In a slapdash piece of clickbait reporting, former VICE intern Brad Casey attended a free meditation-based course in a public library, bought a book by the author Belzebuub (who was not associated with the event in any way) and then wrote a lazy hit-piece trying to present this everyday turn-of-events as infiltrating a ‘cult’, and trying to frame Belzebuub as a ‘cult leader’. This article analyses his claims and reveals the facts that were hidden or misrepresented about this event and Belzebuub to support his false narrative. It also examines the complete uncritical surrender of supposed “independent” journalists to the narratives spun by anti-cult lobby groups. This collusion reinforces negative stereotypes against alternative spirituality and shows the conformist agenda of so-called “alternative” media. This is an example of hit-piece journalism of the worst kind.
Cult coverage sells, especially in our fear-based media landscape. The current media bias towards presenting alternative spiritual groups in a deranged, psychotic, or shameful way stems directly from the lucrative nature of publishing such content. Of course, not all alternative groups are harmful, in fact most are peaceful, law-abiding and enriching to the community. Yet once the “cult” stigma is applied to a group, the adverse effects of that label become extremely difficult to overcome. The end result of sustained negative media representation of alternative groups, and the omission of coverage of benign or helpful groups, is a loss in diversity of spiritual options and a narrowing of spiritual choice. Even more harmful is the phenomenon created by “crazy cult” coverage, whereby discrimination against alternative groups suddenly becomes socially acceptable, and even encouraged as a valid form of satire.
Making Money out of Mocking Others
While satire provides a valuable form of commentary in the realm of politics and human behavior, there is a dark side to this type of humor. Satire taken to the extreme can serve as a license for unethical journalists to publish anything they desire while simultaneously skirting accountability for doing so. This satirical ‘shield’ can be employed by publications that rely heavily on parody to present themselves as anti-establishment and counterculture. Publications of this type that deal exclusively in the ‘hip’, ‘sarcastic’, and ‘zany’ are surprisingly one of the latest channels responsible for smothering spiritual choice.
Plenty of alternative media outlets rely on advertising revenue generated from viewership (or readership) to function, just like traditional media outlets. Video views and article “shares” equate to larger audiences and increased ad earnings. If stories about “crazy cults” sell, then it makes sense from a business perspective to deliver a continuous stream of “wacky cult” stories to audiences. Fringe groups or “cults” also provide an easy target for satirical publications looking for the butt of their next report. A major reason for this is the firmly established narrative that currently exists in society, propagated by the “anti-cult” movement, regarding alternative spiritual groups, how they’re structured, what people do in them, and the supposed harmful effect that they have on the rest of “normal” society.
Cult coverage by counterculture media (which portrays itself as explicitly irreverent to mainstream societal values), differs from mainstream media coverage in its tone and approach. Articles in this variety of alternative publication can be crafted with a flippant, no-holds-barred attitude, and embellished with expletives, innuendo, and drug references for excitement. By delivering content in this manner, counterculture media often appeals to younger crowds, under the facade of being a trendy publication covering borderline scandalous news topics that regular news outlets dare not touch.
For publications producing this type of content, however, the requirement to consistently churn out “edgy” stories comes with limitations. This is especially true in their treatment of alternative groups. Consider for a moment whether the driving need for new exposés could actually be enough to cause the distorted reporting of facts; i.e. if a reporter came across an alternative group that wasn’t harmful, but could easily be framed as a “cult” for a derisory story, might they be tempted to write about it in this way? Well, unfortunately this happens more than you would expect. In this article, one such instance is explored, where a group of spiritual practitioners in Canada running free classes in public libraries was accused of being a cult, and an author, Mark Pritchard who wrote with the pen name Belzebuub, whose book was available there, was branded a cult leader.
It’s worth considering whether professional reporting ethics can withstand pressing editorial deadlines that demand shocking, entertaining stories.