Escape the tentacles of misinformation, seek the truth

At The Enterprise, like journalists everywhere, we have to decide each day what to cover and how to cover it. 

The decisions are constant and difficult. Not just because resources and time are limited. But because there is so much more we would like to do.

Our purpose is simple: Seek the truth and print it, says our long-time byword. Our mission is to find the truth, report it fairly, and provide a forum for the open exchange of ideas on issues important to our community.

We cover a part of Albany County often overlooked by other media. We examine and report on the town and village governments as well as the schools, not just because the taxes paid by our readers support them, but because they shape our communities.

We aim to empower our readers with the knowledge to shape their world.

We also run profiles — in our podcasts and in print — of  “other voices,” people who might otherwise not be heard. Each of them brings something to our community worth sharing, whether it’s a Muslim woman demolishing stereotypes about her religion or a man telling what it’s like to be locked in solitary confinement.

Every week, we get requests from people outside of our coverage area — outside of the Hilltowns or New Scotland or Guilderland or even outside of Albany County — wanting us to cover or uncover what is going on in their towns. As news deserts increase, we repeatedly, if regretfully, have to say no and stick to informing our own community.

More and more lately, we face choices brought on by the hype of social media and of talk radio. We have to decide if reporting on often false claims raised there will amplify the falsehoods or expose them.

Here are just two examples from the past week.

On March 6, the superintendent of the Guilderland Central School District, Marie Wiles, sent an email to “GCSD Families” saying, “You may have seen in the news recently that some school districts across New York State and the nation have received information regarding non-specific and generic threats, originating from out of the country. These messages have been identical and have not targeted specific school buildings. To date, these threats have not been deemed credible.”

In boldface type, her email stressed, “It is extremely important to note that the Guilderland Central School District has not received or been named in a threat.”

Wiles, however, wanted to assure families that the school staff was apprised of the “disturbing trend” and was working with law enforcement.

She concluded with advice that is worthwhile in any situation: “We encourage all GCSD students, staff and families, that if they see or hear something concerning, to say something, whether to a trusted adult, an administrator or the Guilderland Police Department.”

So should we file a news story about this? It would be easy to simply report that the superintendent sent the email and what she said.

Over the years, we have always appreciated Dr. Wiles answering our questions, even on tough issues, just as we appreciate her emails keeping the community informed.

We decided, though, not to write a story since there was no local threat. We didn’t want to heighten the fear already swirling on social-media platforms. We had no truth to add.

The next day, March 7, we were copied on an email from a Guilderland resident who had already raised his concerns on at least one social-media platform that we had seen.

“I heard on a couple radio stations claiming that the Guilderland Library has some type of weird exhibit that encourages devil worship,” he wrote to the director of the Guilderland Public Library, Timothy Wiles, who coincidentally is the husband of the school superintendent.

The questioner, copying the Enterprise editor on the email, also wrote, “Recently, The Enterprise represented Italian American community as having proclivity for cutting off the hands of certain indigenous people in the Caribbean? Perhaps the Altamont Enterprise can provide some information about what is going on at the library to clear things up?”

The writer had provided a perfect example of how easy it is to misconstrue. We had written a story about the Guilderland School Board’s decision to call the federal holiday that falls on Oct. 9 this year solely by the name Indigenous Peoples’ Day, rather than also including the designation of Columbus Day on the school calendar.

We illustrated the story with a period etching depicting Christopher Columbus’s soldiers chopping the hands off of Arawak Indians who failed to meet the mining quota he had set. This seemed to us an apt, if brutal, illustration since one of the major reasons board members gave for eliminating his name from the school calendar was, they said, that Columbus was guilty of genocide.

The Enterprise had actually made the case on this page for keeping both designations for the day, hoping it would give students a more complex and accurate view of history.

Timothy Wiles had a direct answer to the radio hype about a library exhibit encouraging devil worship: “No exhibits here.”

Rather, he said, the library has a collection bin in its lobby until April 22 where patrons who want can donate menstrual supplies for people in poverty who need them. He listed a slew of drives — from Toys for Tots to Cellphones for Soldiers — that the library has, in the same way, been home to.

“I know of no policy at the library which precludes our participation in charitable drives sponsored by religious organizations or community nonprofits,” said Wiles.

The current drive is in conjunction with The Food Pantries of the Capital District, apparently “working with a group to promote this drive which is a registered religious group called The Satanic Temple,” Wiles said.

So, there is the seed that led to the misunderstanding. Just as we explained that The Enterprise wasn’t representing the Italian-American community as having a proclivity for cutting off the hands of indigenous people, we need to seek the truth here and also understand the larger context.

In its own words, “The mission of The Satanic Temple is to encourage benevolence and empathy, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense, oppose injustice, and undertake noble pursuits.”

