Why “Cult” is the Wrong Word

cultic

The early 1960s saw a flourishing of fringe religious groups that the press had no other word for than “cults”. It was a simpler time, and the word was meant to describe religious movements that didn’t easily fit into the established religions. The word encompassed hippies experimenting with alternative ideologies, Christian evangelicals, crystal energy healers, and back to the earth types who, might be a little odd, but basically harmless. It was hard to identify exactly what a cult was, except that there were millions of people searching for a personal connection with God. Then, in 1969 everything changed when followers of Charles Mason murdered Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of the director Roman Polanski. They coated the walls in her blood and inked the words “Helter Skelter” above the crime scene. Two years later 800 followers of the People’s Temple killed a US congressman in Guyana and then took their own lives with cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.

After that bloody introduction the world took a new perspective on the word “cult”.  Cults weren’t harmless. They were dangerous.  They stole people from their families, brainwashed them with false ideologies and sometimes even took their lives. Today, the word brings to mind the Branch-Davidians in Waco, Texas and the exploitive practices of the Church of Scientology. There is a burgeoning field of anti-cult literature, support groups for former cult members and exit counselors whose main job is to bring people out of these groups and back to their families. It is clear that many of these groups prey on their members, take their money, and often leave them in dire straights with no one to turn to except for their charismatic leader.

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Tantric Obsession

On Wednesday the Rubin Museum invited me to have a conversation with David Vago, a neuroscientist at Harvard University, to speak about tantric obsession and how spiritual bliss can sometimes go terribly wrong. It was a fascinating discussion in an amazing venue. Here are a few highlights.

 

The Enlightenment Trap

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 1.35.57 PM CroppedIn March of 2006, Emily O’Conner was sure that she was on the cusp of enlightenment. We had spent the last seven days on a silent meditation retreat together in the holy city in India for Buddhists called Bodh Gaya. I was the director of her abroad program, and Emily was my student. Late in the night she filled her journal with a scrawl about what she had learned in the silence. She wrote that contemplating her own death was the key to deeper spiritual realizations. A few paragraphs later she wrote the words, “I’m scared that I will have this realization and go crazy.” Then, on the last page, in a paragraph all by itself, she penned her last words — a final resolution to her spiritual progress: “I am a Bodhisattva.”

When she was done writing she wrapped a shawl around her face, stood on the ledge of the three-story building, and jumped. One of the other students on the program found her body an hour later.

In Tibetan Buddhism a Bodhisattva is a fully realized being whose deep spiritual insights have opened the door to Nirvana. However, rather than stepping though the threshold, Bodhisattvas pledge to remain on earth to help other people to the same realizations. In a way, you could think of a Bodhisattva as a sort of god that exists beyond the realm of life and death. Almost three millennia earlier, in a spot less than a mile from where Emily took her own life, the man who would become known as the Buddha had a similar realization. He spent the remaining time he had on earth translating his knowledge to a growing community of followers. Continue reading…

Editors weigh in on market pitching

A few weeks ago I posted about the relative merits of market versus silo pitching and the post kicked up a lot of conversation around the internet. Yesterday Lesley Evans Ogden reached out to a few editors to see what they thought of the practice. Her piece “Simultaneous Pitching: Views from the Other Side of the Desk” has responses from seven editors, including one that I have known for four or five years (who somehow got my name wrong).

Of course, there’s no reason for editors to like the fact that they might have to compete for particular ideas. So I was happily surprised to see how open most of them were to the fact that the notion that simultaneous pitching is just a fact of the industry. While one or two bristled at the idea that not every pitch they receive might be truly exclusive, they also grudgingly admitted that it could take weeks to even read an idea. One wrote  that the ten minutes that they have to dedicate to reading a pitch can be a burden to an already packed work day. This of course assumes that it isn’t a burden to freelancer to wait in some sort of queue, possibly weeks, for an up or down answer that should only take minutes. What happens to that freelancer if the editor says no? There are only 52 weeks in a year, how many chances can an idea get at bat before it is stale?

All the editors did seem to agree that even if a pitch does get accepted into a magazine, it usually changes as writer and editor work together. And, from this perspective, you could say that there is no such thing as multi-pitching, anyway, since the final product will always adapt to the specific publication.

