The Role of Journalism in Religious Movements – the questions The Wild Hunt didn’t ask

The Role of Journalism in Religious Movements – the questions The Wild Hunt didn’t ask August 26, 2018

To say that our society doesn’t understand the role of journalism would be a gross understatement.

Look at the comments section of on-line newspapers: anything commenters disagree with is labeled “fake news” or “a hit piece.” Donald Trump calls journalists “enemies of the people.” The for-profit news networks present far more opinion than news, because people like to watch other people telling them what they want to hear. Fox News is the worst, but they are far from the only offender.

Journalism in religious movements is treated no better. “Stuff I agree with” is considered good reporting, while “stuff I don’t like” is considered heresy that shouldn’t be talked about.

The role of journalism in religious movements is the same as its role in mainstream society: to tell the members of the community what’s going on, and to provide enough context for readers to understand it and draw their own conclusions.

Sometimes that means writing about things that make us uncomfortable. Sometimes it means writing about things we’d rather keep hidden away or silenced.

The Pagan movement has one primary “newspaper of record” – The Wild Hunt. I’ve been a financial backer of The Wild Hunt ever since they went to a crowdfunding business model. Over the years I’ve been a strong supporter, and an occasional critic. Most times they get journalism right.

Last Wednesday they got journalism very, very wrong.

The Pussy Church of Modern Witchcraft

On August 3, Forbes Magazine reported that the Pussy Church of Modern Witchcraft had been granted 501(c)(3) status by the IRS. This recognizes them as a tax-exempt charitable or religious organization. Forbes is a business magazine – this very good article by Peter J Reilly focuses on the legal and business aspects of the PCMW’s incorporation. But still, it leads with this notice:

you need to be aware of a conflict that is going on between some radical feminists and the transgender community.

The PCMW’s articles of incorporation say that their purpose is “to form a congregation of adherents to our female born, lesbian-feminist-based religions [sic] beliefs and traditions. We intend to serve our adherents through worship, service, and sistership with our congregants.”

The key here is “female born.” The PCMW’s website says:

The Pussy Church serves Women and Girls only. Males are not permitted to participate, regardless of how they identify. We expressly reject the concepts of gender identity, transgenderism, and gender as being meaningful to defining what a Woman or Girl is.

Reilly says incorporation is good lawyering. In this era of Donald Trump’s “religious liberty task force” religion can be used as an excuse for pretty much any kind of discrimination you want. Some people want to deny the legitimacy of same sex marriage. Others want to deny the reality of transgender people.

Reilly says “A representative of PCMW was unwilling to provide me with answers to my probing questions to determine what they are really up to.” So he reached out to a trans activist for comment. Antonia Elle D’orsay gave their perspective:

A church in which the gospel is aversion, anxiety, and animus towards trans people will likely appeal to a few folks, and I have no doubt they will recruit a good 100 or so members.

The Forbes article is a very good piece of journalism from a rather unlikely source.

Is this witchcraft?

Any group with “witchcraft” in their name is immediately assumed to be part of the Pagan movement, whether they have anything to do with Pagan religion or actual witchcraft or not. I looked forward to The Wild Hunt investigating and reporting their findings. There were two questions that needed to be answered. Is there any witchcraft in the Pussy Church of Witchcraft? And do they have any purpose beyond excluding trans women?

The Wild Hunt coverage, written by Terence P Ward, came out late Wednesday. To say that I was disappointed is another gross understatement.

On the first question, Ward quoted PCMW leader Sister Dandelion, who said “I bring a strong background of Witchcraft” and revealed that she is in the lineage of Z. Budapest. She said the PCMW is “loosely defined, very much rooted in wise woman intuitive magic, or kitchen witchcraft.”

Fair enough. That’s not what I consider witchcraft, but it’s a legitimate use of the term.

Doing their PR work for them

The problem begins with the headline: “For members of the Pussy Church of Witchcraft, ‘our bodies are the church’.” That’s a nice, pretty, neutral line – as though this group is nothing more than an ordinary back yard coven or a ladies’ knitting society.

The problem continues with both the content and the choice of language. The first paragraph says “the focus has been on the rigorous definition of ‘woman’ used by church organizers.” “Rigorous” is a nice, neutral word – I would have said “exclusionary.” The second paragraph says that PCMW membership is restricted to “those who have been a woman since birth” – I would have said “cis women.” This pattern continues throughout the article.

In choosing neutral language, and especially in repeating the language of the PCMW, The Wild Hunt normalizes their position. This is best illustrated in this one-line paragraph toward the end:

What many trans activists and allies view as blatant and harmful discrimination, the church leaders consider to be thoughtful discernment.

“Blatant and harmful discrimination” and “thoughtful discernment” are not remotely equivalent. This is not vanilla and chocolate. This isn’t even libertarianism vs. socialism. Transgender people are literally being killed for being transgender. In trying to not take sides, this article takes a side – the wrong side.

