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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Fox News' Anti-Wiccan Diatribe Insulted Pretty Much Everyone

Update from The Columbus Dispatch:

Tucker Carlson apologized on Fox & Friends Weekend today for a comment made about Wiccans last weekend, saying he never intended to offend. 

"I also violated one of my basic life rules, which is 'live and let live,'" he said on the Fox News program. "The Wiccans have never bothered me or tried to control my life. I should have left them alone. Sorry about that." 

"I am really only interested in new information, not freelance opinion. I don't really care what you think off the top of your head." - Tucker Carlson 

Actually, that goes both ways.

It’s a no-brainer that Wiccans and Pagans would be offended by the diatribe/mockery of them that aired on Fox News this week. But they’re not the only groups likely to take offense at this three-minute pastiche of bigotry, inaccuracy and character assassination.

In this short span of time, the three people on this panel managed to insult midwives, rural residents, middle-aged women, divorcees, people who burn incense, individuals who enjoy celebrating holidays - especially Halloween - and folks who play Dungeons & Dragons. (Considering it’s Fox News, I doubt they’d ever speak with such disdain about that venerable symbol of free-market capitalism, Monopoly … unless, of course, it was to criticize that new “witchy” playing piece, the dreaded cat.)

As if all that bias isn’t bad enough, the entire piece is a flagrant insult to another group of individuals: journalists.

Let me be clear about a couple of things. First, though I have a number of friends who consider themselves Wiccan, I do not personally practice Wicca. Second, I’ve worked my entire career - more than 25 years now - as a professional journalist. In that time, many things have changed. There has been a gradual, yet steady blurring of the lines between reporting and opinion. Between news and entertainment. These days, it’s sometimes difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins.

As visual media sources have multiplied from the “Big Three” television networks to thousands of cable choices and a virtually limitless number of options online, news providers have been forced to target niches rather than try to serve a broad spectrum of consumers. This has meant that media outlets are increasingly targeting either liberals or conservatives (but not both). More specifically, they’re often aiming for narrowly focused and even single-issue audiences.

This trend both reflects and contributes to the increased political polarization we see in the United States. Few liberals even watch Fox News anymore, so it feels it can operate in a cocoon and say pretty much whatever it wants. To be fair, few conservatives probably pay any attention to Bill Maher, for instance, and he says pretty much what he wants, too. One could argue that Maher is a comedian, but he’s also a political commentator and one of the best examples of someone who has blurred the lines between news and entertainment.

But the crucial point is this: The more we hang out exclusively with like-minded individuals, the more our own opinions are reinforced and the less opportunity we have to be challenged by opinions we may not agree with. We become so isolated from one another that we adopt rigid ideologies that sometimes include laundry lists of dos and don’ts. Liberals are “encouraged” through peer pressure to adhere to a checklist of political positions, and all conservatives are similarly “encouraged” to do the same. Deviation from the norm opens the individual up to ridicule, derision or shocked holier-than-thou reactions.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I’m an unabashed liberal on most issues. But not on all. I actually happen to agree with critics who say liberals have a tendency to be too politically correct. But (and this is a big but), I’m also fully convinced that conservatives are just as badly ensnared by political correctness as liberals are. Probably more so, because conservative philosophy, by its very nature, seeks to maintain the status quo, whereas liberals and progressives seek to … well … progress beyond it.

I found it interesting - and comical - that Fox’s Wicca-bashing segment was marked with the tagline “P.C. Police,” as in politically correct. The implication is that Fox’s staff was diligently tracking down and exposing political correctness. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. In fact, the biased commentary that followed couldn’t have possibly been more politically correct to Fox’s audience. It hit all the right buttons: the supposed sanctity of marriage (in its ridicule of divorcees), upholding the conservative concept of American “tradition,” patriarchal bias (in its derision toward midwives and women in general), and its mockery of all minority traditions.

I’ve come to expect this sort of bias from Fox News. It’s part-and-parcel of the modern media strategy of “preaching to the choir” - or, in other words, being politically correct. The segment is, tellingly, called Fox & Friends. In other words, people who disagree with Fox’s conservative political bent (and therefore are not “friends”) aren’t welcome … unless, of course, they can sit through enough of the show to get hooked on one of its sponsors’ products. Then it’s all good.

To be perfectly honest, though, all journalism is biased for the simple reason that all human beings are biased. Some shoot for objectivity and miss; others don’t even bother to try. Fox generally falls into a third category: It doesn’t bother to try, but insists that it’s actually succeeding at being “fair and balanced.” If that’s not Orwellian, I don’t know what is.

