Proposed Bill possible threat to Pagan news

In a proposed amendment to a media shield law being considered by the Senate,  Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and  Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Il)  appear to define journalists in a way which excludes non-traditional journalists including most Pagan media and journalists. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the amendment, which was written in coordination with traditional news organizations, by a 13-5 vote. It was then sent to the Senate floor where it is expected to pass. It’s fate in the House is less certain.

The Bill, S. 987: Free Flow of Information Act of 2013, seeks to provide reporters with a limited right to refuse to testify on information gathered or to be forced to reveal sources. The House Bill defines a journalist as someone who “for financial gain or livelihood, is engaged in journalism” while originally the Senate version had a looser definition.  The proposed amendment by Sen. Feinstein and Sen. Durbin requires journalists to meet at least one of these three additional criteria:

  1. working as a “salaried employee, independent contractor, or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information;”
  2. either (a) meeting the prior definition “for any continuous three-month period within the two years prior to the relevant date” or (b) having “substantially contributed, as an author, editor, photographer, or producer, to a significant number of articles, stories, programs, or publications by an entity . . . within two years prior to the relevant date;” or
  3. working as a student journalist “participating in a journalistic publication at an institution of higher education.”

Requiring that an individual is “salaried”or under a financial contract is problematic for Pagan news organizations as most reporters and contributors are volunteers or are not employed in journalism as their primary source of income. All PNC-News reporters, editors, and contributors are not paid. The Wild Hunt pays its contributors, but it’s a modest amount that could not be considered earning a “livelihood.”

The second criteria is also a difficult hurdle for Pagan journalists.  The amendment is vague on what comprises an “entity” that reporters need to send their work in to and what a “significant number of articles” within a two year time table means. It’s not clear if Pagan news outlets would be considered an “entity” under this amendment.

PNC-Minnesota Webmaster and Researcher Heather Biedermann said, “Even if we paid our staff, who in the government decides what is an approved media outlet? To me, this seems like a thinly-veiled attempt to put in place a “government-friendly” group of approved news reporters who are handpicked by some unknown agency to spread their own spin on the news. It also is a backhanded way of discrediting the growing grass-roots news media that we are seeing all around the world. Not only does it discredit, but it also endangers news sites like PNC. Who is to say that this isn’t the beginning of finding ways to limit free speech in general?”

The effects of the proposed Bill could strip away protections independent news organizations have been slowly gaining on the state level. In November of 2010, PNC-Minnesota published an article relating a rape survivors experience while undergoing an enhanced search by TSA agents.  The article quickly went viral and was republished or linked to by traditional news sources. PNC-Minnesota received a request from the TSA to reveal our source for the article. We refused, citing Minnesota’s shield law and the traditional protections afforded members of the press and backed by the First Amendment of the United States. There was no response from the TSA.

Supporters of the Bill say it is a good compromise between protecting national security against leaks and protecting the rights of a free press, “I can’t support it if everyone who has a blog has a special privilege … or if Edward Snowden were to sit down and write this stuff, he would have a privilege. I’m not going to go there,” said  Sen. Feinstein.

Bloggers, alternative media, and civil liberties groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have criticized the Bill as creating two classes of reporters, the traditional media licensed by the government, and everyone else.  In an article on the proposed Bill, Morgan Weiland of EFF wrote, “The requirement of doing journalism for money and on a consistent basis, coupled with the suggestion that such activities happen within a larger journalistic organization, paints a picture of a New York Times correspondent—and arguably excludes bloggers, freelancers, and other non-salaried individuals who practice the craft of journalism and need the most protection.”

PNC-News Editor in Chief and Founder and Editor of the Wild Hunt Jason Pitzl-Waters had this to say about the legislation, “Author and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis has said that ‘there are no journalists, there is only the service of journalism,’ a sentiment that I would broadly agree with. There are those who make their living reporting and investigating the news, but our history is full of individuals who, in key moments, rose up to document important events, to give voices to voiceless communities, or to expose hidden wrongs. Any protections for journalists that do no protect grass-roots manifestations of the service of journalism are not only flawed, but chilling. Would Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker be covered under these provisions? Would Gandhi’s newsletters advocating for an independent India? The farther down the road we travel into creating hurdles to legal protections, the more we damage the service, in essence dictating who is a ‘real’ journalist. The heart of journalism is a radical heart, because it creates an informed community, these guidelines can only hinder journalism’s purpose.”

Pagans and Privilege panel packs them in at PantheaCon

One of the most talked about educational sessions at Pantheacon, a conference for Pagans, Heathens, Indigenous Non-European religions hosted in San Jose, California each President’s Day weekend, wasn’t part of the official programming.  It was the Pagans and Privilege panel which explored the layers and effects of privilege within our religious community.  Panel members included  Elena Rose, Xochiquetzal Duti Odinsdottir, River Higginbotham and past Sacred Harvest Festival guest of honor Crystal Blanton.  Ms. Blanton and her family continued to attend  Sacred Harvest Festival since her first introduction to the festival even though they live in California.  The panel was moderated by T. Thorn Coyle, who has held workshops in the Twin Cities and across the USA.

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Panelists from left to right: Elena Rose, Xochiquetzal Duti Odinsdottir, Crystal Blanton, River Higginbotham

The panel would spend an hour exploring how to recognize privilege and entitlement and open up dialogue around what can be a very divisive and contentious issue. Ms. Coyle had the original idea to create the panel and she recruited the four panelists.  Ms. Blanton said being part of the panel was a great opportunity because, “Being a Pagan of Color has it’s unique challenges and slowly we are finding different mediums to share our experiences to others so that we can grow and heal collectively. Yet, I do not think privilege begins or ends with race, I think it is a very layered concept that is often dismissed as a race thing only.”

