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Ark hoax doesn’t faze new Pax president

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PASADENA, Calif. — When Jeff Sagansky was running CBS's programming department, he scheduled a special produced by ex-Utahn Chuck Sellier titled "The Search for Noah's Ark" — a special that eventually forced the network to distance itself from Sellier because of a hoax the show perpetrated on the American public.

The program claimed that a chunk of wood was an actual piece of the ark — a claim that later proved to be utterly false. (It was a modern piece of wood doctored to make it look old.)

The behavior of neither CBS nor Sellier (a pal of Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt's) in the aftermath was particularly laudable. When the charges of fraud first arose, both attacked those who questioned them. In response to a question from the Deseret News, then-CBS Entertainment president Sagansky rather glibly said of a report in Time magazine, "We don't feel so far from all the evidence that (Sellier) did anything wrong. There was clearly a hoax perpetrated, though. And we're not sure whether it was on Sun International and CBS or whether it was on Time magazine."

A few months later, CBS quietly stopped doing business with Sellier, dropping all further projects it had going with him (including the series "Miracles and Other Wonders").

Well, CBS has kept that vow, but Sagansky has apparently chosen to forget the whole incident. He's now the president of the Pax network, and he's hired Sellier to produce a series titled "Encounters with the Unexplained," which debuts Monday, Aug. 25. And, lo and behold, the episode scheduled to air Sept. 1 is titled "The Search for Noah's Ark."

Talk about "Encounters with the Unexplained."

And he's still defending Sellier's CBS special, which perpetrated that hoax on viewers.

"He was hoaxed by somebody who set out to hoax him," Sagansky said.

Gee, even if that's true, it doesn't really matter, does it? It was still a fraud — and one that Sellier never apologized for publicly. (And isn't it odd that his official Pax biography fails to mention that particular program.)

The most charitable thing that can be said about Sagansky's statement that "We did a lot of specials with him after that" is that the years have dimmed his memory. That just isn't true.

And, given Sellier's history with pseudo-historical, pseudo-scientific programming, it's difficult to believe something like that will never happen again.

"I think that was a very valuable lesson for him," Sagansky said of the Noah's Ark hoax. "And he is very, very careful with his research now."

Sagansky points to Sellier's productions of "Bible prophecy specials, et cetera, which we've run which haven't proved to be false or incorrect at all."

Gee, it's kind of hard to prove those sorts of shows wrong, given that they're so completely open to the interpretation of both the producers and the viewers.

What makes all of this even harder to stomach is Pax's ad campaign for "Encounters with the Unexplained" — a campaign that tells you the show is going to teach you all the things your teachers either ignored or just got wrong.

"I think that what we are saying is that there is a lot of research that probably doesn't come in their (teachers') regular studies . . . and that's the stuff that we are bringing to light," Sagansky said. "This is a lot of science-based (material). We have a lot of computer graphics."

And, despite the fact that the ads clearly call into question the competence of American teachers — broad-brushing them as incompetents — Sagansky tried to back away from that as well.

"No, we would never do that," he said.

Which is not exactly true, either.

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com