Rag vs. rag

Skeptic magazine should take a cue from its splashier, diametric opposite, Fate. Plus: Jerry Stahl on heroin -- again; yet another writer "discovers" eBay.

By Jenn Shreve
Published August 27, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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While the '90s have been remarked upon by many as the Golden Age of Cynicism, I believe the Decade of Credulity is a far more apt characterization. Sure, we of the recently college-educated set can bring a (pick only one) feminist/gay/patriarchal/protozoan perspective to everything from a Pepsi commercial to a mid-century Eames chair, but we also spent the better half of our 20s watching the "X-Files." If our country's media intake is any indicator, Mulder's mantra "I want to believe" has far greater implications than any of us imagined.

Horoscopes, psychics and chat rooms dedicated to "irrefutable" evidence of alien life on planet Earth: These thrive while educational programming falters. Why? Well, people do want to believe. Call me a cynic, but it's also about packaging. It's a lesson easily illustrated by two polar opposite publications. The first is Skeptic Magazine, "Devoted to the Investigation of Extraordinary Claims & Revolutionary Ideas & the Promotion of Science & Critical Thinking." Then there's Fate, "True Reports of the Strange & Unknown."

Skeptic, Vol 7 No. 1 Fate, April 1999
Cover illustration Two puffy-faced scientists with creepy facial expressions Hot vampire chick with blood-stained lips
Overall look Page after page of text printed on thick, matte paper. Articles followed by hard to read footnotes. A few grainy photos. Big, crazy fonts. Glossy pages. Color photos of movie stars, people with fangs, gigantic bugs and charred blimps.
Cover story Fraud and Science: Reflections on the Baltimore Case" "ReVamped: Vampires are a hot topic today ... But what's life really like behind the media masquerade?"
Conspiracy scoop PR firms creating faux nonprofits Bar codes! Harmful disrupters of electromagnetic fields!
Bigfoot article The "Patterson film" of Bigfoot finally exposed as a hoax How to tell a real Bigfoot from "Anthropoid Pseudo-Sasquatch Entities"
Personality profile Carol Tarvis, social scientist and feminist author: "I think the rise of spiritual movements today reflects not just a hunger for God, but for the kind of community connection that religion has traditionally provided." Jing, psychic parrot: "I like to talk to other birds because they understand me as a bird. I also like to talk to cats."

Let's face it, Skeptic is the quality rag of the two, despite a troubling number of copy-editing errors. And despite the bland design and overly academic headlines, it's an engrossing read. But which one is going to jump out at you from the patchwork of glossies at your local bookstore? Fate, of course. I am not suggesting they dress up Richard Dawkins in a boa and leather chaps for an eye-popping centerfold, but Gillian Anderson does play a skeptic on TV. Why not add a little star wattage to the editorial lineup? Some would argue such a move would cheapen Skeptic's high-falutin' purpose and standards. But if its contributors are truly as fed up with the "credulists" as they claim, then some "ReVamping" is in order.

San Francisco Bay Guardian, Aug. 25-31

"Fresh Squeeze" by Roni Krouzman


In a fine example of how skeptical inquiry can lead to good reporting, Roni Krouzman takes on the myth that organic-farm workers are treated and paid better than their pesticide-handling counterparts. Written in a down-to-earth tone, as opposed to Skeptic's clunky, academic prose, it's also accessible to average consumers.

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New Times Los Angeles, Aug. 26-Sept. 1


"Prince of Darkness" by Scott Timberg

This well-reported, colorful profile of Adam Parfrey, publisher of the controversial, independent press Feral House, illustrates an interesting problem in the whole skeptic-vs.-credulist debate: Those who are most interested in the paranormal often have outlandish takes on reality as well. Parfrey publishes books like "Apocalypse Culture" and the writings of the late Satanic Church founder Anton LaVey. As millennial madness heads toward its climax, this timely piece studies one individual whose work helps fuel it.


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Willamette Week, Aug. 25-31

"Closing for Christ" by Philip Dawdy

If anyone's mastered Marshall McLuhan's concept that the medium is the message, it's the born-again Christians. Skeptics and Catholics, take note: In order to spread the Gospel of salvation, straight living, resurrection, eternal life, miracles and other irrational Biblical fun, they've dressed their message up in the language of the times: Rock 'n' roll, baby. Rock 'n' roll! It's not what you say that matters; it's how you say it. Philip Dawdy skeptically reports on the media mechanics behind a recent 80,000-person revival in Portland.


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"Horseplay" by Jerry Stahl

First the book "Permanent Midnight." Then the movie, which was about as interesting as my toenail. Now this exciting piece, perhaps more aptly titled, "I fucked girls while on smack." I've been told that Jerry Stahl is a talented writer, but until he shows he's capable of more than writing about or while on heroin, I'm not going to believe it.


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The Stranger, Aug. 26-Sept. 1

"You're Under Arrest!" by Jim Anderson

This hilarious, tongue-in-cheek essay explores the legality and practicality of attempting a citizen's arrest. While this act is legal, it's not highly recommended. Jim Anderson throws in a list of people who should be apprehended immediately, which includes: "Adriene Sere, editor of the zine Said It ('a pro-equality, pro-multiplicity, pro-abundance, pro-responsibility, pro-animal, pro-justice, pro-love and laughter feminist publication') ... The workers at Noah's Bagels who yell 'hot bagels!!!' when a new batch comes out of the oven ... Street kids with puppies."


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Village Voice, Aug. 25-31

"Casualties of war" by Mark Schoofs

Although polio has been eradicated from much of the Earth's population, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is experiencing devastating outbreaks. Mark Schoofs covers an under-reported story on how the civil war there kept vaccines from reaching children -- innocent victims of an adult conflict.


"Love and Loss Online" by Lynn Yaeger

EBay has democratized auctions so even starving journalists can afford to bid. That's all well and good. I'm particularly thankful to eBay for the gleaming copy of the horror movie of my youth "Watcher in the Woods," recently won by my amazing little brother. Unfortunately, every time a writer discovers eBay, we have to read another stupid article about how they never did this before, and wasn't it all so great and awful and maddeningly tense? Earth to journalists: Your adventures on eBay are nothing new to the population at large. In fact, if you're just discovering eBay now, you are so behind the curve that it's perhaps best not to share your discovery with the rest of the world.

Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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