D. J. Grothe pushes back on the NYT for romanticizing Uri Geller and calling him a “victor”

July 11, 2023 • 1:00 pm

In the Nooz two days ago both Greg Mayer and I weighed in on a very weird article in the New York Times declaring that swindler Uri Geller (you’ll know him as the “spoon bender”) had come out victorious over his critic James Randi, who exposed Geller’s “psychic” manipulations as pure hokum. Nevertheless, the NYT extolled Geller. Here’s what both of us said:

*From Greg:

The New York Times‘ fondness for woo continues to grow: a big homepage article today declares that Uri Geller has “emerged the victor“. The evidence for this: Geller is rich and has opened a museum about himself; an Australian has written a coffee table book about him; and he has outlived his critic James Randi (who was 18 years older than Geller, and died in 2020 at the age of 92). And besides, what harm can there be in cultivating the habits of mind that allow people to believe in telekinesis? The Times used to be a little less credulous about such things, and the harm they can cause.
The article is in the “Business” section, so I guess how much money you have is the right way to judge who ‘wins’. But there’s nary a mention of the size of Randi’s estate– how can we be sure who really won?
From the NYT:

It’s a fortune he might have never earned, he said, without a group of highly agitated critics. Mr. Geller was long shadowed by a handful of professional magicians appalled that someone was fobbing off what they said were expertly finessed magic tricks as acts of telekinesis. Like well-matched heavyweights, they pummeled one another in the ’70s and ’80s in televised contests that elevated them all.

Mr. Geller ultimately emerged the victor in this war, and proof of his triumph is now on display in the museum: a coffee-table book titled “Bend It Like Geller,” which was written by the Australian magician Ben Harris and published in May.

My take:  The victor? The VICTOR?  The NYT then admits that Geller wasn’t really banding spoons or was psychic; it was all trickery:

And the point is that Mr. Geller is an entertainer, one who’d figured out that challenging our relationship to the truth, and daring us to doubt our eyes, can inspire a kind of wonder, if performed convincingly enough. Mr. Geller’s bent spoons are, in a sense, the analog precursors of digital deep fakes — images, videos and sounds, reconfigured through software, so that anyone can be made to say or do anything.

That’s bad writing, and is in fact not true, since Geller never admitted he was doing trickery (see below).

And get a load of this from the NYT:

If Mr. Geller can’t actually bend metal with his brain — and civility and fairness demands this “if” — he is the author of a benign charade, which is a pretty good definition of a magic trick. Small wonder that the anti-Geller brigade has laid down its arms and led a rapprochement with the working professionals of magic. He is a reminder that people thrill at the sense that they are either watching a miracle or getting bamboozled. And now that fakery is routinely weaponized online, Mr. Geller’s claims to superpowers seem almost innocent.

My take: No,  civility and fairness don’t demand the “if”—the possibility that he really was bending spoons with his brain. His followers now more or less admit it, and magicians like Randi could do it regularly.  By saying that Geller “won”, and putting in that “if”, the NYT is once again pandering to woo. And if it wasn’t woo, but just magic, then Geller lost and Randi won. Oh, and the NYT also lost.

Now D. J. Grothe, whom you may remember as a voice in the “new atheist movement” as well as a magician and a good friend of James Randi, takes out after the NYT for its extolling of Randi. Click below to read Grothe’s Substack post:

First, the take of reader Stephen, who brought this link to my attention

Mr. Grothe is criticizing The New York Times for the way they’re telling the story of a swindler, quote: Geller’s history of fraud is surreally romanticized in the New York Times profile — he’s audaciously portrayed as a mere magician somehow performing his deceptions in the public interest! and the NYT article treats James Randi as “little more than a footnote”, dismissing him as just spewing “vitriol” against a poor Uri Geller, who is portrayed as just an “almost innocent” fellow entertainer, a mean-spirited and joyless Randi tilting at the inocuous windmill of Uri Geller.
I’m surprised that a serious newspaper publishes something about a crook, but trying to convince us is not.

