In February 2015, [Xpress] published — without even a hint of incredulity — a story on “medical intuitives” who claimed literal X-ray vision [“Medical Intuitives: Seeing the Way to Better Health,” Feb. 11 ]. I submitted a letter calling this out as obvious garbage and criticizing Mountain Xpress for failing to exercise even the most minimal degree of journalistic skepticism. In response, you defended your story: “[W]e are not in a position to evaluate the efficacy of any healing modalities.” You claimed your job was merely “letting readers know what practitioners are doing and saying as part of covering the entire wellness scene in Asheville.” Many online comments excoriated you for that lame justification and pleaded with you to abjure such shoddy journalism in the future.
This was all repeated the next month with a story on “stone healing” [“Stone Medicine: Healing Power From the Earth,” Feb. 18, 2015, Xpress], a scathing letter by Jim Willmot [“‘Stone Medicine’ in Recent Article Isn’t Backed Up With Science,” Letters, March 4, 2015, Xpress] and another outrageous, self-serving defense from you: “As journalists, our job is to inform readers about what healing modalities are being practiced locally, not to evaluate them.”
Finally, after yet another similarly themed blast from reader Mark Bloom [“‘Xpress’ Should Practice Responsible Journalism,” March 18, 2015, Xpress], you appeared to relent: “[W]e can do better in terms of providing multiple perspectives and being more skeptical in our approach … [O]ur reporters can serve readers better by probing and challenging the local practitioner’s or spokesperson’s statements. In response to the feedback we’ve received, we have incorporated these goals into our process.”
Yet here we are one year later, and Mountain Xpress is at it again. The March 2 issue contains a story about “Vedic astrologers,” who, for a fee, will chart the planets at the time of your birth, and, armed with that information, tell you to do things like wear certain gemstones on certain fingers, or utter mantras of “Sanskrit words for each planet” [“Written in the Stars: Local Vedic Astrologers Decipher Map for Healing Inner Cosmos”] This, they assert, will bring one back “into balance with the planetary phenomena and energies. … The remedial measures could be thought of as a doctor’s prescription for making planets happy” — whatever the hell that could possibly mean. …
I read the story carefully, searching for even the faintest hint of journalistic skepticism, for any contrary voice that might explain what complete gibberish and nonsense this is. I found none.
Suppose somebody sets up a shop claiming to be able to see your future in a crystal ball or a deck of tarot cards, and, for a fee, to perform an incantation that will prevent the predicted terrible things from happening. This kind of business is functionally indistinguishable from the people you wrote about this week. Both are making similar types of claims. Both claim legitimacy from being “ancient” arts. Both charge money for it. And both utterly lack any demonstrable connection to reality.
I ask this seriously, and in earnest hopes for a reply: Would you report on this hypothetical new business with the same credulity and lack of critical questioning that characterized your story on “Vedic astrologers”? If not, why not? What objective feature distinguishes the two, such that you deem one, but not the other, worthy of being treated as a serious, worthwhile commercial service that your readers should know about?
You promised a year ago to “do better in terms of being more skeptical in our approach” and to “serve readers better by probing and challenging the local practitioner’s or spokesperson’s statements.” I was encouraged by that response. Now, however, I see that it was complete bullsh*t — just like the ridiculous claims you continue to publish uncritically. Nothing has changed.
Shame on you.
— Robert J. Woolley
Editor’s response: We don’t believe we erred in covering Vedic astrology in the March 2 issue. The Wellness section is intentionally wide-ranging, covering everything from mainstream to fringe therapies, including both scientific and spiritual approaches. Some modalities are evidence-based, and some are not — especially the spiritual ones. Vedic astrology was described in this article as “a spiritual art,” and the practitioners denied that they were engaging in medical diagnosis. While part of our job is to remain skeptical, it may not be necessary to publish a detailed account of the controversies that can easily be read elsewhere. In the case of astrology, we believe our readers have formed their own views and don’t need us to warn them that it is considered by many to be baseless. We also believe that many of our readers appreciate learning about the variety of approaches to wellness available in the greater Asheville area — some of which are controversial and/or not accepted by mainstream science — and readers seem capable of deciding for themselves what to think about them.