CBS's "Ancient Secrets of the Bible"
Date: Fri, 18 Jun 93 17:36:00 PDT
Subject: CBS's "Ancient Secrets of the Bible"
[I'm afraid the humor rating is 0 on this one, but read it anyway, ok? -psl]
From: Bostic@vangogh.CS.Berkeley.EDU (Keith Bostic)
From: email@example.com (Jeffrey Shallit)
What Price Fame?
By Tom Malone
The gospel according to Andy Warhol promises that each of us will one day be
famous--if only for 15 minutes. Well, imagine my astonishment when I
learned only a few weeks ago that my turn was indeed at hand.
I refer to the recent offer to appear on one of those infamous CBS specials
about the "actual truth" behind the stories of the bible. It all began one
day when I found a message on my telephone answering machine from someone
working with CBS. CBS? The CBS? For a few exciting hours around the
house, the question on everyone's lips was, "Is Daddy gonna be on TV?"
Unbeknownst to me, Sunn Classic Pictures, the company CBS hired to produce
these Bible propaganda pieces ("Ancient Secrets Of The Bible," and "In
Search Of Noah's Ark"), had asked Dan Barker of the national Foundation
office for the name of a skeptic in the Atlanta area who might present
opposing viewpoints on future episodes. I faxed in a brief biographical
sketch and waited.
I was especially eager to hear from the producers because even though the
"shoot date" was just days away, I still did not know on which topic I would
be asked to offer an "expert" opinion. They had mentioned the Ten
Commandments, David & Goliath, Samson & Delilah or the story of Daniel.
Having only superficial knowledge of each of these topics, I was anxious to
receive as much advance warning as possible. After all, my game plan was to
call up Dan Barker and say, "All right, so what do I say?" As flattered as
I was to be considered for the spot, I was still wondering in the back of my
mind why would a major, prime time TV production company seek out a guy who
has no more credentials than that of a high school history teacher and a
The fateful day came when I received another answering machine message
informing me of the precise date on which the production company would fly
into town, interview me in my study at home and fly off to another location.
How exciting! And if all this weren't good enough, the topic was to be my
preference, the Ten Commandments. Some final details had to be worked out,
so busy schedules and a 3-hour time lag between Georgia and California
necessitated a late-night telephone conversation.
After nearly all of the logistical details had been confirmed, the Sunn
Classic representative said something like, "Okay, we'll send you the script
for your part, and you can practice it to see how long it takes you to get
through it, but the filming crew will have a Teleprompter, so you won't have
to worry about memorizing it word for word."
"A script?" I asked in astonishment. "How do you know what I'm going to say?"
"Oh, well, our researchers have looked into all of this, and we have to
present a final script to CBS long before the final tapings, so we can't do
actual live interviews like some shows are set up to do," she answered.
Still puzzled, I asked again, "But since you all have an opposite viewpoint
from ours, how do you know what I would say about the Ten Commandments or
any other topic, for that matter?"
A little frustrated that her previous explanation had not sufficed, she
said, "Well, we feel that we have scripted pretty good representative
viewpoints, but if you're not satisfied with the content, you can decide
not to do it."
At this point, we agreed that since she did not have the script with her,
I would call the office the next morning and speak with the program's
producer, Dave Balsiger, who could then read for me what my opinion of the
Ten Commandments was to be.
Because I must avoid even the appearance of impropriety at the public high
school where I teach, I make all calls related to freethought business
during my lunch half-hour, preferably from the pay phone at the bank next
door. At the assigned time, I hurried to the phone to find out just what I
had been scripted to say. As easy as it is to tell from even a superficial
viewing that these programs lack all intellectual honesty, I could not
imagine that my opinion of them could sink much lower until I had this
conversation with the project's producer.
I was offered a part in which I would present "a skeptic's response" to the
story of the Ten Commandments. I was assured that if I didn't like this
part, there were a couple of others for which I could read! The part read
basically as follows: "The validity of the Ten Commandments story boils down
to one question: 'Do the tablets exist?' Without the tablets, the story
amounts to nothing more than just another tale from ancient mythology."
Recalling the format of previous shows, I then asked, "Is someone then going
to come on who says he has found the tablets?"
A little surprised at my prediction, I think, Mr. Balsiger said, "Well,
yes, we have a rabbi who says that the tablets do exist in the Ark of the
"You mean the one under the ruins of the Temple of Solomon," I guessed.
