I like to consider myself a pretty savvy guy when it comes to journalism. I’ve spoken to a range of local and national reporters about Paganism, I’ve been interviewed, and I’ve been used as a resource for reporters looking for sources. I’ve spent years of my life analyzing, and critiquing, journalism that covers our diverse faiths. Despite that savvy, or perhaps because of it, I allowed myself to get suckered by a sensationalist tabloid journalist looking for dirt.
I was contacted by a reporter from the New York Post who wanted to do a story about Republican City Councilman Dan Halloran, currently accused of fraud and bribery, and was looking for information about Halloran’s Theodish faith. I was justifiably skeptical, since I do know that the New York Post is a sensationalist rag, but after speaking to the reporter, a Matt Nestel, I agreed to put him in contact with a couple sources. Why did I do that? On the phone, he said the right things: He said he wasn’t out to do a hit job on our religions, he expressed how he wanted to learn about Theodism and modern Pagan/Heathen religions, he stressed how he had treated other minority religions sensitively, he even offered to let me vet the piece for accuracy before it went to print. So I put him in contact with Cara Schulz, Managing Editor of The Pagan Newswire Collective, who had interviewed Dan Halloran in 2010, and Nick Ritter, my trusted go-to source on Theodism, and someone who actually knew Dan’s religious history.
Needless to say, things didn’t work out so well…
“The city councilman who bungled his way into federal bribery charges is also a total bonehead in his kooky heathen religion — whose members wear medieval garb, make sacrifices to multiple gods and compete in combat games. Dan Halloran (R-Queens) — who was arrested Tuesday as the suspected bag man in state Sen. Malcolm Smith’s alleged plot to buy his way onto the mayoral ticket — has been publicly flogged and lost a spear-throwing contest as part of his Theodish punishments. Halloran converted in the 1980s from Catholicism to the pre-Christian Germanic religion, whose believers drink mead or whiskey from horns and dress like characters in a Renaissance fair.”
When I saw the article my stomach sank. I knew this was a tabloid, and I knew they’d be going after Dan Halloran, nothing could prevent that, but I thought that at the very least our faiths would be treated with some sensitivity since we had cooperated. How foolish I was. I got played. I never saw a draft, naturally, nor did I ever hear back from Mr. Nestel once he got what he wanted. That’s not entirely true, I did get a cryptic one-sentence reply when I expressed my disappointment at the published piece, but that was it. In an editorial published at PNC-Minnesota, Cara Schulz noted how much time was spent trying to provide good information to Mr. Nestel, only to have it thrown aside once a sensationalist scoop was found.
“To his credit, Nestel spent the better part of two days researching Theodism. That’s a considerable amount of time in the news industry. He asked intelligent questions, asked for more information on areas he still didn’t understand, and requested multiple sources to interview. We spent just over 4 hour son the phone with him during the course of two days answering his questions. We connected him to some really fantastic, knowledgeable people to interview. Sources to read to learn more about the religion of Theodism. Then we stepped back and hoped our assistance wasn’t in vain. We can help, but we can’t write the article for the reporter.”
- “I’ve been following politics for 40 years and seen a lot of characters come and go who believed weird things, or acted in a bizarre manner. But Halloran’s beliefs and actions top the list. Not only is it bizarre, but kind of pathetic as well. He is obviously seeking something that he doesn’t get from mainstream Christianity. And hey! Who wouldn’t want to be a prince with their own cult?” – Rick Moran, American Thinker
- “And that’s what the Post gets down to today with an exclusive report on some of the more unsavory details about his religious beliefs. The most ‘juicy’ detail is that Halloran was once publicly flogged after he committed an undisclosed act against a female “thrall” (a follower). He was stripped to his waist, strapped to a tree and flogged with a belt 11 times. Meh, it’s not like he helped make Steve Guttenberg a star, or was shackled to a ‘stone of triumph.'” – Ben Yakas, Gothamist
- “But now he can be best remembered for something else: Halloran was voluntarily tied to a tree and flogged 11 times with a leather belt by the leaders of his pagan sect as punishment for an “undisclosed act” against a female “thrall” (probationary servant, in non-pagan-Religion-terms).” – Peter Moskowitz, Gawker
- “Formerly a Catholic, the First Atheling of New Normandy converted to Theodism in the 1980s. In those early days, Halloran was punished for committing an undisclosed act with one of his lady “thralls,” a probationary servant. He was stripped to his waist, tied to a tree, and flogged 11 times with a belt, a source told The Post.” – Sarah Rae Fruchtnicht, Opposing Views
- “For Dan Halloran, being arrested was not the most memorable thing about him in the news this week. The Republican councilman in New York City was indicted Tuesday on bribery charges, which was newsworthy enough, until Friday’s New York Post revealed the bizarre rituals he engaged in while practicing the pagan faith of Theodism. According to the report, Halloran was once voluntarily flogged against a tree as punishment for unspecified acts against a female “thrall,” and participated in a spear-throwing duel with a religious rival, all while dressed like a Renaissance Faire employee. He remains innocent until proven guilty on the bribery charges, but the court of public opinion likely won’t be holding back on judging him for that spear-throwing duel.” – msnNOW
The only clear-headed take on this was from The League of Ordinary Gentleman, who chided those engaged in merely mocking the Pagan, instead of sticking to the serious charges facing Halloran.
“Whether Halloran is or is not guilty of corruption is one thing. That’s not what these articles are about. What is shameful is the point-and-laugh articles pretty much openly mocking Halloran for embracing a restated version of ancient Germanic polytheism. He worships the old gods. And that’s his right as an American citizen. It’s our obligation as a people to disregard the apparent silliness of his religious beliefs and judge the man on the content of his character. Let us focus on the moral and legal merits of the man’s case. He’s only interesting to anyone outside of New York because of the corruption accusation. Is he guilty or not? If he is guilty, ought what he did be deemed a crime at all? His religion is irrelevant to such inquiries.”
Sadly, voices of reason in this renewed feeding frenzy are few.
All I wanted was for good information to overcome bad information. That a reporter would be brave enough to be accurate and fair, even if they worked for a tabloid. I was wrong, I was too liberal in my trust, and I exposed people I care about to an industry that only cares about grabbing as many page-views as possible. I was foolish, and I am sorry. My hope is that this unfortunate incident can be a learning moment for me, and for the wider community. Consider the source, even if the reporter seems nice, even if they say the right things. If someone writes for the New York Post, or any tabloid, they don’t care about what’s fair, they only care about finding more dirt. Work only with reporters who have proven themselves to be fair, to avoid sensationalism when writing about our faiths. Don’t talk to the news simply because you can, remember that sometimes silence is better.
I was suckered by a tabloid, and I’ll try to not let it happen again. I have failed my community in this moment, even if it was not me who decided to write that piece. Mea culpa.