New York Times unveils the lies and scams of fortunetelling -- or does it?

It's nice when a newspaper answers its own questions so fast, even leading with a quote it repeats right away. Like when the New York Times ran a gleeful expose' on psychics, fortunetellers and others around the city. But the story leaves other big questions unanswered.

The article is meant to show that the diviners are increasingly fessing up that it's all a scam. But the article doesn't prove the point -- either that it's all "baloney" or that growing numbers of psychics are coming clean.

Here is how the 1,100 words start:

Is it real? Or a bunch of baloney? It’s a question New Yorkers and visitors to the city may ask themselves when they pass any of the seemingly countless storefront fortunetellers.
Celia Mitchell, 38, was pointedly asked that exact question last year: “What is the psychic business? Is it real, or a bunch of baloney?”
She answered, “It’s a scam, sir.”
“The whole thing is a scam?”

Mitchell thereby "joined a very specific group: convicted psychics who, seeking an early release from prison, sit for interviews before the parole board," the Times says. Specific and limited, although the newspaper says "that number may soon grow."

In the article, Mitchell is one of four psychics who admit fakery to parole boards. She took $159,205 to banish a "dark spirit." Another psychic admitted telling customers what they wanted to hear.  A third got people to pay her to buy "charms and rituals," according to a previous Times story. Still another is charged with promising to reunite two lovers, even though one of them was dead.

It sounds like a genuine rogues' gallery and some good enterprise reporting. And as Times reports, many of the defendants say things like Sylvia S. Mitchell does at a hearing: "I regret it and I have no explanation for it; that is just corruption.”

But then the article gets a little schoolmarm-ish, wagging a finger at everyone in the industry: "The inmates’ reflections on their careers may give pause to the passer-by willing to pay $20 or $50 or more for a promised peek at the future."

The newspaper may have taken cues from the parole board that grilled Betty Vlado, who called herself a Gypsy, read palms and tarot cards. Vlado, whose story took up more than a third of the 1,100 Times article, did an extended mea culpa at her 2014 parole hearing.

But the commissioners "were not above having some fun" at her expense, the story says:

“Are you going to be given an open date or not?” Joseph P. Crangle, a commissioner, asked Ms. Vlado. “You’re a fortuneteller. Tell me what I am thinking.”
“I am hoping you’re thinking to give me a chance to go home,” she replied.
“That’s not what he asked you,” another commissioner interjected.
Commissioner Crangle asked again, “What am I thinking?”
“I am not going to read your mind.”

So eager is the Times to support its theme, it adds crimes that have little to do with fortune telling. It mentions Vlado selling someone a rock that she said came from the moon. And it tells of Sylvia S. Mitchell admitting she killed her husband with an overdose of barbiturates.

Look also at the dates of their crimes, going back to 2007. Four cases over eight years -- five, if you count Priscilla Kelly Demaro, accused but not thus far convicted in that lovers' reunion that didn't happen. Hardly an epidemic, is it? We've seen at least that many cases of, say, plagiarism and other fraud in journalism itself.

And how many psychics, fortunetellers, etc., are working in New York? What percentage have confessed to fraud? Without such answers, calling it a trend is argumentative at best.

Now, let's be clear. I'm no fan of this stuff myself. I won't cross anyone's palm with silver. I don’t expect to read my future in cards, runes, tea leaves, my hand, the stars or elsewhere. But I'm also no fan of opinions and sermonizing thinly veiled as news. As I said in my review of Mormon church coverage, every religious tradition has a side that nonbelievers would consider bogus.

Fortunetelling might well be all a "bunch of baloney," as the article puts it. But that call, I suggest, is not for the Times to make. Especially in a news story, and especially on fewer than a half-dozen anecdotes.

After all, the old slogan Caveat emptor, or "Let the buyer beware," applies not only to psychics but newspaper stories.

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