Tracy Hyatt, Editor, WestworldBC Magazine, notes:

“Back when I started 15 years ago, it [simultaneous pitching] was a no-no because every publication wanted to have exclusive content… Nowadays, we’re seeing a lot of the content repeated all over the place. So you don’t really have any exclusivity on any content, or any ideas for that matter.”

It’s definitely a worthwhile read. It also seems to clear the way for an idea that I’ve been working on to transform the way that ideas get to the market. Keep an eye on this website. Big things are going to happen in April.

An (almost) Deadly Journey on Diamond Mountain

In 2012 Ian Thorson and his wife Lama Christie McNally attempted to find spiritual perfection on a mountain top in Arizona. Only a few loyal followers knew where they were and the supply drops were increasingly sporadic. Water was scarce, but they collected what they could of it in a tarp and a plastic jug after a lucky snowfall. They lived there for almost a month before Christie and then Ian fell sick with dysentery. At first Ian was filled with rage by his plight–going as far as hitting himself on the head with a piece of hard plastic in the cave. They packed an emergency locator beacon and a cell phone with them, but Christie waited three days before she sent out a call for help. It was too late for Ian.

Two months after Ian Thorson died her the arms I traveled to Arizona to try to understand the world through his eyes. I wanted to know why she hadn’t pushed the button that would have saved his life earlier. I wanted to see the place where it happened and feel desolate climate of this part of the world. Most importantly, I wanted to see the cave where Ian spent the last month of his life.

The journey could have killed me.

People at Diamond Mountain all told me that even though they knew where the cave was, no one wanted to visit it. Bad things had happened there and no one wanted to tempt fate.  The sheriff Larry Noland implored me waive off my expedition. He tried to scare me with storiesof poisonous cacti, impossible heat, bears and rattlesnakes in every rocky crevasse. But I was adamant and convinced a local rancher to escort me at least part of the way.

It was only a mile and a half, but it was the hardest hike of my life.  It also turned out that Noland was right on almost every scary story that he told me. I heard rattle snakes, got stuck by a poisonous cacti. Luckily there were no bears.

What I did discover, though, was that McNally and Thorson spent their last days together in a small cave that offered magnificent views the retreat valley below, but very few amenities to support them. At one point the cave had been home to a Hohokom Indian who had stashed, but never recovered, a giant pot of grain on the dirt floor. I also learned that merely visiting the spot was dangerous enough to almost kill me. The rancher, Jerry, turned back after I pushed up a steep gravel slope. He was out of water and thought it too risky to continue.  I pushed on and found the cave. Getting back, however, was even more difficult than coming up.

This is a video I shot on my way back down. I think the pain in my voice explains much more than I ever could with with a keyboard.

This was the beginning of a project that would take me almost two years to complete. First with a story in Playboy magazine, and later as a book “A Death on Diamond Mountain

Inside Pacific Standard Interview where I swear like a sailor

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A week or so ago Noah Davis, who writes a column for Pacific Standard called How Do You Make a Living, noticed the posts that I’d been doing about the broken model for freelance writing in this country. The series explores career paths as diverse as taxidermy to puzzle makers, but very few industries are as coercive or just plainly unfair as freelance writing.

One thing, however, did surprise me when I read this interview. Apparently when someone asks me about the freelance business I can’t help but to swear like a sailor. It’s not something that I realize that I’m doing, but I guess this really does get under my skin.  Below are a few excerpts. Or hell, just read the full interview here.

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Fragile Freelancers and the Fate of Journalism

Earlier this month Project Word released a one-of-a-kind survey on the ways that freelance journalists make their livings. The 34-page report, titled “Untold Stories: A Survey of Freelance Investigative Reporters,” was part of a collaboration between 22 different journalism organizations and included responses from more than 200 investigative reporters. To no one’s surprise, the survey found that freelances are in in dire straights.

Among the more shocking revelations were that:

  • 44% of respondents said they were being paid less now than 5 years ago. 22% said that their income was half no than what it used to be.
  • Inadequate support for investigative journalism has deprived the public of a minimum of nearly 600 stories that could have served the public good.
  • 92% of 137 freelancers reported experiencing “anxiety on a daily basis over finances.

