The Los Angeles Times' piece on Instagram-loving witches lacks any critical edge

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Ever since the Los Angeles Times re-started its Column One feature in January, there’s been some really innovative journalism there, even though the material featured there always seems pretty one-sided.

So I was intrigued to see a recent piece on the “working witches of Los Angeles.” Kind of brings back memories of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, right?

How much would religion, I wondered, be part of this story?

Not so much.

Oh, there was a ton of content on New Age practices and shamanistic spirituality but it’s tough to categorize these folks. Are they Wiccans? Pagans? Goddess worshippers? Just because the reporter left no hints about their leanings doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

The Oracle of Los Angeles was feeling frazzled.

It was already 2 p.m. and she hadn’t had time to prepare lunch, much less wipe the ash from her altar. A tarot card client had just left her yellow Craftsman house in West Adams, evidenced by the smell of incense still lingering in the air. Within an hour, she was scheduled to meet with another client who was struggling to complete a PhD thesis.

In the meantime, she still had to prepare for her weekly podcast, create a purifying ceremony for a new business--and get her nails done for a reality TV appearance. Any downtime would be consumed with writing. The second draft of her memoir was due to her publisher in a week.

The Oracle, who also goes by Amanda Yates Garcia, is a former arts educator with a master of fine arts in writing, film and critical theory from California Institute of the Arts. For the past eight years she has made her living as a professional witch, performing “energetic healings,” “intuitive empowerment sessions” and the occasional exorcism, while also teaching workshops on the art of magic online and at her home, independent stores, and sites like the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Sadly, the story never unpacks what “the occasional exorcism” entails, as this witch doesn’t believe in either God or Satan.

The Oracle understands the value of marketing, so she also devotes several hours each week to outreach: writing newsletters, updating her website and sharing tips on social media on topics such as how to break a curse using the ”disruptive energy of a lunar eclipse.”

“If you think being a witch is just sitting around doing spells all the time, you think wrong,” she says. “Half my business is being on Instagram.”

The “oracle of Los Angeles”? Seriously? What is this: Delphi? On her website, “oracle,” is defined as a priest or priestess acting as a medium through whom the divine speaks

OK…she does go on to say in the next line that everyone can connect with that divine, so does that make everyone else an oracle?

And why doesn’t the reporter point out how this woman made herself infamous a year re her promise to cast spells on President Trump? She appeared on The Tucker Carlson show to explain her views, so it’s beyond odd to not at least mention it.

What do you think of when you hear the word “witch”? Pointy black hats? The Salem witch trials? The free-spirited members of the pagan religion Wicca?

Today’s working witches, whose prominence is growing thanks to social media, primarily see themselves as healers. They help clients who are struggling to cope with life’s hurdles — heartache, aging, misogyny, work stress — and who find that more culturally accepted remedies, such as therapy and meditation, aren’t enough.

They want to help you be your best possible self, or as the Oracle puts it, “My contribution is to … cultivate beauty and love in my clients and help them thrive.”

There’s no official list of job duties for witches, no state licensing board that notes educational or training requirements (which means clients proceed at their own risk). Services run the gamut, from herbal workshops to love spells to communing with spirit guides; some witches charge up to $200 an hour for their time.

We learn that interest in witches is growing, new books on them are out and Instagram is full of posts about them. It’s also a nice way to make money at $200 per 75-minute counseling session.

One of the witches interviewed talks about going into trances and communicating with spirit guides. Does the reporter recognize these are religious practices?

No. She’s too busy doing a fluff piece on women who have whole websites of them dressed in regalia that looks like a cross between a black lace get-up and an overdose of orange chiffon.

The story behind this article gets more interesting in an accompanying video in which longtime California news anchor Lisa McCree interviews features writer Deborah Netburn about her story.

“They are empowering women, which I feel like is really exciting,” the reporter said. “I personally feel the world needs witches right now. … I think people are just looking for something to believe in.”

When asked by McCree to define the word “witch,” considering its historic connection with Satanism, “they see themselves as healers and counselors and spiritual life coaches,” Netburn replied.

The two women agree that Christianity squelched witches because it wanted to put down “strong women,” even though Netburn’s own article admitted that ancient Romans and the Norse had huge problems with witches as well. Prohibitions against witches weren’t just in the Bible, they were also in the Code of Hammurabi, so blaming Christianity for witches’ historically bad PR is a cheap shot.

Then we see the reason for Netburn’s complete lack of distance from her topic: this sidebar , which tells of a personal crisis she had and how counseling sessions with witches helped her. Some newspapers wouldn’t have let Netburn within miles of covering a topic that she has so much personal investment in.

But the Times has let reporters do this type of thing in the past, as well.

I’m talking about Bill Lobdell’s amazing 2007 front page confession that told his journey from born-again Christian to atheist. It’s a compelling story and a situation that the nation’s religion reporters face all the time. The dirt and corruption on the religion beat are enough to drive anyone away from God.

Netburn’s and Lobdell’s stories tell of reporters who either forsake organized religion or seek help in the alternate universe of tarot cards, herbology and ‘magic,’ although not the sort of magic you’d find in a Harry Potter book.

The pattern is either no belief or outside-the-boundaries belief. Both are truly interesting. But where are the stories going in the other direction? Where are the stories about, say, someone who goes to a healing crusade and is actually healed? Or an atheist who becomes an (choose one) observant Muslim, Mormon or Methodist? Those stories are out there. Where are the reporters who do them?

I found one: Jaweed Kaleem, whose June 27 piece on Sikh truck drivers was also a Column One story. It’s more of a business piece about one religious group taking over the long haul trucking industry, but it does tell of how a Sikh driver became more devout by taking up trucking. Kaleem, who used to be Huffington Post’s top religion reporter, covers race and justice issues for the Times.

I’d like more, more on people whose faith journey goes from non-belief to belief. They’ve got to be out there. But are there reporters on the Times’ staff who have contacts within believing communities? Seeing so few stories along those lines, I have to assume there are not.

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