The mainstream news media dance with Wicca

Heather Greene —  February 18, 2013 — 41 Comments

University of MissouriLast fall, the University of Missouri added the eight Wiccan Sabbats to its “Guide to Religion” in an effort to encourage respect for religious diversity within its community. The Guide says:

The holidays and accommodations section of this guide is provided to faculty, staff, and student leaders as an educational resource for the myriad of religious holy days celebrated at Mizzou. Not only does this section offer crucial information about dates and practices, we also hope that the information about recommended academic and food accommodations will be valuable to those planning classroom activities and other academic and co-curricular events.

In the past week, the mainstream news media have picked up the story and “ran with it.”  It’s odd that it took them this long to identify the Guide’s update. It’s even odder that they are treating Mizzou’s diversity efforts as an anomaly. The University of Missouri certainly isn’t the first college or public school system to include Wiccan Sabbats.  But the media work in their own way, which is why they need to be watched.

Most of the articles have been benign news accounts, if not always completely accurate. However, Fox News and Fox & Friends Weekend have created quite a stir with their version and discussion of the story.

When is enough, enough? 

There are two ways to view these videos. First, it’s fascinating to see Wicca, Paganism and parts of its theology entering mainstream discourse. Right across the bottom of the screen, we read: “Wiccans & Pagans.” I see this as cultural progress in the same vein that someone might say “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” It’s part of a sociological and psychological process that I describe by stealing the term “hedonic adaptation.”  At first the change, in this case the acceptance of “Wicca or Paganism,” is disruptive and uncomfortable.  But over time, as the change remains visible within the environment, we become use to it.  Eventually we accept it as normal and move on.

However, on the other hand, the comments are troublesome.  Yes, they are insulting.  It appears that Fox News has moved beyond the “Wiccans are Evil” phase to “Wiccans are clowns.”  The words are mocking and, really, only serve to demonstrate the sophomoric level of this type of journalism.  In her P.C. Report, Tammy Bruce says, “I don’t know any Wiccans. I think on a really bad day I may turn into one.”  That is just one of the many ridiculous, unprofessional, and off-handed remarks.  (I’ll leave it to the readers to watch the videos and hear the rest.)

Tammy Bruce goes on to suggest that Wiccans and Pagans should be outraged by Missouri’s Guide. She claims that we are being used by the establishment as a pawn in their political agenda to downgrade the Christian traditions of this country.  Tucker Carlson actually accuses the University of “hating orthodox Christianity.”

Fox is spinning a positive interfaith story into an example of anti-Christian behavior.  If we offer inclusion to one religious group does it necessarily mean that we are “downgrading” the others? This is what Fox News is implying. It’s the argument we’d expect from evangelical Christian groups. Some might say that we’d expect it from the conservative Fox News Network as well.

However, these opinion are woven together with poor research and being sold as journalism. What bothers me more than their position on the issue is the lack of accurate facts about “Wiccanism” and the University of Missouri’s diversity work. For example, the “Guide to Religion” never says that Wiccans will necessarily be absent on Sabbats.  However, written across the Fox & Friends screen is “No Exams on Wiccan and Pagan Holidays.”

Interestingly enough, during the video, Clayton Morris calls himself a journalist and attempts to bring facts into their discussion.  Later on in the day, he remarked on twitter: “I defended Wiccans on the show this morning as peaceful folks devoted to the Earth.” (@ClaytonMorris) While he did say that, he did nothing to correct the other glaring inaccuracies.

Nancy Grace reporting on Jodi Arias trial

To be fair, Fox News was not the only network highlighting Wicca these past two weeks. CNN’s Headline News Network (HLN) and ABC took “potshots” at Wicca while reporting on the Jodi Arias case.  Ms. Arias is on trial in Phoenix for allegedly killing her boyfriend, Travis Alexander.  At some point in the last month, the accused testified to dabbling or being exposed to Wicca through a past boyfriend.  She has also testified to sampling many different religions settling on Mormonism, which is what she was practicing when the crime was committed.

On Feb 5, ABC reported:

Her odyssey through boyfriends and the spiritual world included a five year period from age 18 through age 22 when Arias said she became very interested in fundamentalist Christianity, Wicca, Buddhism, and Hinduism, all of which she explored as she dated men who practiced those beliefs.

Although the word “Wicca” was only a very minor detail in a very lengthy on-going trial, the media clung to the word Wicca.  In a later report, ABC actually published a news video entitled “Jodi Arias Testifies She Tried Wicca, Buddhism With Boyfriends”  However, the video itself had nothing to do with any of her religious exploits.

Jodi Arias

Jodi Arias in court
Courtesy of HLN.com

In another case, CNN’s Headline News (HLN) correspondent Nancy Grace interviewed the victim’s best friend, Zion Lovingier.  In her report entitled “Did Jodi Arias study Witchcraft?” Nancy spends a good deal of time trying to corner Zion into talking about Ms. Arias’ involvement in Wicca.  Just like the Fox reporters, Nancy uses her journalist’s platform to mock Wicca and Witchcraft.  In the interview, she says, “That would stand out in my mind, if someone was into witchcraft.” Then she calls Wicca “creepy.”  Fortunately, Zion doesn’t bite, remarking back, “Jodi’s issues run much deeper than Wicca.”

Watch Full Nancy Grace Interview Video Here

In the past twenty four hours, there has been a backlash and simultaneous outrage from the Wiccan and Pagan community in the way of calls-to-action and petitions. I expect this will continue over the next week. Contrary to Tammy Bruce’s prediction, these frustrations have been directed at the media and not at the University of Missouri or elsewhere.  As Wicca enters a more central place in mainstream discourse, there will be continued and very public rejections or mocking of our theology and practice.  The bulk of these negative reactions are derived from the disruption of the status quo and, of course, misinformation. This is nothing new.

However, while we stew over the mainstream news media’s latest barbs, it is also important to note that a new discussion is now happening. Wicca’s presence in our culture is being recognized more frequently.  The door is open.  It is at this point that Wiccan and Pagan organizations, as well as individuals, doing interfaith work and community outreach become essential.  Petitions are good. But, we must also handle these big media outlets from a positive, non-threatening standpoint with the aim of educating and enlightening. The more that Wicca and Paganism remain in the mainstream media’s eye (or line of fire, if you will), the more accustom our culture in general will become to having a realistic and positive Pagan presence.

(I think I just gave myself work…)

 

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.