to the reader falls the responsibility

Pagans were reminded that they are not a monolith in the letters pages of Witches and Pagans issue 37. The previous edition had included an interview entitled, “The Binding of Donald Trump.” Strong reactions were sent in, both from those opposed to using magic in this way generally, as well as those who felt that this call for action for unfairly targeted. One particular complaint caught my journalist’s eye: “I am very disappointed in your choice to publish such rude, one-sided vicious claims against the duly-elected leader of our nation with no clarification, nor opposing views.”

I am a journalist, and I have been accused of showing bias in this way. This is an issue that speaks to me personally. It is very important that news coverage include different perspectives, and that these are given due weight. However, in the case of an ongoing story, individual articles focused on smaller pieces will not always include all perspectives. One has to look at the whole mosaic to see the larger picture. It falls to the reader to do the hard work of paying attention over a long period of time.

Here we have an interview with someone—Michael Hughes—whose main claim to fame is working magic against Donald Trump. It is not the whole story, it’s an interview with an author about that author’s published views on the subject. Profiles—be they of authors about a recent book, or founders of traditions about the tenets, or entrepreneurs about the new shop they’ve opened up on the corner—are never going to include opposing views. That’s not how they are designed, and that’s okay. There are mechanisms to balance that out, such as letters pages and comments sections, public editors and reporters who cover news media in particular.

The story of Donald Trump is being told through a wide variety of outlets, and I wouldn’t trust any one of them to have the whole picture, much less a single article in a specialty magazine like Witches and Pagans. Most news sites are echo chambers, and the climate of fear and hate in Washington while Trump was in office led most people quoted in articles to do so only on background (such as, “a source close to the president). It’s been a confusing time to consume news, particularly considering the fact that Trump tried mightily to undermine confidence in reporters in the manner of a demagogue. It’s true that no single news article will ever be devoid of bias, and again, it falls to the reader to look at a variety of sources to make those biases clear. Being part of a democracy requires this level of engagement, and it’s hard work.

Profiles are intended to get as much out of a single person about their own views on a subject as possible. The interviewer should ask questions that bring out the depth and breadth of thosee opinions, giving thought as to the areas readers might want to understand better, and diving in as deeply as necessary in the time or space allotted. Treating it like an interrogation is going to result in a very short interview, and that’s not serving readers at all. Asking questions that draw out more about the subject will, regardless of the personal opinions held by the interviewer. With good questions, an interview subject can easily reveal things worth understanding better, and it falls to the reader to follow up by seeing if there are alternate viewpoints out there in the world.

In this case, interviewer Hecate Demetersdatter has an open bias against Donald Trump which is chronicled quite publicly in a blog. The questions asked of Hughes don’t really focus on why either of them aren’t supporters, however. Rather, they deal with how and why Hughes and others (including some of Trump’s supporters) mix magic with politics and activism, the advantages and shortcomings of magic, what it’s like to work in the public sphere, and ethical frameworks for using magic at all. In the context of an interview about a book, that’s about as good as it gets for looking at both sides, and it’s done well. The reader who found it to be one-sided clearly understood that this was part of a larger picture, or would have been unable to complain about a lack of “opposing views.” The same letter includes the complaint that Hughes is not specific in the concerns against Trump, but I find “the immense threat of authoritarianism, the dismantling of institutions and social structures, and the breakdown of civil society that Trump and the complicit GOP represent” to be quite specific. One does not have to agree with that assessment, but claiming it’s not specific is downright false. Asking for more clarification of someone’s personal opinion is a demand for impossible evidence. Again, this is an interview with an author about that author’s book. The only evidence that’s required is for the author to lay out the basis for those opinions. It’s perfectly fine to disagree with that opinion, as nearly 75 million voters did, but that doesn’t mean that the presentation was in any way unfair. The topic here isn’t the moral value of Donald J. Trump; it’s a book written by an author who has made a name largely in opposition to Donald J. Trump. That’s also laid out quite clearly.

The reader goes on to ask if the magazine’s editor is “willing to publish the other side’s opinions as well, thus opening yourself to some possibly nasty discussions?” I actually imagine that the editor would agree to publish an interview with someone who wrote a book about magically defending Donald Trump, if there was an angle that relates to pagans at all. The book Dark Star Rising is mentioned in the interview, but it’s not clear from the interview if it was written in a pagan context. However, the context suggests that this is a book that’s also not favorable to Trump, which would again result in an article which I imagine would not please that particular reader. What I got from the letter is that the reader wants to see something favorable about this individual, if politics is going to be covered in the magazine at all, but since the question of mixing politics and religion was not actually the topic of the letter, it’s also not the topic of this analysis.