Indeed, Grothe admits that Geller has bamboozled people because he has an amiable and endearing personality, but he still bamboozled them:

He built his valuable brand on this falsehood that he was real, and in the process, offended many in the magic community, skeptics, and anyone else who values the truth and cares when the cognitively vulnerable are being defrauded by charlatans. This offense his critics felt — a kind of moral outrage — has led them to debunking Geller countless times, and yet he’s always remained undeterred. And his unscrupulous deceptions weren’t confined to the stage; I think it was and continues to be his very identity, a dangerously misleading persona ethically identical to conscienceless faith healers and psychic charlatans who knowingly dupe the gullible for personal gain.

I’ve only met Uri Geller twice, and I can confirm others’ accounts: he is a beautiful huckster. When I first met him, he made me feel like the center of the universe — he was so warm and attentive, even affectionate, and he honestly seemed like a genuinely nice guy.  I found him to be extremely likable. Even though I knew his history of destructive fraud and deceit. It should be no wonder that someone with his history could be so beguiling.

Two things in this piece surprised me. First, Geller has never admitted that his psychic ‘tricks’ were a form of magic (i.e.,deception): (Bolding is mine.)

That the magic community, with some notable if rare exceptions, has recently turned a blind eye to Geller’s history is not at all due to the fact that Geller has finally confessed to being a fraud, and to bilking his victims out of literal fortunes over the years, because Geller has never confessed to this, nor has he ever tried to make good, nor tried to make his victims whole. Instead, I think magicians have welcomed Geller into their community because magicians as a group are charmed by his personality and especially by his celebrity — magicians are nothing if not starfuckers, and ethics aside, Geller is a bona fide very charming celebrity.

Second, I didn’t know that Geller loaned his name to various scams that did hurt people, including medical misinformation:

But Geller wasn’t — and isn’t — any sort of noble Carl Sagan type. He was a con man who hurt people. And his scams were not just confined to lucrative pseudoscientific oil prospecting cons, as the Times article suggests. In the 90s, Geller’s magazines in England were promoting things like dangerous spiritualistic healing of very physical medical ailments. Found on the magazine racks throughout the country (I bought one in person on my first trip to London in 1996), issues were packaged with “Uri Geller Empowered Quartz Crystals,” with step-by-step instructions for supposedly curing very real diseases. He didn’t perform benign magic tricks merely refusing to disclaim them as mere tricks. In my opinion, he was a spiritualistic fraud. And continues to be.

If Geller is still deceiving people by pretending he has spiritual or psychic powers, we should feel sorry for those credulous folks. But we shouldn’t feel sorry for the New York Times, which actually makes a kind of hero out of Geller, declaring him victorious over James Randi, who in my view is the real hero, or at least a thoroughly admirable man. Why is the Times so eager to push woo?

18 thoughts on “D. J. Grothe pushes back on the NYT for romanticizing Uri Geller and calling him a “victor”

  1. I commented on the New York Times article that James Randy completely debunked Gellar years ago.

  2. James Randi was a true hero, fighting not just fraud and deception but the natural human tendency to reframe one’s own gullibility as open-mindedness, courage, and “civility and fairness.” He had charisma, too — and leveraged it for good.

    If outliving your critics and writing nice things about yourself is “victory,” then we can throw out both ethics and evidence in favor of hoping we’ve got good genes and a lot of luck.

  3. Pure cynicism. Geller made a lot of money- hardly matters how, in this view point- his con has lasted decades and he seems to be the last man standing. Bravo. No accounting of his ethical lapses (which I was not aware of). I found especially annoying the tortured reasoning that Geller’s career is justified, if not commendable, because of digital fakes. Segal seems to believe he is taking the sophisticated stance to be in on the con while admiring Geller’s insistence that he has supernatural powers.

      1. To repeat an often asked question: if these folks have supernatural gifts, why are they bending spoons, entertaining at parties, and telling folks where to vacation? Aren’t there substantive issues to tackle with these marvelous talents?

  4. What next? The snake oil scammers are actually the victors over the medical establishment because we found out they were just entertainers the entire time?

  5. Charisma and really convincing lying are characteristics of sociopaths. I’m not diagnosing, I’m not qualified, I’m just mentioning.

