British tabloid The Daily Mail’s website has become the most-visited newspaper site in the world, surpassing The New York Times (though the Times disputes those numbers). Analyzing the rise of the Mail Online, Will Oremus at Slate.com notes that the site drifts away from the xenophobic nativism of its print version to focus on anything that will generate more hits.
“This is not news, really. It’s click bait, the stuff pageviews are made of. There’s no parochialism, no xenophobia, no mock outrage, and almost no politics—nothing that could limit the potential audience for these pieces, which is, in short, the entire English-speaking online world.”
The Mail’s online publisher, Marin Clarke, attributes the site’s rise to just publishing the news “that people want to read.” But the vision of a scrubbed and inoffensive Mail posited by Oremus isn’t quite true. The site has no trouble whatsoever taking regular aim at modern Pagans on their website, often distorting facts and writing lurid headlines to generate outrage (which generates hits). Some example headlines involving Pagans include: “Pagans are on the march – but are they harmless eccentrics or a dangerous cult?,” “God save us from the crazy religious privileges in jails that cost the taxpayer millions,” “How to cure a witch: Catholic Church issues guide in Britain to turn the tables on Harry Potter,” and “Pagan prisoners given time off to worship the Sun God.”
The Mail’s lurid sensationalism in regard to Paganism is longstanding, and often I found myself responding to, and correcting, their shoddy “reporting”. There was the “British schools teach Paganism” distortion, the “BBC is too Pagan friendly” pile-on, the “museums are changing their policies because they are afraid of Pagans” exaggeration, and the scathing anti-Pagan vitriol from Melanie Phillips when The Druid Network won charity status. It reached a point where I simply had enough, vowing to never link them again, and urging others to do the same.
To quote a famous Bond villian: Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action. Five times in the span of three months? It’s a paranoid unhealthy obsession. They can’t seem to actually write something fair-minded about our faiths, as if the mention of Paganism, Druidry, or Wicca sparks some sort of Pavlovian urge to cast themselves as Sgt. Howie in The Wicker Man (sans the ending, of course). They are an unwitting parody of conservative thinking, a reactionary journalistic Chicken Little constantly warning of the sky falling, knowing that eventually something they scream about will be correct.“So that’s it.
I’d call for a boycott, or angry letters, but that just feeds the beast. They thrive, crave, our attention. The outrage-baiting headlines, the choppy barely-rewritten-from-the-newswires prose interspersed with distortions and clumsily obscured personal opinion, it’s all an attention-generating machine. So it stops here. No more links. No more attention. Let’s stop pretending they are “news”, and deny them the page-views they so desperately desire. Don’t forward them, respond to them, Tweet them, or share them on Facebook. If you must comment on a story they do, find the kernel of a real story and report on that. Dig deeper. Don’t provide them with any more fuel. They are a parody of the news, but that joke isn’t funny anymore.”
For the most part, I’ve kept my promise to not link them. Though exhortations to my fellow Pagans haven’t really taken hold, and their articles are often forwarded through social media sites, and linked to on Pagan blogs. I can’t really blame them, the Mail Online works very hard to titillate or infuriate, making it hard to not engage.
The point, however, is not to simply renew my call for Pagans to deny the Mail linking oxygen, but to ask a larger question. If the Mail Online is now the most popular Internet paper in the world, how does that affect how people see modern Paganism? I posit that it reinforces the opinion that Pagans are strange outsiders who make unreasonable demands on government, undermine society, aren’t to be taken seriously, and are a symptom of societal collapse. Even when they aren’t openly villainizing Pagans, and simply rewriting reporting from other papers, it’s balanced out with stories about “black magic rituals” forcing the closure of woodland caves. In short, Pagans are only paid attention to when its a controversy. To the Mail, we are either “harmless eccentrics” or a “dangerous cult,” there’s no in between.
When we interact with, and create, media, Pagans need to be more savvy than ever before. We have to think about how a story will play out in all kinds of outlets, and what the ramifications of our every word will be. We can’t control the hits-hungry amoral ethic of the Mail, but we can refuse to participate in their business model, deny them pull-quotes for their sensationalism, and work instead with outlets that have built a track record of responsible reporting. Better still, we can continue to work on lifting up our own media, so that there are strong advocates for Pagan voices on the Internet.