"Right," he confirmed.
Just shaking my head and wondering how much worse this could possibly get,
I rather despairingly asked him to read the next part.
Flipping through his script, Mr. Balsiger finally found my next
"spontaneous response" and dutifully read it to me. The topic was "Daniel
and the Fiery Inferno," and here I was to assert that the Book of Daniel was
doctored to look as if it had been written at some earlier, ancient date,
but actually it was much more modern than traditionally regarded and
therefore without foundation. Having caught on to the game by now, I said,
"Let me guess. Someone will then come on claiming that it actually was
written at the more ancient date."
I suppose somewhat embarrassed by this time, but still unashamed, Mr.
Balsiger softly responded, "Well, yes."
At this point, I felt like James Stewart portraying George Bailey in the
classic film, "It's a Wonderful Life," when he came within inches of having
allowed himself to be wound tight in old Mr. Potter's web of self-serving
control and manipulation. So, naturally, the only response was to give one
of those impassioned Jimmy Stewart-style speeches.
"I am offended that you would have so little respect for me personally and
for freethinkers in general that you think I am so eager to see my face on
TV that I would play the part as your stooge just to give you the
opportunity to chop us down and discredit us. Don't you think I care a
little bit more about myself and the freethought community I represent than
to let you use me for your own pre-determined purposes? My students watch
these shows. They come back to school on days following your broadcasts
asking me questions like, 'Mr. Malone, did you see that show; are you still
an atheist?' It's incredible that you think I read your script just to give
you the opportunity to make a fool out of me and everyone else in the
"Why don't you ask me what I'd like to say about the Ten Commandments
instead of imagining that you know what we want to say? We don't care about
the existence of some stone tablets. Anyone could carve up some stone
tablets and say that God gave them to him. There's a guy out in Waco, Texas
right now saying that he's talking to God. What does that prove? Would it
prove that the Mormons are right if someone produces the legendary golden
tablets? The existence of any tablets is irrelevant. What we would like to
say about the Ten Commandments is that they are an entirely inadequate and
irresponsible code of ethics and morality. Here God has a one-time chance
to lay down the moral code for the entire world, and instead of mentioning
some important things like slavery, child abuse and cruelty to women, he
wastes them on such irrelevant issues as honoring a particular day, not
taking the Lord's name in vain and having no gods before him.
"We'd also like to mention the moral depravity of a god who would punish an
eternity of generations for the 'sins' of their parents. And for what? For
eating from the tree of knowledge--something I and all other teachers try
each day to encourage our students to do. And we're supposed to worship
this god who later drowns the entire world's population--save one
family--for nothing more than disobedience? If you or I behaved as the God
of the bible, we would be deemed worthy of incarceration, and yet the bible
tells us to worship him? We would rather join the underground and oppose
such a tyrant.
"Your whole show lacks all integrity because it attempts to give the
pretense of academic balance when in fact your so-called skeptics are used
as nothing more than props to shoot down their own arguments and reinforce a
pre-determined conclusion. You can make all the bible-propaganda programs
you want, but don't expect us to assist you in discrediting our position by
having us read your scripts."
At this point, I took a breath and wondered if Mr. Balsiger was still on
the line. He was. And this was his response.
"We don't try to provide balance. We have been contracted by CBS to produce
an entertainment show, so the purpose is not to provide balance but
"But you pretend to provide balance by featuring token skeptics who aren't
allowed to seriously oppose the premise of the show but are merely
instructed to read your scripts," I interjected.
Balsiger then said about the only honest thing I heard from him: "Well, you
have to understand that the average TV viewer in America is not that
intelligent, so what they want is entertainment and not intellectual debate.
Shows then have to be brought down on a level that will appeal to the
I replied, "You know, I spend an awful lot of time, money and energy on a
cause (freethought and church/state separation advocacy) because I consider
it so important. I wish that somewhere out there in TV land there were
those willing to fight the unpopular battle of educating the TV audience
instead of just pandering to the lowest common denominator."
It won't surprise you to hear Balsiger's response: "Well, that might be
nice, but it's just not the way things work."
Not happy with my responses to the previously-mentioned bible stories, Mr.
Balsiger had one more question for me: "What would be your response to the
David & Goliath story?"