And that brings me to what’s even more, from a journalistic perspective, about this segment in particular and Fox’s approach in general: its blatant disregard for the facts.

Not 15 seconds into the segment, Tucker Carlson declares that “there are more Zoroastrians here than there are Wiccans.” Sorry, Tucker, you just flunked your audition for Jeopardy! In 2006, there were 11,000 Zoroastrians in the United States. Five years earlier, according to religioustolerance.org, there were 408,000 adult Wiccans in the country. That means, not counting children, there were 37 times as many Wiccans as there were Zoroastrians in this country.

How absurd is Carlson’s claim? It’s tantamount to saying West Virginia is larger, in terms of area, than Alaska. (In fact, it’s worse: Alaska is only 27 times as large as West Virginia).

Carlson sticks his foot in his mouth again by twice incorrectly referring to Wicca as “Wiccanism” (how upset would Christians be if he started calling Christianity “Jesusism”?).

Zoroastrians or Wiccans? You decide.

Clayton Morris, another panelist on the show, later sticks his foot in his mouth by claiming that “you get 20 holidays if you’re a Wiccan. I guess that’s the one you’re going to go with. If you’re going to pick one, go with the one with the most holidays.” Morris is wrong on two counts here. First, Wicca generally recognizes eight sacred days (four major and four minor sabbats), not 20. Second, Wicca doesn’t have the most holidays. That honor would go to Catholicism, which pays tribute to a different saint every day of the year and even has one day that covers all the rest - All Saints Day. Otherwise known as the day after All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.

Carlson evidently has a bias against Catholic holy days, since he thinks Halloween is a joke: “Any religion whose most sacred day is Halloween I can’t take seriously,” he declared. “I mean, call me a bigot. I’m not, you know, offering an editorial against Wiccans.”

Come on, Mr. Carlson, of course you are. And your comments were, in fact, bigoted. Saying you’re not a bigot is about as convincing as declaring Fox News to be fair and biased simply because it says it is. But if you’re going to act like a bigot, the least you could do is get your facts straight. Wiccans do not celebrate Halloween. They celebrate Samhain, a pre-Christian sacred day that happens to fall on the same day.

Morris seemed to recognize that the discussion lacked any semblance of fairness or balance, when he remarked, “I will say this, because we are journalists and I have covered this. … I had to do a story and I went and interviewed a number of Wiccans. And they say look, we are the most peaceful individuals. We don’t practice crazy things. We’re just of the Earth.”

Notice the phrasing. First, Morris goes out of his way to assert that he and his fellow panelists are journalists. Why? Because they sure as heck aren’t acting like journalists. But he then goes on to contradict his assertion by inserting more bias into the discussion by saying he “had to” do a story on Wicca - it wasn’t something he wanted to do.

More bias and falsehood is interjected into the discussion at various points by Tammy Bruce (speaking on tape), Carlson and, to a lesser extent, Anna Kooiman. There’s too much of it to address it all here, which should tell you something about exactly how packed with derision and dismissiveness this segment was, since it was just three minutes long.

Carlson came out with a wannabe apology a couple of days afterward: “I don’t spend a lot of time on Twitter, so I’m not sure of the dimensions of it, but I’m pretty sure that I’m unpopular in the witchcraft community, and I understand why. I probably was unduly harsh. As far as I know, most Wiccans are peaceful taxpayers. I’ve never been mugged by one anyway. So I apologize for hurting anyone’s feelings.”

This sounds an awful lot like he’s covering his posterior, considering his proclamation on Fox that “the bad side of Wiccanism is it’s obviously a form of witchcraft.” In other words, he’s made a moral judgment (that witchcraft is something “bad”). Either 1) he learned a lot about Wicca in the ensuing 48 hours that caused him to change his mind, 2) his initial statement was deliberately inflammatory or 3) his apology was disingenuous.

Personally, I’m reminded of a ruthless TV trial lawyer who makes shockingly prejudicial statements in front of a jury, then “withdraws” them when the opposition objects. Sure, you can strike them from the record, but the damage is done: harsh impressions left in a jury’s mind are not easily erased. The same principle applies to the minds of those who tune in to watch Fox & Friends.

Compounding the issue is the fact that, Carlson's initial apology soft-pedaled it by saying he “probably” was unduly harsh.

I’m sorry, but there’s no “probably” about it.

