Content and Control

I wrote this post earlier this summer, during the hottest days of the year. The tsunami had not yet finished with its unpredictable backlash, and a few unexpected events happened at the height of festival season. One of those included a local Pagan festival getting caught in a flash flood. No one was hurt, little was lost, and I think for the most part, people might have been a touch embarrassed for camping in a flood plane, but in the long run the group handled the emergency really well.

The real problem was not what happened. It was how people thought what happened looked.  People get strangely territorial and competitive over conflicting local events, forgetting that a)no one can possibly serve EVERYONE and b)time is the most finite of all resources.

They also get really nervous around journalists. Like politicians, those of us who work as reporters have done a lot to earn mistrust. Also like politicians, journalists are often projection boards for the fears of those who see them. Fear has a loud voice. It can keep a person from hearing, reading, seeing or even smelling what you really want to communicate.

Because of the weird squabbling produced by competition-induced (and denial about being competitive) amnesia, it took some work to get people to talk to me. In the process, I had to acknowledge the feelings of others about the press and how they wished we would operate. Those wishes often violate the principles of journalism as it used to be, and the PNC is in my opinion a Reconstructionist movement. We’re using digital tools, but we’re trying to rebuild journalism from the old days.

Thankfully, the people that went on record willingly heard me out on how I saw the story and why I wanted to report it as I did. What happened was not the result of stupidity and poor planning. In fact, it demonstrated good planning. Being honest and open got me the story, although I’m sure I have more work to do to build long-term trust.

This was written before I was able to persuade everyone that did to go on record. It is a rumination on the important of self-honesty and transparency, and why we need to stop protecting ourselves from embarrassment. Embarrassment is a reaction of the ego, only. The highest self does not get embarrassed. It simply observes and learns from the experience.

Most Pagans go to festivals to escape “Mundania.” While I find less drastic breaks from life preferable, I have absolute empathy for the people involved. I sometimes find myself wishing for pagan-land as much as they do.

Being Pagan does nothing to remove the Minnesotan from the local Pagans. Most are being typically Minnesotan; they’re always mean to the new kid even as they slap slogans about how nice Minnesotans are onto their license plates. The new kid in this situation: the PNC. It’s going to be a few years before people “get it,” and now that mainstream news reporting media has disappeared into a void of Facebook drivel, an entire generation has no frame of reference for reliable journalism.

I’ve spent a lot of time and care trying to gather what facts I could about this recent festival happening. I understand that firsthand is always better, but because of the consuming participatory demands of festivals, it makes reporting on them objectively impossible. People may go in neutral, but most come out a member of a tribe. Tribes membership gives a euphoric sense of belonging; they also mean you behave, well, tribally, to tribes not your own. Somehow community creation also becomes divisive because of this approach.

I never attend these events. As people around me can attest, when I go camping, water tables rise and tornadoes look for me. I love nature, and I love that nature equals evolution: the sense to get my ass indoors.

This has the added benefit of making me a neutral party to all festival Pagan politics. After all, festival Pagans are only one kind of Pagan, one nation, one grouping of tribes. So I’m hoping for the best in reaction to my work.

allow me to explain...

My experience with this work thus far reiterates a theme that has recurred since I started writing for a college paper:

Somebody who has nothing to do with the work-end of the publication always wants to control the content. That individual is always convinced of the greater good, very concerned with how “things are represented,” and has no awareness whatsoever that trying to control the content makes the organization or person look much, much worse in the public eye than a “bad” report does. The way Communist and fascist regimes control media should be warning enough. The person attempting that control of content and refusal of oversight probably does have the best of intentions. The individuals practicing censorship in repressive governments also fully believe they are doing the write thing. It’s that first thought, that first insistence on good intention, that first disguising of the ego as high ideals that leads down the road to misinformation, or worse, propaganda.

Worse, often there’s a paranoia, a “reading between the lines” that has everything to do with a person’s internal wiring and nothing to do with what’s actually on the page. At worst, someone attempts to find libel without any understanding that they have to know without question that there’s a lie told with absolutely malicious intent. 99.9% of the time, even when the facts are wrong, there’s no malice. NONE. Most reporters really just don’t give a damn, and that’s actually what’s best for everyone. Most reporters will also pause and slow down in cases of violent crime, or where children’s lives will be drastically affected. (The Hollywood paparazzi are the most well known reporters, but they are not, by any means, representative of how real journalist behave.)

This struggle between information, protection of the innocent, and negotiating egos is a recurring theme throughout my life as a writer and reporter.