Almost in disbelief at the incredible shallowness of his thinking, I laughed
out loud and said, "You know, in almost ten years as a very active
freethought activist, I don't think I have once heard anyone bring up the
topic of David & Goliath. Every culture is full of tall tales about
legendary giants, and whether they were inspired by genetic oddities or mere
exaggerations is quite irrelevant. It's not the sort of thing that we find
very useful to argue or that will make us fall down on our knees and confess
that we've been wrong all these many years."
Sensing that our conversation was rapidly approaching its end--and that the
bell for fourth period was about to ring--I had to satisfy my curiosity on
one more point. "Mr. Balsiger, how did you arrive at the questions you
include in your parts scripted for a skeptic?"
I was astonished when he said that his group had sought the assistance of
skeptical consultants in writing the script. Incredulous, I expressed
disbelief that any reputable skeptic could have been involved in formulating
these particular questions, and I challenged him to name just one. He could
not name a single one.
Having argued away my first chance at prime-time stardom, I assured Mr.
Balsiger that I would enthusiastically serve as a consultant or guest on any
future program if it were planned in a spirit of integrity and fairness but
that under current circumstances, I would have nothing to do with the
It does not, in the end, require an intimate knowledge of the inner workings
of Mr. Balsiger's team to reach the conclusion that these bible story
productions lack even a hint of intellectual honesty and integrity. But it
was nothing short of astonishing to discover how apparently eager he thought
we would be to prostitute our good name in assisting his efforts to present
his sack full of myths as historical and scientific truth. Any "15 minutes
of fame" can't be worth that much.
If I didn't know better, I would have thought someone had just asked me to
sell my soul to the devil.
[Tom Malone is President Southeast of the Foundation and director of the
Atlanta Freethought Society.]
In Search Of Balance
By Dan Barker
After the airing of "Ancient Secrets Of The Bible" on May 15, 1992, the
Freedom From Religion Foundation protested to CBS. In early February, David
Balsiger, the producer, called and asked if I would consider giving a
skeptical viewpoint on "Ancient Secrets Of The Bible, Part II."
I immediately turned him down, giving him an earful. I told Balsiger that
if Part II is anything like the sloppy, unscholarly, biased Part I, I would
be embarrassed to be a part of it. The skeptics (including Dead Sea Scrolls
expert Robert Eisenman and Gerald Larue, professor of biblical history and
archaeology at USC) were "set up" as mere props, their erudite comments
edited down to a sentence or two devoid of explanation. The "skeptical
balance" was simply a ploy to pretend objectivity on a show intended
(Balsiger agreed) to present the bible in a favorable light. I also told
him that his production quality was something out of a 3rd-grade Sunday
School class, with amateur actors in bathrobes wearing beards glued on
A couple of days later Balsiger called back, desperate to find a willing
skeptic. He told me that the CBS airing of Part I was the highest rated
program of the evening, with 40 million (!) viewers. He said that
"authorities" (mostly on the other side) were "killing themselves" to get on
the next show, and that this would be good exposure for me. I was hesitant,
but I told him that I might consider contributing to the Ten Commandments
section, on certain conditions.
First, I would be allowed to present not just a bare objection to the Ten
Commandments, but to give critical reasons, unedited. Second, I would be
identified with the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin.
All of this would be in writing. Balsiger said these conditions were
unusual, but he might consider them. (He never said he had a script already
written.) I mailed him my 60-second script and a bio.
A few days later, after reading my script, he called back, and, alas, their
plans had changed. Chicago was cut from the taping schedule and CBS could
not afford (!) to fly me anywhere else. He wanted to know if I knew of any
skeptical resources in Atlanta. Thinking, optimistically, that Balsiger was
simply an innocent producer in need of education, and under the impression
that perhaps I had convinced him to allow skeptics to speak their mind, I
gave him Tom Malone's phone number.
However, after the CBS airing of the laughable "In Search Of Noah's Ark" on
February 20, also produced by Balsiger, I realized our thin hope for
freethought balance was groundless. Balsiger, identified as author of a
fundamentalist book about Noah's Ark, could never be trusted to present any
CBS should be ashamed of itself for financing and airing these programs.
They make tabloid journalism look like healthy entertainment. Their
documentary facade lends credibility to myth. This is part of the reason
that ignorance and superstition are still strong in the 20th century.
Reprinted (with permission) from the April 1993 issue of Freethought Today,
bulletin of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
For more information, write or call
Freedom From Religion Foundation
P.O. Box 750
Madison, WI 53701
© 1993 Peter Langston