  6. Wow, what an awful “news” article. Geller is a successful conman so he “won,” never mind what he did to do it. And even giving him the benefit of doubt that he might not be faking.

    Geller annoyed me years ago when I heard about him, but I was much more annoyed with Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff, who had “tested” him. When I was much younger I took psychic abilities fairly seriously since supposedly certain abilities had been rigorously tested under controlled laboratory conditions. That all changed when I read Martin Gardner’s “Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus” and James Randi’s “Flim-Flam!” I didn’t mind that people who weren’t experts in illusion and fooling people had been taken in by Geller and others, but after Targ and Puthoff were shown how it was possible to fake the claimed psychic powers, they attacked the people who were pointing it out. They didn’t like people saying Geller was performing magic tricks, somehow that accusation was unfair to him, and they didn’t accept their experiments had holes you could drive a truck through. In short, they were terrible scientists. (J.B. Rhine was sadly much the same, and I had earlier believed a book he wrote about supposedly successful ESP tests.) On the other hand, I came to respect Johnny Carson regarding this issue. He was an amateur magician and contacted Randi before bringing Geller on the show, then they set things up to counter common tricks. Unsurprisingly, Geller had no luck showing his “abilities.” The nicest thing I can say about Geller is that he helped to teach me about skepticism.

    1. Like you, Van Rijn, and I suspect a lot of us who lived through Geller’s heyday, we believed it–and usually much more–eagerly and willingly. Somewhere about college age, I too read Gardner and Randi’s books and saw through what the charlatans were doing. In my sophomore year of college, a wonderful psych professor invited his friend Ray Hyman in to talk to us and it all fell into place.

      Carson was extremely important in this whole business, for our side. Not only could Geller NOT perform on the Tonight Show when Carson simply insisted on a few basic controls (Geller couldn’t have access to the watches he was going to start up miraculously, nor the spoons he was going to bend, before his “performance.”), but he somehow COULD perform on other talk shows, including Tom Snyder, who was quite watchable (though I fully understand people who disagree with me on this) and also quite gullible (about which no sane person could disagree).

      Remember also Carson having Randi on the show to expose, on live TV, Peter Popoff’s “miracles” that he performed, fraudulently, for his gullible xian audiences for many years. Popoff, as I recall, went off the air for a while, but soon was right back at it. I guess he “won,” too. How silly.

  7. Congratulations to DJ for a well justified and necessary attack on the New York Times’s endorsing of a nasty, money-grubbing charlatan. Litigious, too, as James Randi discovered. Even I once got a threatening letter from Geller’s lawyer because I used the phrase “spoonbending charlatans”. I had not mentioned Geller’s name. He must have recognized himself. I ignored the threat and it went away.

    But, a small point of English. I do wish Americans would stop using the words “magic” and “magician”, when they mean “conjuring” and “conjuror”. In the interests of clarity, we need a word for what Geller falsely claimed: supernatural powers. Conjurors pull rabbits out of hats. Magicians turn frogs into princes – except that they don’t, and that’s the point. Wizards in Grimm and JK Rowling are fictional magicians. Geller is a dishonest conjuror, falsely claiming to be an actual magician. Randi was an honest conjuror, and a lasting hero for exposing Geller and many other fakers of supernatural powers, including spiritualists who exploited the bereaved by claiming to talk to the dead. More than ever in the post-Trump era, we need clear language that goes out of its way to separate fact from fiction.

    Incidentally, when I put my terminological point to Randi, he agreed but said it was too late. The word “magic” has become too deeply embedded in American English.

    1. I’m English and I use the terms interchangeably when referring to real people. Paul Daniels was a magician as far as I was concerned, or a conjuror. It never occurred to me that anybody would assume that an entertainer who calls themselves a magician and labels their act “magic” would ever be mistaken for a real magician à la Merlin or Gandalf.

      In fact, I think Uri Geller didn’t refer to himself as a magician, possibly for this reason. Wikipedia says he is a “magician, illusionist and self proclaimed psychic”.

  8. It may be a ‘victory’ of sorts if, in spite of the critics and the debunking, he remains wealthy, comfortable and (in some quarters at least) celebrated, but is this really the kind of victory that the NYT should admire?

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