  • In 1994, I had a dean of student life at Lakeland College tell me “sexual harassment and assault does not happen on this campus.” A personal  friend had just withdrawn from the school because she was sexually assaulted by a star athlete. The college administration did nothing. After I published the story, I was systematically driven off the campus. My parents refused to believe what I told them was happening to me and why. If confronted now, my mother would probably insist I never told her, although I told her several times. There is no college campus, not even single gender ones, anywhere, that does not have some incident with sexual harassment and assault. At the time I went to college the number of reports nationally had jumped almost 70%, not because more women were being assaulted but because more women were reporting them.
  • In 1996, when I worked for a campus PR office, my boss routinely harassed me about stories I covered for the student paper. She walked right up to the border of threatening me  when I covered the unlawful and privacy-invading termination of a member of the housekeeping staff. No one on the paper was allowed to cover how the college almost lost accreditation. When I asked direct questions, I received evasions. Most of the time, administration only answered questions from parents and donating alumni, completely ignoring the legally adult students who were the ones running up debt in their own names to attend the institution.
  • In 1996, I had an official at my next higher education institution point to discrepancies in student funding. It was serious, but he refused to go on the record. I could do nothing. He was disgusted with me, but the journalism standards of the time were quite serious, much more serious than they are now. While on paper discrepancies existed, nothing ever happened in my presence to suggest misuse of funds. Certainly academics were sacrificed to athletics, but I enjoyed fellowship with a much more self-motivated student body. Most students found ways to get the best from the system at hand even if they did not play sports.

 

I went into Pagan writing because that’s where my heart was at, and my life has conspired in such a way that unless I’m writing something, I’m falling apart. What I’ve encountered within the Pagan writing community are pockets of frustrated and gifted professionals. A lot of people have an imagining of how writing – especially news writing – works. Boy do those imagineers get upset when you tell them that they’re wrong, that imagination can create reality but imagination is NOT fact. Writing isn’t play. It isn’t politics. It’s a discipline, and it takes as much training, concentration and practice as a martial art. Anyone can do it well as long as that anyone puts in the time, suffers the humbling and repetitive experience of edits, and develops a broad perspective of what writing deserves protection and what needs to be let go.

A specific example of a writer creating from mythology rather than discipline comes from an editorial in a now-defunct local Pagan publication. The content read  “Shame, shame, shame on you for not supporting Pagan business, or writing for us!” While I think there were some other flaws in the thinking that led to the piece, I’m going to focus on the writing. The author did not mention any specifics – what store was going out of business? What were the reasons for the business failure (sometimes it’s more than simple customer support, such as rising supply costs.) What facts supported the opinion? What were the comments of the business owner, customers, and people who made a conscious choice to support other shops?

When I asked the writer about this, he said “It’s an editorial. I don’t have to use facts!”  That slapping noise you here are my pro-writer and journalist buddies smacking their foreheads. The dull thud comes from an old editor slamming her head into a wall.

Any good editorial ALWAYS cites facts. Editorials are subject to libel law. Feelings and opinions are something everyone has. If your opinion merits the attention of an editorial column, it should be because you have an informed opinion. Informed means … facts. Yes, facts  can and do change but since they do it slowly, most of the time, we still have to use them. Facts, NOT FEELINGS, build a strong editorial in support of a specific stance.

His refusal to investigate the facts of the closure made his editorial come off as self-righteous ranting. It stirred no action, and since the shop closed, there was no action to stir. When I mentioned my critique, the author didn’t want to examine his writing let alone consider his thought process or the thought process of the people at whom he wagged his finger.

Not only did he do a poor job in writing the editorial piece, he completely failed in his attempt to motivate action because he used the one motivator that does not work on Pagans: shame. Pagans, especially those who convert to a Pagan religion from Christianity, first break the power of shame in their conversion process. He ignored his own audience, an audience he knew and interacted with. He behaved as though he was entitled to their service, as though the shops were entitled to their support. Pagans, of all people, do not work that way. It’s why you should always thank people for doing their job. It’s why you should always offer some reward or gratitude for submissions made to your publication, and why “for the community” is never a compelling enough reason to demand public service.

He had editorial control, and he used it the wrong way. I opted not to write for that publication after that conversation. I had submitted before, and what responses I received to my submissions were consistently entitled and disrespectful.  Also, the writing that ran beside mine was generally awful.

Nowadays, I struggle with a different type of editorial control. Over on Fat Chic, there’s always some company that wants a text link ad, wants me to host a give away, wants me to write more about them. It’s frustrating. It’s irritating. It’s so nakedly advertorial that it actually disgusts me. Worse, some go so far as to try to bully me into running their content. I actually had one woman, when I said “No text link ads,” come back with “I’ll pay you [this very small fee] for it.” In a fit of wry humor, I told her it would be $500. She wrote back “I can pay $60. When does it go up?” From there, I sent her to my spam filter. No means no, even in blogging.

The crux of the problem between advertisers and myself is also the problem between  PNC and its communities: there’s a co-dependence, and somebody keeps thinking they have to “win.” The people who want their stories profiled want it their way or no way. I understand the fear that creates the attitude, but the insistence is  ultimately a disservice to themselves.

I don’t give a flying leap that there’s personal history between individuals across organizations – that’s just people giving in to their inner baboon pack.

It’s also a recurring theme. Someone will always want the whole world to speak glowingly of them, without even realizing that all that dripping sweetness is what really makes them all look untrustworthy.

Post Script:

Thankfully, everything on the article that inspired this post worked out well. I just had to put some work into it, and stop to really consider the feelings of everyone involved. While I am of the opinion that if people set aside competition by opting for co-celebration when they have conflicting events the community rifts would seal up nicely, I’m sure that it will take a paradigm shift for that to happen.