 60 Minutes – “proved that the media can be willingly seduced so long as they are convinced that surrender to bunk will increase ratings, circulation, and general satisfaction of the consumer”. Here he is discussing the infamous stunt on Youtube:
In the video above, Randi notes that “the major lesson to be learned from this hoax was that it was the media, not we, who actually created and nurtured the Carlox entity… He became a character who was accepted as a genuine though transitory phenomena.” But was this really the case? The footage excerpts from 60 Minutes seem to show the media questioning Carlos’ authenticity. For instance, the famous ‘water-throwing’ incident on the Today program occurred at the end of a rather hostile interview by hosts George Negus and Liz Hayes, when Negus asked “why did you come in this morning, apart from for a little more publicity?” As José Alvarez and his ‘manager’ stormed off, Negus simply states “I think we’ve proved our point”, followed by Liz Hayes saying “I think it speaks for itself.”
A contemporary report by the Australian Skeptics agrees with this. In an article for The Skeptic, Tim Mendham points out a fact that seems to have become comprehensively-ignored in the modern mythos that has grown up around the Carlos Hoax: “None of the media coverage was credulous; all disbelieved that Alvarez was genuine”. In fact, according to Mendham – writing shortly after the Carlos events – “to a certain extent the whole hoax backfired”:
As an exercise to prove that the local media were somewhat lax in doing research and effective checking of claims, proved its point, but on the other hand the media were extremely cynical (if not sceptical) of Alvarez’ claims, and he received no sympathetic coverage at all. The Today program’s hosts, Negus and Elizabeth Hayes, were particularly scathing.
Indeed, given the attitude of the Australian media toward Alvarez, it seems more than likely that the lack of background checks wasn’t because they were gullible, or wanted to spoil a good story, but because they were already convinced he was not genuine and were happy to attack him in person on their shows (though I don’t think any of us would suggest that media aren’t sometimes too lax in checking sources).
Mendham’s original report runs counter to most recent skeptical representations of the events that I can find – rather than “scathing”, the Australian press are now said to have never questioned Carlos’ authenticity. For instance, according to Skeptic’s Dictionary author Robert Todd Carroll (writing in Skeptical Inquirer) the media “took it for granted they were who they said they were and did what they said they did.”
But what about all that uncritical radio and newspaper coverage? Mendham again:
John Tingle’s radio coverage consisted solely of an interview with Skeptics president, Barry Williams – he even refused to say where Alvarez would be performing and the Daily Mirror story simply factually reported the waterthrowing incident.
In his YouTube account, Randi also explains that the Carlos scam was enabled by “a rather cute gimmick: Carlos could stop his pulse by a simple means that got by the most astute observers, except from one member of the Australian skeptics, who easily solved it. But none of the media paid any attention to him, of course. The story was far too good to die!” But did “none of the media” really pay any attention? Mendham again:
Terry Willesee, after screening Alvarez’ first appearance on Sydney TV with a satellite interview, followed this up with an interview with Skeptics national committee member, Harry Edwards, who explained how Alvarez’ number one trick, stopping his pulse while being ‘possessed’, was achieved.
In fact, not only did the Terry Willesee show run a skeptical explanation of the heart-stopping stunt, but also one of their researchers actually rang Randi regarding José Alvarez/Carlos. Randi’s reaction, rather than to admit the hoax, or to give cautionary advice about this particular individual, was this: “I managed to avoid answering the question of that researcher, who came away with the impression that I’d said I never heard of him.” So when a media channel actually checked with the world’s most prominent skeptic on this topic, he basically scammed them himself – and yet went on to bemoan how the Australian media didn’t include skeptics’ opinions on the matter…
So maybe it’s more about depriving the fire of oxygen, and the best method for dealing with the Carlos affair was to ignore it altogether? Some in the Australian media did exactly that. Mike Carlton, morning commentator on 2GB radio, said he had not been fooled, and had simply put his press-kit in the “round filing tray” (the rubbish bin). Kevin Sadlier of The Sun said he did the same. Strangely though, Randi took these journalists to task for *not* covering the Carlos tour. “If so many persons in the media knew that the public were being lied to, why did they insist upon allowing them to fall for such fakery? Could it be that it was not in their interest to offend the public’s preferred tastes?”. But when the media *did* cover Carlos, and according to Mendham in a unanimously skeptical fashion, Randi trumpeted the fact that “Any kind of publicity will attract an audience”. Damned if you, damned if you don’t!
But not according to Barry Williams’, then-President of the Australian Skeptics:
Certainly, 60 Minutes proved its point that a charlatan can gain free media publicity by the perpetration of stunts. I am however dubious of the truth of the old axiom “Any publicity is good publicity, as long as they spell your name right”. The media may well have a duty to protect the public from false claims, and I believe that the great majority of the reasonable public would have been protected by the clearly skeptical manner in which most of the media covered Carlos.
So what of the gullible Australian public? They were apparently so taken with Carlos, that when the program A Current Affair featured a confrontation between George Negus and Jose Alvarez/Carlos, according to Negus it was the first time that audience phone reaction had favoured him (anybody familiar with either ACA’s audience, or the Australian public’s general opinion of Negus, will understand how telling *that* fact is).
But didn’t Carlos’ have a vast following in Australia? According to the 60 Minutes report, the Opera House hall “was packed”, showing interviews with the those who had come because “they saw it on TV”. But according to Mendham:
Australian Skeptics came, as we had seen it on TV too. The hall was by no means full. Our estimate put the audience at about 250-300, as opposed to the 60 Minutes’ 400-500; the Drama Theatre holds a maximum of 550. A large percentage of the audience were sceptical (if not Skeptical), with an even larger proportion thus unconvinced after the session was over. We subsequently learned of many who, having intended to attend, had been turned off by the poor performance Alvarez had given on TV.
…Other TV programs replayed interviews with those at the seminar who had not been convinced by Alvarez/Carlos (including the author of this report). This was in response to the 60 Minutes coverage, which only showed believers and failed to interview any of the known Skeptics.
…Following the revelation on 60 Minutes that the whole affair had been a huge (and expensive estimates ranged from $50,000 to $200,000) set-up, there was an immediate response from the media. In fact, there was probably greater coverage for the hoax than for poor old Carlos.
This coverage for the hoax itself, rather than ‘Carlos’, was ultimately the best result of this project. In the end, the Carlos Hoax *was* successful – at least, as a publicity tool. Despite the mediocre results, a certain mythos has developed around the stunt itself, so much so that the general perception of it now is that it showed what dupes the public and media can be. And given the seemingly blind acceptance of this hoax as being a raging success, in a very meta way, it has…
And while we’re talking meta, then we can’t go past the fact that José Alvarez himself turned out to be a hoax. In late 2011, Randi’s life-partner was arrested for identity theft – federal authorities accusing him of stealing a New York man’s name, date of birth and Social Security number to obtain a U.S. passport first issued to him in 1987…right before he traveled with Randi to Australia to perpetrate the ‘Carlos Hoax’. Which may itself end up being a better example that any of us can be fooled, and for a long time…