It is appropriate for journalists to cover different perspectives by giving them due weight. When one is interviewing an author about that author’s book, or the founder of a tradition about the tenets of that tradition, or a painter about the works in a show, little weight needs to be given to opposing views. To get those, find someone who wrote a different book, interview the founder of an alternative tradition, or compile some criticisms of that painter’s work, and write another article. In those contexts, the alternate points of view would be given much more weight. It falls to the reader to do the hard work of seeking out differing points of view, rather than just consuming media written by those with whom they already agree. That’s true of those who supported the 45th president, as well as those opposed. If an article leaves a reader feeling frustrated, good! Ask yourself why, and be open to the fact that responses like “fake news” and “this president always lies” are lazy excuses, not real answers. Journalism should include sources to explore to understand those answers, but no one article can possibly cover all the viewpoints on such a complex topic.

Finally, the trend to blame the writer when one is unhappy with what the subject has to say is beyond the pale. Rather than grumbling about what questions should or should not have been asked, why not try reaching out directly and civilly, and asking one’s own? If no response is received, it’s safe to assume that an interviewer wouldn’t have done much better. Isn’t it preferable to see the answers that were given, rather than none at all?

I would not like to send you questions

“Would you like to send me some questions?” Actually no, I would rather not send you questions before I interview you.

I get that some people want to understand a journalists “angle” before they begin, but I also understand how human minds work. There are two things which can go terribly wrong when I send you written questions in advance, namely:

  1. You will infer bias because written communication has no tone of voice or body language, which make up the majority of how we communicate, and thus you will unconsciously insert in that huge gap whatever your past experience suggests is my likely agenda, or, even worse,
  2. important information will never be revealed because you carefully and narrowly answered the questions I presented, likely because being interviewed makes you nervous.

These are two sides of the same coin. If I send questions ahead, I am aware that it’s likely I will learn nothing which isn’t laid out in those questions; I must therefore make them as broad as I possibly can to combat the narrow responses which naturally follow. That can feel overwhelming, and lead folks who are already uncomfortable talking to a reporter to feel defensive and search for clues as to my hidden agenda.

The truth is that my angle, my agenda, is the find out what I need to know to write an accurate story that helps readers understand what’s going on. Journalists are not subject-matter experts, and regularly must bring ourselves up to speed on a completely unfamiliar topic. That isn’t going to happen when we send questions in advance, because we don’t necessarily know enough to know what to ask.

Even asking, “Is there anything you were hoping I would ask that would help me understand this better?” doesn’t help; in well over 90% of interviews I’m told no, there’s nothing more.

What would I rather do? Have a conversation, a form of communication which is much older, and thus suits our species better. My interviews are often spirit-led, and I consciously choose to enter a state of worship when I am conducting one. This is to help me to be fully present and listen with all of myself, to what is said without words. Tone of voice, pauses, volume also communicate. Even those who don’t feel they have strong verbal skills are excellent interview subjects, but I often don’t know what I will ask until I absorb that non-verbal information.

If push comes to shove and my subject won’t budge, I’d rather send one question at a time. Any more presumes I know enough to get into depth, and the result is the kind of superficial treatment of a subject that makes people mistrustful of reporters. It’s an ugly cycle.

Asking for questions in advance is an attempt to control the information that’s revealed. Instead, I suggest that if one does not wish to reveal some tidbit, one simply does not. This is country is not run by some jurisdocracy, a government of attorneys, by attorneys, and for attorneys. Don’t hide behind an attorney’s tricks. The best way not to comment is by uttering the words, “no comment.”

Be kind

There are many reasons to be angry:

  • those people who aren’t taking this pandemic seriously enough
  • those people who are taking this pandemic too seriously
  • those people you live with whose habits are becoming more irritating every day
  • those people online who are too stupid to live
  • those people who are making terrible decisions about how to manage this crisis
  • those people who are blocking brilliant leadership
  • those people who kept having babies
  • those people who tried eating bats
  • those people who are politicizing everything
  • those people who aren’t willing to just die already
  • those selfish people
  • those greedy people
  • those scared people
  • those people

It matters not what other people believe.  It matters not what you believe.  Be kind today.  There will always be another chance not to be kind, but today, be kind.

Planting prayer for Poseidon

Gentle Ennosigaios,
now we ask you to move the earth.
Not with all the vast power
which rages under roiling brows
of Labrandeus,
nor the tenacious focus
of dashing Prosclystius,
nor any of the many ways
which Pelagaeus could bring to bear.

Subtle Ennosigaios,
now we ask you to move the earth.
With the steadfast resolve
by which Isthmios endures,
with the silence to which Eirḗnē
is eternally inured,
with the fate of all your people,
as Genethlios procures.

Slow-moving Ennosigaios,
now we ask you to move the earth.
Ease the burden of each seed
so that life fulfills its need.
Thus Phytalmius will nourish
and the land again shall flourish.
Ennosigaios, move each pebble
so these crops can prove their mettle.

Praised be Poseidon,
bringer of small shakes and great quakes.

This is included in my book Depth of Praise, which you really ought to own.  Read it, enjoy it, link to it, but do not reproduce it without my written permission.  Thanks for understanding.