A Quick Note on Avoiding Bottom-Feeding Trolls in Mass Media

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  February 27, 2013 — 19 Comments

Wiccans and the larger Pagan community had a major victory lately. We got a talking head on the Fox News network, Tucker Carlson, to apologize on-air for sensationalist, distorted, and false remarks involving Pagan religions. A mix of quick-moving Pagan advocacy organizations and a groundswell of outrage from the community as a whole made them (or at least Carlson) re-think their earlier comments. We should feel good about this. We got an apology, and Fox News now knows that pushing that particular outrage button might have negative PR consequences (and no matter what you think of Fox News, they are in the business of adding viewers, not subtracting them).

That story had its genesis in a bit of good news, the University of Missouri recognizing the validity of Wiccan/Pagan holidays. Likewise, another bit of good news, a challenge to California’s “Five Faiths” prison chaplaincy policy being revived by the 9th Circuit Court, inspired a newspaper columnist to take aim and set phasers to “offend.”

Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders: You mad bro?

“In its wisdom – and yes, I am being ironic – the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco issued a ruling Tuesday that revives a California inmate lawsuit to force the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to hire a paid, full-time Wiccan chaplain. […] When I read the complaint that Wiccans aren’t treated the same as adherents to mainstream religions, I figure that’s what you get when you join what for some is a do-it-yourself theology. It’s like atheists suing because they aren’t welcome in church.”

That’s Debra J. Saunders, a conservative columnist for the generally center-left oriented San Francisco Chronicle. She plays a role, the conservative gadfly for the lefty media outlet she inhabits (conservative-oriented outlets often do the same thing, running a “token” liberal, it’s a well-worn method to engage/inflame readers). Just like Fox News, Saunders saw a story that she could frame as an outrage, distorted the facts just a bit, then let fire.

“If I turn into a frog over the weekend, I take back this column. Until then, I’m just a chump who pays taxes so the Ninth Circuit can pull rabbits out of hats.”

Ms. Saunders is a professional, and she knows what she is doing. She welcomes your ire, she feeds on it. She uses your angry e-mails and letters as confirmation that she’s doing her job correctly. Her job isn’t to win more readers by appealing to a broad base, her job is to make you mad. Then, when you do get mad, she uses your angry letters as further fuel for her antics.


“I thought I would share this letter because it does three interesting things. First, it wrongly argues that editors would reject any opinion piece that is derogatory toward a religion. That’s ridiculous. Just ask the Catholic church. Second, it demonstrates a special brand of tolerance — a brand that wants to censure dissenting opinions, without even noticing that its demand for censorship is in itself intolerant. Third, it is anonymous. So much for the force of one’s convictions.”

What she’s doing is trolling. Professional-grade trolling, and we shouldn’t feed into it. Unlike Fox News, there’s little to be gained from her apology, and getting angry at her is exactly what she wants. WIth trolls all you can do is ignore them, and refuse to engage with them. As members of a minority religion we have to be savvy about which battles we pick, and we have to realize when someone is goading us into a conflict because they want that conflict, because it actually benefits them to have us mad at them. Debra J. Saunders is a bottom-feeding troll who wants Pagans to be mad at her, but the best thing we can do is simply encourage people to not read, support, or interact with her. We gain little from acting against her, and we have much bigger battles to fight, so leave the troll alone.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Vision_From_Afar

    A lesson we can instill in Pagans of all ages: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgu93VsJjiU
    (Yes, I have fed trolls, I’ve felt the banhammer. I’m working on it.)

    • Cat C-B

      Ah, trolls. Yes. Not that there are ever any over here at TWH. But if there were, we could maybe think about this:

  • Having “dissenting” voices like this does nothing to make me want to read a paper. It only makes my blood boil. Any news service that would include such garbage is unworthy of my patronage. I stopped reading the Washington Blade for years because they were running the opinions of a snake of a man who had no place, none, in either journalism or LGBT commentary. They ran him for the same reason that SFC runs this lady, for hits. And frankly that disgusted me so much that I stopped reading the paper, and I told other people to stop reading it too. I would rather read fluff than something that insults me to my face.