The Pagans and Privilege proposal was originally submitted to Pantheacon to be part of the official programming, but like many other proposals, didn’t make the cut.  Covenant of the Goddess, New Wiccan Church and  the New Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn shared the Presidential Suite, a large multi room con suite, and they offered the group space for the workshop.  News of the panel spread through social media.  And spread.

“I didn’t know we would draw as many people as we did,” says Ms. Blanton.  “When the facebook invite started to circulate, I saw the people saying yes and thought maybe half would show. I was very wrong and yet very pleased that  people wanted to come to participate in such a complex discussion.”

Minnesota Pagan and author Lisa Spiral Besnett wanted to attend the panel because of the respect she has for the panelists, but also because she has an interest in the topic, “I have a broad exposure to people and cultures and I am very much aware of the privilege I hold as a white woman, even when I’m Pagan identified.  I also experience global discrimination due to my weight and my wheelchair dependent son, and occasionally because of my religion.  Having spoken with Pagans with non-white/Eurocentric racial identities I also am aware that I am not always conscious of how I contribute to furthering my own privilege, even within the pagan community, sometimes at the expense of others.”

Ms. Besnett, like an estimated 25 others, wasn’t able to attend the panel because the room was already packed.  “When people started sitting on the floor to make room, I got the idea that this might be a heavily attended program,’ said Blanton, “then I started wishing we had more  space and  more time.”  Forty two people wedged into the single room.

The panel opened with Coyle talking about what is meant by privilege.  “If you have clean drinking water coming out of your faucet,  that is privilege.”  She emphasized the discussion about privilege would not be about placing blame, guilt, or victimization but about gaining a deeper understanding of one another and exploring differences and common ground.  Privilege is often defined as the advantages a person or group has that are so normal to them they are usually unaware of them.

Panel moderator T Thorn Coyle

Panel moderator T Thorn Coyle

The panelists, who spoke from varied minority perspectives, then shared how each of them were privileged.  Ms. Rose, a transgender woman who was disowned by her family, discussed how her high quality of education gained her advantages not shared by most others.  Not only did she have a stronger academic background, she knew how to find information, which is a skill that confers privilege,  “I would say just look it up.  Just google it.  And they wouldn’t know what I meant.  They didn’t know how to find the information they needed.”

Heather Biedermann, a Mankato Heathen, said she enjoyed how each of the panelists admitted to what privilege they had and how they were lucky to have various kinds of support.  ” These privileges were seen as blessings that made it possible for them to be there speaking to the group. Those who didn’t have the same privilege talked about how they had to deal without having that benefit, and it really opened my eyes to not take anything for granted. After hearing the stories of each on the panel, I felt like I identified even more with each person, even though all of us come from different backgrounds.”

Ms. Odinsdottir had advice for those who sit at the pinnacle of privilege in the United States, “Don’t apologize for things you didn’t do, don’t say you’re sorry for what others have done.”  She told attendees that misplaced guilt is not helpful, but being aware we live in a white supremacist culture is. Some of the attendees leaned back or looked confused or unhappy at her statement.  She explained a white supremacist culture has nothing to do with being a skinhead, it is simply a culture where white culture is supreme and in a position of power.

Mr. Higginbotham joked about his position of privilege saying he’s a white male with a good income.  Like the other panelists he echoed times in his life where he has unthinkingly enjoyed the benefits of privilege and how difficult it is when that privilege is yanked away from him.  He spoke about how, due to his religion, he’s had a deep concern he could lose his job.

One of the most tweeted quotes from the panel came from Blanton, “We are all oppressed and we are all oppressors.”  This drew nods from many of the attendees and panelists as the words sunk in.  Later, Blanton spoke about this moment, “One moment that sticks out to me was the emotion that was evoked within me when speaking about my own privilege, a privilege that the kids I work with do not have. I think people automatically assume that those who talk about privilege are standing in a “victim” mentality role. I recognize that I am often the oppressed and the oppressor. I am humbled by a society that puts people in a position to be on both sides of the fence and awareness becomes the most important tool we can harness.”

Ms. Biedermann said she thought the panel would focus on problems that were prevalent in the community and ways we can work to fix them. “Instead,” she said, “the focus was on the privileges that each of us may have in our lives and how those things may make life easier for ourselves compared to another person.”  She went on to say the panel “really opened my eyes to how all of these things can stack up and make a person have more opportunities than another. The idea here wasn’t that you should feel bad or guilty about these privileges, but instead to understand where other people are coming from, and to be more sensitive to what is going on in the world around you.”

The hour long discussion was paced by Coyle who asked the audience and panel to stop and take a deep, slow breath.  These breath breaks were designed to allow participants and attendees to maintain control over powerful emotions and to let meaning sink in.  Towards the end of the discussion, Coyle invited attendees to continue the discussion at the Pagans Of Color hospitality suite, as their allotted time was almost up.

Blanton says she plans to do more Pagans of Color programming next year at Pantheacon and said a second Shades of Faith book may be released by then.  That news is welcome to both Besnett and Beidermann.  “I would absolutely be interested in continuing this discussion in a larger venue,” said Ms. Besnett, “It’s not the kind of issue that can be resolved by a single event.”  Ms. Biedermann concurs, “As the panel talked, I knew that there was so much to say, and an hour or two wasn’t even enough time to touch the tip of the iceberg. Next year, I hope to see more sessions talking about privilege and diversity in Paganism. It’s so important that we explore these topics even more.”