The other three panelists? To my knowledge, issued any sort of mea culpa.

The Wheel of the Year.

As of this writing, more than 33,000 people have signed a petition calling for an on-air apology (yes, that’s more than three times the number of Zoroastrians in the United States). It’s worth it to hold Fox’s feet to the fire. At the same time, however, we shouldn’t get too hopeful about the prospect of changing attitudes by appealing to actual facts as a counterweight to Fox’s error-laden diatribes.

Facts, sadly, don’t seem to change people’s minds. Often, they have the opposite effect. A study in 2005 and 2006 at the University of Michigan discovered an interesting phenomenon: Misinformed people - especially political partisans - rarely changed their minds in response to corrected facts. To the contrary, they became even more firmly convinced of their false beliefs.

That won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has watched the polarization and pigheaded partisanship of American politics over the past several years. But it certainly isn’t encouraging.

Stifyn Emrys is a journalist, blogger and author of several books, including “The Gospel of thePhoenix” and the novel “Identity Break.” all of which are available in paperback, Kindle and Nook formats. He burned incense as he wrote this, but he never got into D&D and he doesn't personally know any midwives. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/semrys.


  1. I can't stand Fox. They do not report news, they report what they are told to report. They shame themselves, and give a bad name to journalists. These people who did this story are not only biased, and bigots, they are misinformed and obviously they do not mind looking stupid. No, Fox isn't a channel I would ever rely on for my News.

  2. It's interesting that Zoroastrianism is mentioned as they speak of a God of the truth Ahura Mazda and a God of the lie, Angra Mainyu. Forgive me if I misspelled or incorrectly remember the faith. And I believe the 3 wise men who predicted the birth of Jesus were Zoroastrians.Fox obviously doesn't think much of Ahura Mazda.

  3. It is because the origin of Christianity is Paganism. This hits a little too close to home.

  4. In 2000, it was estimated that there were 13 +/- MILLION wiccans and pagans in the US. Your estimate of 408,000 is absurd. I know it makes "them" feel better to underestimate our numbers but your figure is way too low.

    Where did the 13 million come from? From book sales specifically repeat customers, and this was in the year 2000. Those loyalty cards really help out databases.

    1. Agatha, I got the 408,000 figure from religioustolerance.org. It is admittedly old, but it illustrates the point. Even this very conservative and outdated estimate was 37 times higher than the figure for Zoroastrians five years later. With Wicca a growing religion and Zoroastrianism not, it's obviously much higher still today.

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  6. These people didn't do their homework I guess. If they had, they wouldn't have made so many inaccurate statements. I can't be angry, though. I'm Wiccan and I can't allow myself to be mad about these remarks because they're coming from people who have a different mindset and aren't very well informed on the subject. Plus, depending on their background, they could even be talking subjectively.
    To be truthful, many Wiccans do correspond to the stereotypes they mentioned. You can't deny that and this is our fault. Though stereotypes do exist for a reason.
    One thing they DID get right is that a lot of "Wiccans" of "Pagans" (at least where I'm from, no offense to anyone) can't even name the eight Sabbaths or, in case of Paganism, don't even know the background to the Pagan festivals they celebrate. And don't even get me started on the lack of knowledge about the symbols they decorate themselves with.
    This cpmment is in no way intended to be an offense, but merely an observation and attempt to get people to start thinking more about what they're doing and why they're doing it.

    Anyway, I'm not rooting for any sort of apology because I seriously doubt it would be even close to truthful. Besides, everyone has a right to their opinion. I would just let them be. Maybe they decide to read up on a few things and realize what mistakes they made here, and if not, it's all the same for me anyway ^^

  7. While I don't expect there to be any changing of attitudes on the part of Fox News & company about Wiccans, Pagans, midwives, etc., I WOULD expect them to at least learn basic math and how to read their notes! I listened to the clip and first they say that Wicca has 20% of the holidays - which they "translate" into 20 holidays... WTF? Remedial math anyone?

    The hardest part for me (and I apologize for nit-picking here Semrys) but the editing on this article made it hard for my brain to grasp some of the arguments. It would take me 2-3 re-reads to figure out missing words based on context. Again, I KNOW that this is nit-picking, but as a proofreader for several authors and publications, it drives me NUTS to see less than polished writing from otherwise amazing writers... BUT, I will also say - Your arguments were spot on!

    1. Please provide examples. Otherwise, I can't fix them. Sorry, but I can't afford an editor. Blogging isn't exactly the most lucrative enterprise!