Monday, March 28, 2011

Carnegie Hall

Here's a fascinating post by Star, from the Pagan "portal" at, concerning her recent experience being interviewed about Paganism by a certainly-less-than-friendly panel.

Let me start by saying that, as someone who frequently critiques Pagans who talk to the media, I'd give Star an unqualifed A on her performance. I think she does a pretty good job holding her own against four people who are clearly less-than-friendly to her cause. She certainly avoids the all-too-common mistake of starting off defensive and announcing, unasked, that Witches don't eat babies or kiss Satan's ass. And I think that Star does the entire Pagan community a real service by being willing to engage in some reflective self-criticism about her media performance, something that T. Thorn Coyle has also show herself v willing to do.

Star notes that perhaps she should have better understood the purpose of the interview and better considered whether or not to appear on this venue:
Having been to Jason Pitzl-Water’s talks I’m quite aware that there are times when you shouldn’t speak to the media. If you don’t have a genuine need, why risk having your words twisted? Even so, I agreed to do an interview that I feel may have been a mistake. I have a great deal of respect and love for Elizabeth Scalia, managing editor of our Catholic portal and famously known as The Anchoress. When she asked me to be on a cable show she is a frequent guest host on, I said “Of course!”

Maybe that wasn’t the wisest thing to do. I don’t know. I know the producer told me “‘Pagans, Wicca, Santeria & Voodoo’ is the topic for this half hour show.” [At that point, it would have been a good idea to ask, "And who will be on to talk about Santeria and Voodoo?" When the answer was, "Well, you," that would have been a good time to bow out.] That didn’t exactly jive with the topic I heard announced once we started recording. As the host announced the topic warning bells started to sound in my head. I had visions of a Jerry Springer Halloween special, complete with antagonistic Christians and Pagans getting in catfights and eerie warnings of the dangers of occultists. I felt they wanted an “occult expert” rather than an actual Pagan, and in those few seconds decided that wasn’t going to be how this was going down.

Again, I think that Star did a very good job of managing this experience. I especially want to commend her for her handling of the whole, "Do you call demons?" nonsense. (Honestly, could we please make 2011 the year when all Pagans agree to simply say, "Satanism, which focuses on two Christian entities, Satan and Jehovah -- in whom Pagans don't even believe -- is a branch of Christianity. Please start asking every Christian you interview whether they are Satanists"?) Star's got lots of facts and figures at hand and does a good job of discussing her own experience as a former Christian. She makes good points about the attraction of Paganism to women.

To echo a point that Star makes, I've said over and over that the first question that you need to ask yourself is how doing this interview with this segment of the media will serve your own objectives (which you, maybe not so obviously, need to be clear about before you even consider talking to the media). I'm not sure what Star's objective was, other than to be nice to Ms. Scalia, whom she perceives as her friend. If you don't have a clear answer to that question, maybe you don't need to talk to these people at all. Maybe some other Pagan should talk to them or maybe they don't deserve any Pagan participation at all. (I've been begging Democrats for years to just quit treating Fox as if it were a legitimate news organization. Just stop talking to them. (There's a reason why George W. Bush never did an interview with Bill Moyers.) I think that's what this panel, regardless of how much Star may imagine that Ms. Scalia is her friend, deserved as well.) Really, not one Pagan person on the panel? Really? Warning bells, just saying.

There's an odd notion in our society that talking to the media is cool, that it makes you important, that, of course, you should do it every chance that you get. In America, being on tv is supposed to somehow make you "real." That's what the media want you to think. But you need to approach the media with your own objectives clearly in mind. Will this interaction promote your book or event, or give you an opportunity to make your main point (e.g. Druids worship Nature, Pagans have a proud past, Pagans contribute to our community, etc.)? (Still not sure what Star's overarching point was. She seemed to be mostly reactive here.)