It further states, “We have publicly confronted hate groups, fought for the abolition of corporal punishment in public schools, applied for equal representation when religious installations are placed on public property, provided religious exemption and legal protection against laws that unscientifically restrict women's reproductive autonomy, exposed harmful pseudo-scientific practitioners in mental health care, organized clubs alongside other religious after-school clubs in schools besieged by proselytizing organizations, and engaged in other advocacy in accordance with our tenets.”

TST literature says the group is non-theistic and does not believe in supernatural forces. “The Satanist should actively work to hone critical thinking,” it says, “and exercise reasonable inquiry in all things. Our beliefs must be malleable to the best current scientific understandings of the material world — never the reverse.”

The literature further states, “By asserting their religion’s rights and privileges where religious agendas have been successful in imposing themselves upon public affairs, Satanists can serve as a poignant reminder that such privileges are for everyone.”

So, for example, in 2021, according to a story reported by Nate Raymond for Reuters, The Satanic Temple asked to fly its flag over Boston City Hall after the United States Supreme Court ruled that the city violated a Christian group’s constitutional free speech rights by refusing to raise a flag bearing the image of a cross.

In 2015, two years after the organization was founded, Mark Oppenheimer wrote for The New York Times that Lucien Greaves and Malcolm Jarry, pseudonyms for the two co-founders, had “become a sharp thorn in the brow of conservative Christianity.”

Jarry, a filmmaker, musician, and academic, who was raised by irreligious Jews, told The Times he does not believe in Satan, but “imagined the potential effectiveness of a Satanic organization.”

“The first conception was in response to George W. Bush’s creation of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. I thought, ‘There should be some kind of counter,’ ” Jarry told The Times.

So he started a faith-based organization that met all the Bush administration’s criteria for receiving funds, but was repugnant to them.

Greaves described himself as an “atheistic Satanist,” saying satanism to him represents the solidarity of outsiders, those judged and excluded by the mainstream.

“I genuinely feel this is every bit a religion — this cultural identity, this narrative that contextualizes your life, your works, your goals. And you have these deeply held beliefs, that if they are violated, it compromises your very self,” he told The Times.

So these two founders of The Satanic Temple look to be turning back on Christian conservatives the very tropes the conservatives are flaming.

Panic over Satan has been inflamed recently by followers of QAnon and Republican influencers.

“While the current obsession with Satan was boosted in part by the QAnon community, partisan media and conservative politicians have been instrumental in spreading newfound fears over the so-called ritualistic abuse of children that the devil supposedly inspires, sometimes weaving the allegations together with other culture war issues such as LGBTQ rights,” reports Brandy Zadrozny for NBC News. “Those fears are powering fresh accusations of ritual abuse online, which are amplified on social media and by partisan media, and can mobilize mobs to seek vigilante justice.”

Zadrozny continues, “Witch hunts have traditionally been associated with courts — even the kangaroo kind — but today, the accused can be branded satanist pedophiles at the speed of the internet. Online accusers can bypass police, therapists and the traditional media and out their alleged abusers straight to audiences of millions.”

That gives the editor of even a very small newspaper like The Enterprise pause.

So we wrote this editorial about the collection bin at our public library.

We want our readers to understand the library is doing nothing wrong in collecting menstrual supplies for women who need them. In fact, we think it’s a worthwhile cause because the need is often ignored and the topic of menstruation, while an essential fact of life, is often taboo.

We lauded Guilderland Councilwoman Amanda Beedle earlier for starting The Caring Closet to collect personal hygiene supplies for people who need them.

And we admire the work of The Food Pantries of the Capital District, too. Last week, we wrote a front-page story about how the end of the emergency allotments for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, formerly as food stamps, has put pressure on local food pantries.

We used figures from The Food Pantries of the Capital District — that average SNAP benefits have fallen to a meager $6 a person a day — and we quoted the organization’s director, Natasha Pernicka, saying that the federal cutback “comes at the worst possible time for our community, and our food pantry system.”

Capital Region food pantries are experiencing all-time high service levels, she noted, and inflation has made it more costly to stock the shelves. So the need for a bin like the one in our library’s lobby is real.

We urge our readers to contribute what they can.

But more importantly, we urge all citizens to rely on reputable news sources for information. We believe the sources we’ve quoted here — Reuters, The New York Times, NBC — are reliable.

The Dominion Voting Systems defamation suit against the Fox News Network has revealed documents showing that those allegedly reporting the news had knowingly lied that Donald Trump won the 2020 election because they were afraid they would lose their viewers if they told the truth.

Democracy hangs in the balance. Each of us needs to read across platforms and aggressively seek the truth. The devil is in the details.

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