October 4th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Another Interruption. Ah, Fame. *eyeroll*

The St. Louis Riverfront Times seems to have just hired a reporter from Queens. She knows nobody in town, but has half an idea of writing something about "the challenges of being Pagan in the midwest," and mine was the name and phone number that turned up for her in Google. (The RFT must not have much of a "morgue" or must not have told her to or let her use it if they do. She showed no awareness that I've been on the cover of the RFT before.) I told her I've been out of the Pagan community for about two years now, but I'd talk to some people and have someone get back to her. Honestly, I'm not even sure who I should talk to. It's not that I don't know any local Pagans, I probably know a couple of hundred of them. A better question is, especially since CAST went down the crapper, who do I know who can meaningfully speak for the community any more, and equally important, who do I know who knows how to talk to reporters?

So I'm no sooner wrapping up that conversation than she asks, "Oh, by the way, does St Louis have a polyamory community?" She's also thinking of doing a story about "the challenges of being polyamorous in the Midwest." (Sense a pattern here?) I am still plugged in with what there is of an organized poly community here in St. Louis, but I'm even more conflicted about this request. I'll tell you why. It's because it is my firm opinion that there is no benefit whatsoever for the poly community to be talking to the Press in this legal climate. That it can only do harm. That it can only attract dangerous attention from the Division of Child and Family Services to the person who talks to the reporter or (worse) their non-volunteering friends, that it primarily serves to attract to the community people who aren't really poly and who therefore bring tons of drama with them, and that there is no legal or social agenda the poly community could pursue in this legal climate that could benefit in any way from even the most sympathetic news coverage.

If you're going to be at Archon, feel free to talk with me about this; I told her I'd probably have someone or someones call her back on Monday. It looks like you won't be the subject of a hack job; I googled her back (of course) and she treats her sources sympathetically. But before you volunteer, as someone who's had rather more than his 15 minutes of fame, let me tell you something about journalism. In his excellent (if a trifle dry) A History of News, one of Mitchell Stephens' insights to offer is that normal professional journalists (as opposed to that much rarer breed, investigative journalists) always "know" what the story they're going to write is going to be before they even talk to a single source. How do they do this? Stephens says that there are probably fewer than 200 stories that can be written, period, that anybody who reads or watches the news ever wants to hear. He calls these recurring news story outlines the ur-stories, meaning the primal or elemental news stories from which all later news stories are descended. So the reporter shows up at the scene of a news story with an outline of a story in their head, learned in journalism school, and all they need is three one-sentence quotes for color, and the correct spelling of each person's name. If it's an in-depth report, they go to their editor or publisher's rolodex and pull out the names of two "experts" who can be counted on to have opposing views on the subject and call each expert for another single-sentence quote. This is journalism as it is genuinely practiced. (Which, come to think of it, is relevant to what I was going to write tonight, more about that tomorrow.)

And it is my observation that there are only three ur-news stories that can possibly be written about a weird subculture or one of its members. I call them "Funny Zoo Animals," "Threat or Menace," and "Surprisingly Nice." And I'll tell you right now that the odds of you getting that last story are hundreds to one against. "Funny Zoo Animals" is the freak-show piece: look at the harmless, funny, crazy people. Aren't they so cute? And oh, look, there are even some in this town! Isn't that funny? It's always vaguely condescending in tone; that's what that story is about. People read it to reassure themselves that they're better off normal. "Threat or Menace" takes its name from an old Reader's Digest article about the Communist Party USA entitled: "Communism: Threat? or Menace?" Because in that story, that's the whole range of possible opinion given: either the weird subculture in question is an impending threat or an already-serious menace. The weirdos in question are portrayed as dangerously crazy, likely to do anything, and very interested in recruiting your spouse and your children. "Are your children safe?" Experts will be quoted who say no. Any quotes you give will be selected for how crazy and stupid they can make you sound, any expert quoted as being on your side will be hand-selected for how easily they can be dismissed by other experts.

No, the best you can ever hope against hope for is, "Surprisingly Nice," where the story starts off being how weird and silly (or weird and menacing) you and your subculture seem to be, still reinforcing one of those two stereotypes, "but (person's name) turned out to be surprisingly nice." This is the story that people try to get reporters to write when they talk to a reporter about some charity work that they've done, from Pagans or the KKK doing Adopt-a-Highway litter cleanup to biker gangs raising money for children's hospitals or veterans' hospitals. But reporters hate the "Surprisingly Nice" story because they take it for granted that they're being manipulated. They know that you're distorting how you really are in hopes of getting some favorable publicity, in hopes of getting somebody in particular or the public in general off of your back. So it takes a lot of years of very successful charity work to get a "Surprisingly Nice" story, and if you don't believe me, look at how many literal millions of dollars worth of charity Penny Arcade has done for impoverished children on behalf of computer- and console gamers and how little favorable publicity they've gotten for it. No, the only time you really have anything better than a very long shot chance at getting "Surprisingly Nice" is when some inexplicable tragedy hits. Cancer is OK, but having your child murdered is better. The best way to get a "Surprisingly Nice" story is to come down with some fatal, wasting disease that strikes truly at random but leaves you looking photogenic; that's always good for media sympathy. (Call it, if you will, the La Boheme variation on "Surprisingly Nice," as in yeah this person is very weird, but even journalists admit that nobody photogenic deserves an awful fate.) Otherwise, forget it; what you're going to end up in is "Funny Zoo Animals" or "Threat or Menace."