So where is the response? In a 1500 word article, Ward included one quote from a trans woman, pulled from a two year old Wild Hunt article on transgender inclusion in Paganism.

This isn’t investigative journalism. This isn’t even “fair and balanced.” This is doing PR work for an organization whose exclusionary membership practices many in the Pagan community find abhorrent.

Questions The Wild Hunt should have asked

I have to give Sister Dandelion and the other spokespeople for the PCMW credit: they’re doing an excellent job of framing the conversation to benefit themselves. They’re choosing their words very carefully, and they’re not responding to questions that would put them in a bad light.

But it’s the job of a journalist to ask tough questions and to push for meaningful answers. And if they don’t get meaningful answers, it’s their job to call that out in their reporting, as Peter Reilly did in his Forbes article.

Here are the questions I would like to have asked.

  • Membership in the PCMW is open to women and girls (as you define them) but leadership positions are restricted to lesbians – why?
  • Your articles of incorporation use words like “testimony” “new birth” “agreement to being governed by the church” and “contribute regularly to the financial support of the church” – words and phrases that are most commonly associated with Evangelical Christianity. You choose your words carefully – why did you choose these words?
  • One of your prominent members has been accused of doxing and harassing trans people many, many times. How do you reconcile this with your claim that you just want your own space?

That last question is the big one. I strongly oppose transphobia and gender essentialism. Still, I understand how some people might feel differently (that doesn’t mean I think it’s OK – it means I understand why they feel that way). I do not understand how people who speak of spirituality and liberation can behave in ways that harass and ridicule other people because of their gender identity.

I expect that a good journalist would ask these questions and push for meaningful answers. If those questions were asked there is no indication of it in The Wild Hunt article.

You need to know what’s going on in your community

I’ve seen some Pagans saying this article should never have been written. They want to “no platform” the PCMW. I do not agree. We need to know what’s going on in our community. We need to know what’s being done under the banner of witchcraft. As our newspaper of record, it’s the job of The Wild Hunt to investigate and tell us what’s going on.

And then it’s our job to decide how to respond to that news.

Over the years I’ve defended The Wild Hunt numerous times for reporting on groups and individuals many of us – including me – find objectionable. I cannot defend this article. It’s one thing to tell the Pagan movement that a group of TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) has filed articles of incorporation and has set up shop in the Big Tent of Paganism. It’s quite another thing to serve as their PR mouthpiece.

The fallout

I wrote all the above on Thursday. My next usual posting slot was today, plus The Wild Hunt promised an editorial piece on Friday that would address the PCMW’s exclusionary beliefs and practices. Late Thursday they had a change of heart. They called off the editorial and pulled the article:

We apologize.

The Wild Hunt rarely removes articles from immediate view, but we are doing so in this case. We at The Wild Hunt are painfully aware of the impact news can have on individuals. The article regarding the Pussy Church of Witchcraft is one such example. It contains hurtful language that was not caught in our editorial review. In our editorial process, our writers trust one another to share unbiased material in a manner that is supportive of to our Pagan and Polytheist community. This article failed to do that.

The Pussy church article exposed several weaknesses in our editorial process that our team is working on addressing immediately.  For that, we apologize to our readers and anyone touched by our reporting for having failed to live up to our editorial standards.

We recognize the legitimate criticism this article has received. So, we are creating new editorial guidelines to bolster our ability to prevent this from happening again. We are taking this matter seriously and addressing it immediately. We promise to report back these guidelines to you, our readers, as soon as next week.

That’s a good start. It recognizes that this article should never have gotten past the editorial review as written. I look forward to seeing their new guidelines.

Some people are upset that the article – along with well over a hundred comments – was deleted. On one hand, we can’t pretend this never happened. On the other hand, this has become standard practice in the on-line world – if something is determined to be offensive, it’s taken down. My preference would be for it to be rewritten, though honestly, that would invite endless nitpicking and cause as many problems as it would solve. Mainly, I’m happy that this article as originally written is not the last word on the subject.

Terence Ward resigned from The Wild Hunt. I feel bad for Terence. I’ve met him a couple of times, and I’ve served as a source for some of his stories. He’s a nice guy and I like him. But this was not good journalism.

I still support The Wild Hunt

I’ve lost count of how many people who said they’ll never read The Wild Hunt again, or they’ll never support them financially. This is a mistake.

They screwed up. They admitted their error. They apologized. They’re taking steps to do better next time.

Do you abandon your friends when they screw up? Do they abandon you? No. If you’re any kind of friends, you hold them accountable, but then you support them as they make amends and figure out how to do better. That’s how we learn and grow.

The Pagan movement needs our own news source. Not to tell us what we want to hear, and not to cheerlead for the movement (that’s my job, and the job of my fellow Pagan bloggers), but to report what’s going on in our community – including the things we’d rather keep hushed up. Especially the things we’d prefer to keep hushed up.

The Wild Hunt is far from perfect, but they do good work most of the time. And as this incident shows, when they screw up they admit it and do their best to fix it. Let’s support them.

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