The study lays out the plight of increasingly marginal freelancers in visceral detail, and peppers in writer’s own language for how they have struggled to make their livings.  Amidst bad contracts, limited reprint rights, declining pay, endless debt, and anxiety ultimately freelance investigative journalism is more charity than a career path.

Here are my favorite three quotes:

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Why ISIS probably isn’t selling organs

organs CroppedIn the last few weeks disturbing reports surfaced out of Iraq that the stating that the Islamic militant group ISIS had expanded its terror operations to include organ trafficking. The reports originate from a lone official in the Iraqi embassy and reference dozens of bodies in mass graves missing their internal organs.  The story has since been reported everywhere from fringe new sources like the Jewish Press and the right-wing Freedom Center all the way to more respectable outlets like CNN. FOX news has jumped all over the organ harvesting story and repeated it in numerous reports. In the last week I’ve received two interview requests from major news organizations who were aware of my book The Red Market and wanted me to comment.

It’s true that there is a long history of organ theft  during times of war–most notably during the war in Kosovo and more recently Israel security forces in Palestine. I have no illusions that ISIS would be happy to get into the organ trafficking business if it meant that they could make a little money to support their ongoing terrorist operations. However, I just don’t believe that the reports are credible or that ISIS really has the infrastructure to make it work.

In the six years that I spent investigating organ trafficking networks the recipient and the donor were always in the same city when the operation took place. This usually meant that the recipient flew to India, Pakistan, China or Egypt and the donor was sourced from a prison or a nearby slum. Sometimes they were paid, sometimes they were kidnapped. Occasionally both the donor and the recipient would fly to a Caribbean Island or South Africa for the operation.  I never have heard of a single case of a kidney or heart being harvested in one country illegally and then being sent by air to another one.

The reason boils down to logistics. Transplants are highly coordinated affairs and require the cooperation from hospitals, ambulance services, laboratories, police, customs officials and other government agencies. Everything needs to be timed perfectly or the brief window of keeping the organ alive for transplant will pass.   Continue reading…

What Hollywood can teach Magazine Writers

How is it that a screenwriter in Hollywood can get paid a six figure salary by simply giving a movie studio the option to see their work before anyone else does? How are some authors able to convince publishers to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars on their book advances?  And, why is it that freelance journalists are almost perpetually broke and rarely make more than two dollars a word?

best-literary-agent CroppedThe answer to these questions lies in the history of these different industries. At one point most journalists had staff jobs at newspapers or on the mastheads of magazines. They were expected to produce a lot of material, had stable salaries and their work pretty much always belonged to the companies they worked for. Hollywood and book publishing were different. No one was guaranteed work. Writers came up with their own ideas and then sold them to movie studios and publishers on a freelance basis.  They hired agents who knew the industry, looked out for their interests and held auctions to drive up the price of their work. Book publishers and studios paid the increasingly high prices and still turned a profit.

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Brian Williams and the Myth of the Intrepid TV Journalist

Brian Williams in Iraq

Brian Williams poses next to a soldier and some big piece of military equipment Iraq in 2003.

For almost a decade NBC anchor Brian Williams has repeated a story that when he was reporting from Iraq the helicopter he was flying in was hit by a rocket propelled grenade. It turns out that he was lying and for the last week he has been at the center of a media whirlwind with people across the country calling for his resignation. After he apologized, investigative sleuths dug deeper into other statements that he has made over the years and it appears that quite a few of his stories don’t check out. A lot of digital ink has been spilled on the affair, but I think that there is a larger issue at stake that has a lot more to do with the American public’s lack of knowledge about the media rather than Williams’ own statements.

Television is a medium for entertainment, and just about everything that appears on it is carefully produced behind the scenes. While it often appears that television hosts are investigating black markets, on the front lines of a war, or painstakingly filing FOIA requests to uncover government corruption on their own, the truth is that while the information they may present might be accurate and fact checked, the representation you see is almost always a fabrication. Before an anchor appears in the field producers, researchers, fixers and investigators have already tracked down leads, scouted potential locations, shot B-roll and prepped the interviewees and had them fill out release forms. When the anchor arrives on the scene the story is wrapped up in a tight little package and most of the time all the host has to do is shoot a few hours of film and then fly hope to begin prepping another story. The host gets the credit for the story and the TV viewing audience gets to identify with a single personality from one broadcast to another.

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