Witches, Pagans, and the Media

Media interest doesn't equal media respect.

Continued from page 1

As the year 2000 comes to a close, I am once again making a vow (which I always break) to never, ever, be interviewed by the media during so-called "witchy" times of the year, like Halloween or even Beltane on May 1. (For some reason, reporters who interview Pagans about the winter and summer solstices tend to be more serious; there is less emphasis on magical powers and spells, and more on nature and the passage of the seasons.)

A friend of mine, a Wiccan priestess in New Jersey, tells this story to illustrate the problems Pagans have with the media. A few years ago, she was asked to appear on Geraldo Rivera's show for Halloween. "We really want to do a serious program," the pre-interviewer gushed but added, "Of course we want everyone to come in costume." My friend had the quick wit to reply, "And I suppose that when you do your Easter show, the pope will dress in an Easter bunny suit." She turned the show down.

Most of the time, we no longer get confused with Satanists.


My own experience this year was much tamer, but it still left a bad taste in my mouth. I haven't belonged to a coven in 18 years. I don't use the word "witch" all that often to describe myself. With the exception of several large solstice celebrations, my rituals tend to be private meditations. This past Halloween, I spent most of my time helping to create a fun evening for my 9-year-old son. But because I wrote "Drawing Down the Moon," the media is always after me, particularly during October. So, recently I agreed to do a simple phone interview with a very reasonable and respectable public radio show in the South.

The interviewers kept on wanting to know what I "did" as a Wiccan practitioner. Despite 27 years in Wicca, and 32 years in the media, I felt fraudulent as I answered. I tried to steer the conversation toward the philosophy of earth-based spirituality, which is what I like to talk about, but the interviewers kept wanting to know what I "did." After I offered a few half-hearted phrases about the Celtic new year, reverence for our ancestors, and seasonal celebrations in a circle, I realized that the interviewers weren't really interested in those things; they assumed that this thing called "a Wiccan practitioner"--whatever that was--did something exotic and arcane, and I wasn't living up to their expectations. It was a sensation I had had in interviews before.

These days, it's common to say that Wicca and Paganism have entered the mainstream, and that's partially true. The other day, I talked to Selena Fox, the well-known priestess of Circle Sanctuary, and she put it this way: "We now have Wiccan consultants on popular films like 'Blair Witch 2,' but they still turn out terribly. Do you think they would ever get away with the 'Blair Jew Project'?"

Yes, newspapers routinely carry articles about Wicca and Paganism that are, compared with 20 years ago, sober, sincere, and truthful; some are even published in months other than October. And most of the time, we no longer get confused with Satanists. Fox, who tracks media coverage of earth-based religions, notes that 1979 was the first year that Time magazine featured Wicca and Paganism on the religion page. She says that the coverage of the Parliament of the World Religions, held in Chicago in 1993 and in South Africa in 1999, was the "coming out" of earth religions as world religions. Increased interfaith participation by Wiccan and Pagan groups has also helped to foster the notion that we are part of a world religious community.

There has also been much more coverage of religious-freedom issues. Among the stories that got national attention: the defeat of the Jesse Helms "anti-witchcraft" amendment, various ACLU cases defending students who were forbidden to wear pentagrams or carry books on Wicca, and the attempt of U.S. Rep. Bob Barr to stop Wiccans from worshipping in U.S. military installations.

But we're still a long way from being accepted as a real religion by most people. When the media interviews Christian and Jewish members of the clergy, they get asked the great questions of life: How we can instill deep values in our children? How can we strengthen community? How can we face death with more ease, and pain with more patience?

Ministers, priests, and rabbis are asked about morality and ethics; they are questioned about the issues of the day--about euthanasia, abortion, gay marriage, and the environment. Pagan attitudes about these issues are as varied and complex as Christian and Jewish attitudes. Perhaps it's because Wicca and Paganism are, in part, magical religions that journalists and interviewers are always looking for spells and unusual rites, hoping to find something nefarious or just plain weird.

As a member of an earth-based religion, I would love to be asked about the plight of the earth, not just whether witches wear robes or go naked. Earth-based spirituality will finally have won the respect it deserves when interviewers ask us to address the hard questions of our age--during every season of the year.

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