I think that Star's experience illustrates another point that I've made before. If you do decide that you can use an experience with the media to achieve your own goals, then you need to do a lot of practicing beforehand. Here's one example. Star gives really good, but generally nuanced and lengthy, answers to each question that she's asked. But she lets herself get interrupted over and over again. Especially for women in our society, being interrupted is a land-mine. If you talk over the interruption, you may be perceived as "too aggressive." If, as Star almost always does, you stop talking when you get interrupted, you come across as weak and you fail to control the message. (If you watch, almost every time that Star begins to score some points, one of the panelists interrupts her or the host (and, Mother, this is shallow, but who put that woman on a camera in that shirt?) calls for a "break," as if this show has a million commercial sponsors.) My firm pays a communications consultant to come in every year and work with lawyers and one of the skills that I've worked on for a number of years is being able to deal with interruptions. I'm still working on it. But it's something that you can practice for an hour or so before a media interview, even with a friend who has a iPhone with video. Just learning to say, "Let me finish," or "Please don't interrupt, I'd like to finish my point," can make you much more effective. Most Pagans aren't going to be interviewed enough times to learn on the job. Hence, you must learn during practice sessions.

Let me just list a few other points:

(1) This interview is 4 on 1. Those are ridiculous odds. I'd really hesitate before letting even a massively-prepared client face those odds. I've allowed it (ie, couldn't stop it) a time or two in group depositions, but you can't imagine how thoroughly prepped my clients were. On hearing those odds, 99.9% of all Pagans should decline the interview.

(2) Note the use of negative language in the beginning of the interview: "dabble" into Paganism (thanks Christine!) and "play" with Ouija boards. Doubt that converts to Catholicism would be described in those terms. Later there's a reference to "drifting" into Paganism. That's a perfect opportunity to bail. At that point, it's clear that this "interview" is rigged. Say, "I'm sorry; this isn't the interview I expected. I won't be participating." Take off the headphones and cut the Skype connection. The worst that will happen is that they'll show you saying and doing that and that won't hurt you.

(3) This is a subtle point, but all of the 4 interviewers are sitting around table, together, while Star is off somewhere else, on a Skype connection, wearing big headphones. Guess who looks weird and is the odd-person-out? Guess who doesn't see the signaling between the other four people? Again, find out ahead of time what the interview is going to entail and seriously consider your experience at handling that kind of situation. The situation here would challenge even a media-savvy, experienced person. Star may work in the media, but it's a whole different story when you're on the other side of the microphone. I've done depositions, but I'd demand a whole lot of preparation from my lawyer before I'd have my deposition taken (Bill Clinton, I'm looking at you.)

(4) And, this may seem artificial to you, but look at the other participants. The host is professionally made up and coiffed and wearing (what is supposed to pass for; sorry I'm a snob) a designer shirt. The other interviewers are wearing either jackets or a clerical collar -- all symbols of professionalism and authority in our society. Star, bless her heart, shows up in a do-rag, gigantic earphones, and off lighting. In the sub-verbal battle for credibility, guess who is at a disadvantage? I get that Pagans don't like this; that we believe that you should be able to wear whatever you want and that appearances shouldn't count against you. And, in a perfect world, I'd agree 100%. But imagine yourself as Mr. or Ms. Average American and ask yourself who in that interview starts off at an advantage and who starts off at a disadvantage, before anyone utters a single word. How would the interview have been different if Star had insisted on showing up at a well-lit studio, in front of a real camera and not wearing headphones, being professionally made up, and wearing a suit, even with a pentagram on a chain? What if she'd insisted on providing the pictures flashed at random during the interview or having editing authority over the crawl?

(5) As I've said before, insist on making your own recording of the interview. You can negotiate this and other points ahead of time. If they're not willing to make reasonable accommodations for you, bells should start going off and you should seriously consider not doing the interview.

Kudos to Star for being willing to criticize her own performance. I'm going to keep harping on this stuff because it matters.

Hat tip: The Wild Hunt

Picture found here.


Teacats said...

Truly excellent posting! And this is EXACTLY why such topics should be covered and examined more throughly at Pagan conferences. And covered on BOTH sides of the media fence -- for press and information interviews AND for P.R. opportunities for vendors, shop owners etc. Each situation has different scope -- and different goals. And yes -- Sky did an excellent job!!

Anonymous said...

The host, Jane Hanson, was a local newscaster and correspondent on WNBC in New York. She co-anchored The Today Show New York with Matt Lauer in the early 90's. I wondered what happened to her.
Anyway, she's quite an experienced newscaster. Tell Star that she did an outstanding job.


Makarios said...