  • I am as guilty as the next guy for giving into online trolls, although over the years, I’ve learned to recognize when I’m going to get nowhere with the debate and I bail. Personally, I would have labeled Tucker Carlson as a troll as well (he once stated that Canada was like a retarded cousin at a party and that we spend all our time hating Americans while dogsledding), but the outrage got him to apologize in a way that seems to have satisfy most people.

    What’s the difference between him and Ms. Saunders? How are we supposed to know which battle to fight? I’ve often wondered why anyone cares what Limbaugh says because he isn’t an intellectual or a politician: he’s paid to make people angry.

    Of course, then there is the problem of “I take it by your silence that you agree.” If we contribute nothing to the conversation, we’ll have no influence on where it will end up and this can reflect badly on us in the end. What’s the balance?

    • Vision_From_Afar

      I think Christ Hallquist had a point over on (shudder) Patheos (link), in that the real deciding factor, first and foremost, needs to be audience. A talking head on Fox and Friends really is going to reach tens of thousands of people, as opposed to the troll of a city paper. Unless some small-fry like her goes viral, Jason has it right, that shunning is the best way to go with the little fish out to muddy the waters.

  • LezlieKinyon

    Debra J. Saunders is – pretty much – an embarrassment to all of us in and near San Francisco. But, then, so is The Chronical. (Left-center my right eye!) The eds. keep saying that they may go out of biz given the current state of affairs for print-media newspapers. I say: let that fish-wrapper go the way of the dinosaur and be done with it.

  • LezlieKinyon

    Jason, You really don’t have to worry about what the SF “Comical” says about Pagans, there are several thousand San Franciscan (& No.Ca) Pagans who’ll have their say one way or the other. Keep it local – The Chronical isn’t worth your time or energy. For any reason. It’s pretty much irrelevant as a newspaper.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    In differentiating how you suggest we respond to Tucker Carlson and Debra Saunders, you are exercising leadership in the Pagan community. That’s good; I like what I see. I hope you stick with it.

  • cernowain greenman

    Pick your battles is right! Save your energy for the ones that are worth the fight.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Yet I never would have heard about Ms Saunders without the publicity you have given her. Ironic, eh?

    Whilst it has, in recent history, been used by some rather distasteful ideologies, the Odal rune is said to have once been worn as a talisman to protect against trolls, hence its other name of the trollcross.

    I suggest that, when confronted with a troll, people employ it:


    • KhalilaRedBird

      I’m considering posting either the .jpg or the link you’ve given as my sole reply – when appropriate.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        There is also the option to use the unicode symbol for it:

        ᛟ (U+16DF)

        • KhalilaRedBird

          Thanks. I’m still learning how to do that.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I just copy and paste, normally.

  • Polly Lolly

    gosh, all i can think is Rita Skeeta in real life…such a beetle…


  • Kilmrnock

    I believe i made this point when dealing with our buddies at Fox . We as a community must take the high road , and true pick our battles wisely. I agree this troll in frisco is not worth wasting our time on. What i mean by taking the high road is not to drop into arguing mode ………not to play thier games . How the situation with Fox was handled i believe was the correct way . Stay civil , but stand our ground demand justice ,correction, or apology for being unjustly wronged.

  • GearoidMacConfhiaclaigh

    Can someone at least photoshop her face onto a frog? Then we can at least send a nice couple of emails of her as a frog.

    I mean she pretty much set it up for us (I lack the requisite skills to do so).

  • S Kaiser

    Well said Jason! I think for most (including me) it is hard not to give into knee jerk emotional reactions when frustrated. The hard part is determining when it is appropriate to respond. Her audience is much smaller then the one Fox reaches. As you put it so well…she is paid to anger folks. Fox anchors were simply being blatantly disrespectful and certainly misrepresenting the facts. Plus why feed into someone that is simply going to use your words against you.

    I try to sit back and think things through before responding. Often I forget or realize it was not worth feeding into. Obviously if I forget then that also shows it was something not worth my time.

    I have to agree with Baruch in that it is great to see someone like yourself take such a leadership roll.

  • Veracity

    I agree that the size of the audience made the difference and that the approach of standing firm, not arguing, and demanding the respect due to us was appropriate with Fox and will not work or be worthwhile with this “conservative” troll in SF.

    Sometimes emotional knee-jerks take over, but for the most part, I do my best to ignore trolls like Saunders. Be indifferent to trolls; it drives them nuts and makes them dance even wilder to get your attention so that they look even more foolish.