Why the Media Hates “Cults”
Or maybe they don’t hate anyone. They just know that the grim stories linking religion to money, power, and illicit sex always sell.
by Massimo Introvigné
It was 1997. Italy was in the midst of violent media campaigns against “cults”, fueled by organized anti-cult movements. A previously unknown organization devoted to fighting “cults”, called “Cosamo”, began issuing press releases claiming that it had the best evidence of “cult” crimes. They sent different local media parts of a video with parts of a “ritual”, where “cultists” ostensibly assaulted young girls. Eventually, it generated national interest, and one of Italy’s major television networks said it would be ready to air the full video, if Cosamo provided it. The mysterious Cosamo, who only communicated by leaving messages in mailboxes, replied that he could not provide the video, but had the technical means to provide a live stream. Of course, the network would be free to stop the live program at any time, should the footage appear too coarse to broadcast.
Eventually, the network agreed to Cosamo’s terms, and the sensational video appeared on a national television program. In the video, masked “cultists” surrounded a bound and gagged young girl, ostensibly ready to molest and possibly even kill her. However, when the audience braced for the worst, before the network managed to interrupt the broadcast, the girl got up and started dancing with the “cultists” and singing a song mocking gullibility. medias.
The anti-cult organization Cosamo did not exist. At the time it came out, the whole story was an elaborate hoax by a group that called itself “Luther Blissett” (the name comes from a notoriously incompetent football player). He had already become famous for his pranks exposing how gullible the media was. Of course, the prank itself made headlines, and the Italian media wrote that they had learned their lesson and would be more careful in the future in believing the sensational accusations against “cults”. Unfortunately, they quickly forgot the incident and the lesson.
In 2018, American scholar W. Michael Ashcraft published what has become the standard academic textbook on the history of the study of new religious movements. Ashcraft described the development of the academic subfield, which had largely coalesced since the 1980s around ideas that “cult” was not a valid category but a label used to slander unpopular minorities, the “washing brain” was a pseudo-scientific theory armed for the same and the accounts of apostate ex-members – that is, the minority among former members who had turned into militants opposing the religions they had left – should be treated with care and cannot serve as a primary source of information about their past movements.
Ashcraft noted that an overwhelming majority of scholars in new religious movements agreed with these ideas, while a tiny minority seceded from the main line, supported militant anti-cult movements and apostates, and created a separate “cult studies” group, which maintained that “cults” were different from legitimate religions and used “brainwashing”. “Cult studies,” Ashcraft wrote, was never accepted as “mainstream scholarship.” They continued as “a project shared by a small group of committed academics” but not endorsed by “the wider academic community, nationally and internationally”. Specialists in “cult studies” live in their own bubble and rarely appear in major conferences on new religious movements or are published in the corresponding journals.
Ashcraft, however, hinted at one particular phenomenon worthy of academic investigation in itself. While they represent a tiny and criticized minority in academia, scholars of “cult studies” are more often cited by the media as “cult experts” than their senior colleagues. More generally, anti-cult activists and apostate ex-members play a disproportionate role as sources of media accounts of groups labeled as “cults”. Traditional scholars are often ignored, as are members who remain in religious movements and are happy about it. It also often happens that representatives of “cults” are called by reporters who are about to publish a negative article, to whom they are suddenly asked “How are you defending yourself?” and asked to provide a statement in a few hours, which is obviously a caricature of balanced journalism.
There are countless examples of this attitude. Britain’s The Telegraph’s recent series of podcasts on Jehovah’s Witnesses and sexual abuse is a spectacular one. The podcast includes less than thirty seconds where Zoe Knox, a well-known scholar, briefly references certain beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses. After Knox’s very brief guest appearance, the narrator expresses the Telegraph’s beliefs that “apart from academics, the people who are really expert on the subject are those who have lived through it: former Jehovah’s Witnesses “. By “former Jehovah’s Witnesses”, The Telegraph means apostates.
My review of The Telegraph series was discussed in an online forum of scholars who study Jehovah’s Witnesses. George Chryssides, arguably Britain’s leading scholar of Jehovah’s Witnesses, revealed that he was interviewed at length by The Telegraph, but not a single word of his interview made it onto the podcast. He just didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear.
The same Jehovah’s Witnesses managed to have an Italian publication (L’Indro) and two Norwegian ones (Fosna-Folket and Vårt Land) censored by the Journalistic Integrity Watchdogs, but it was too little too late. Lawyers know that defamation suits are notoriously difficult. They also take years, and even a favorable decision coming after the original article has already produced its slanderous effects is of little use.
The 2019 OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) “Policy Guidance” on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Security reveals an awareness of this issue. It asks the media “to do everything possible to increase respect for religious and belief diversity by transmitting impartial and accurate information and representations of different religions and beliefs, and by combating negative stereotypes and prejudices”. “By sharing positive stories about all religious or belief communities, the OSCE said, and by avoiding negative and discriminatory stereotypes, the media can contribute to a more tolerant societal discourse, rooted in the real experiences of individuals and communities. communities, without ignoring the challenges that exist. Indeed, the media is a key actor in the development of a critical public discourse on the coexistence between peoples of different religions or beliefs.
It never happened. On the contrary, the prejudices of the media against the “cults” have worsened. Why? There isn’t just one answer. Obviously, there are powerful anti-cult lobbies, often backed by governments who should justify their repressive policies, and they are richer, more powerful and better organized than academics. More broadly, since the days of the anti-Catholic gazettes of the French Revolution, grim stories about religion still sell, all the more so when embellished with stories, true or false, of sexual abuse and abuse. money accumulated by greedy religious. Power, money and sex sell well by definition. This is a general problem of a media system governed by shares and sales rather than objectivity and truth. That a priest or pastor abuses young boys sells. That he sincerely devotes his life to the welfare and upbringing of children does not.
Reforming the media system is either impossible or a long-term project. Religious movements unfairly labeled as “sects,” and academics aware that most of the accusations leveled against them are false, should of course react. However, they would do well to re-read “The Art of Being Right,” a startlingly modern text that German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in 1831. As if anticipating modern media, Schopenhauer listed a series of tricks used to promote a false theory. . Fake news is spread by playing on readers’ existing biases, and relying on the fact that few people would read a disclaimer.
An old newsroom joke is that “publishing a denial is publishing the same news twice.” In fact, simply denying an accusation never works. “We don’t abuse children” just confirms in the audience the idea that you have something to do with child abuse. As Schopenhauer taught, the argument needs to be genuinely reversed, not just defensive, and shift the discourse to who the accusers are, what their motives are, who we are, why in fact we are the ones occupying ground higher morale. A difficult strategy, but media wars have never been won easily.