Very well done, as usual. A few additional observations:

- Before agreeing to do a radio or TV interview, listen to a few of the past programs. Get a feel for the tone of the host-guest interactions. This is particularly important where the guest and the host are on different sides of an issue.

- Check out the biographies of the hosts. Google them and check out any articles they may have written, and any items that have been written about them. That should tell you a good deal about what to expect. In this case, for example, a few minutes with Google led me to an interview in which one of the hosts was spin-doctoring the RC Church's oppositon to a proposed statute extending the Statute of Limitations for sex-abuse claims. So that's the sort of person he is.

- Regarding interruptions: my tendency is to use the person's name:

"Mr. Jones, please don't interrupt. I'm trying to make a point here."

Or, if applicable:

"Ms Smith, you asked me a question. Now please let me answer."

- Finally, regarding negative language: this is a judgment call. My own inclination would have been to call the hosts on it. "Excuse me--dabbling in Witchcraft? Really? Do your parishioners dabble in Catholicism? This is my religion that you're talking about, sir." Again, it's a judgment call. Some interviewees may not choose to be quite so confrontational. YMMV, as the saying goes.

Again, a very good post.

Anne Johnson said...

An excellent post, and this information cannot be repeated often enough. Perhaps we ought to turn to one person (like Jason ... or you) to deliver our mass media content.

fyreflye said...

I couldn't sit through more than half the interview so disgusted was I by the condescension and outright hostility from the panel that was so obvious. I truly admire Star for her persistence in trying to get her message across. I could never have put up with it.
But seriously, what's the point of going on a program hosted by and directed exclusively to Roman Catholic viewers? You're not going to convince anyone of anything. And besides omigod you're a witch!!! As Hecate has noted in previous posts here, the interviewer is almost never your friend and never has your message or best interests at heart.
In my view if we talk at all (a big if!) we only want to talk to media that reach a wide audience, among whom there may be a handful actually capable of listening to and resonating with what we're saying. Otherwise confide only to your friends and the Goddess.

Anonymous said...

From the broom closet

I think Star did a very good job considering the situation she found herself in, although I think she might want to rethink her relationship with Ms. Scalia who was only too willing to throw her under the bus to a bunch of condescending people who snorted derisively at some of her answers and treated her with zero respect.

chrysalis1witchesjourney said...

You might already be doing this, but have you considered doing workshops on dealing with the media for Pagan leaders?

Peace, and Curiosity,

Teacats said...

Excellent points from Makarios!!

And I will add that We the Pagans DO need to speak to the media -- sometimes for an "information" type story (especially around times like Halloween); or for a public relations opportunity for a book, craft, vendor or shop. And the media may contact one of us because of a local/national/world news story that has some sort of tie-in with our community.

So developing skills to deal with the media is crucial for many folks of our wide-ranging and diverse community.

Some of our folks have already have such skills -- from podcasts and appearances at conferences and festivals and P.R. from our craftspeople, vendors and merchants. There are some videos on YouTube from some of the Pagan shops.

But we need to offer opportunities to develop such skills around the whole community!

Medusa said...

Excellent advice in this post! On several occasions I've turned down requests to talk to the media, most of them related to tarot, for exactly the reasons Hecate outlines. Having worked in and with media for many years in my professional career I was aware of the risks. In one case I referred to a media person to another well-informed person who I thought would want the "publicity." In another case, I was considering participating but ask for more information about the issue and interviewer. That was never forthcoming so that was that. In another case, when an Italian TV station wanted to come to my house to film I turned them down flat. Why? They were going to broadcast what I was saying in English the the voiceover translation in Italian. I would have no control over the translation. Who knows what they would say I was saying? (No, I'm not fluent in Italian, beautiful language though it is.)

Re: being interrupted--that's a real hard one. Some of these right wing types have become experts on how to interrupt without ceasing. I remember once the usually unflappable and very tactful and effective Rachel Maddow was unable to get one of her guests to let her finish, no matter what she tried he just kept on talking, louder and louder, over her, repeating the same thing again and again just to drown her out. If RM can't stop this, what chance would I have?

I think we also have to respect people's choices NOT to talk to the press. There is an attitude in some quarters that a Pagan given the opportunity to speak to the press has some sort of oblgation to do it. I think this is an individual's choice and the Pagan community should respect that choice.