Anyone who has followed the history of new religious movements in the United States and elsewhere knows that, since the 1970s, the word "cult" is one four-letter word newspapers have often been loath to apply to controversial groups.
That wasn't the case before and after the 1978 Jonestown massacre, when newspapers saw cults under almost every rock.
But now, there's a great reticence at using this particular four-letter word in many news organizations. What, however, can a newspaper do when a group really and truly has the markings of a, well, cult, at the level of sociology and human behavior? Do you use the word or bury it?
For an answer, consider this front-page story from The New York Times, which reports on what can easily be considered a psycho-spiritual group, called NXIVM (pronounced neks-ee-um). In some cases, this organization literally leaves its mark on adherents, according to the story, headlined "Inside a Secretive Group Where Women Are Branded."
Read this longish excerpt to understand the scene being set:
ALBANY -- Last March, five women gathered in a home near here to enter a secret sisterhood they were told was created to empower women.
To gain admission, they were required to give their recruiter -- or “master,” as she was called -- naked photographs or other compromising material and were warned that such “collateral” might be publicly released if the group’s existence were disclosed.
The women, in their 30s and 40s, belonged to a self-help organization called Nxivm, which is based in Albany and has chapters across the country, Canada and Mexico.
Sarah Edmondson, one of the participants, said she had been told she would get a small tattoo as part of the initiation. But she was not prepared for what came next.
Each woman was told to undress and lie on a massage table, while three others restrained her legs and shoulders. According to one of them, their “master,” a top Nxivm official named Lauren Salzman, instructed them to say: “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor.”
A female doctor proceeded to use a cauterizing device to sear a two-inch-square symbol below each woman’s hip, a procedure that took 20 to 30 minutes. For hours, muffled screams and the smell of burning tissue filled the room.
Now, this excerpt contains the first 210 words of a 2,500-word story. That larger number is a huge total word count by today's newspaper standards. As readers of the entire piece will find, the story goes into agonizing detail about the secrecy and rituals of this group, not to mention the concerns of family members -- including "Dynasty" actress Catherine Oxenberg, whose daughter, India, was caught up in NXIVM -- over everything that goes on.
Read the whole story. And see if the description doesn't scream "cult."
So where do we find that designation? In the absolute last sentence of the piece, and uttered by the "branding" victim whose anecdote led things off:
Ms. Edmondson and other former followers of [NXIVM founder and leader Keith] Raniere said they were focusing on recovering.
“There is no playbook for leaving a cult,” she said.
(Actually, if author Steven Hassan, a former Unification Church member, is to be believed, his 2015 book "Combatting Cult Mind Control" is such a playbook. But I digress.)
Why didn't The New York Times call NXIVM a cult or consult an expert in such matters for background?
Well, to be fair, they didn't use the word in obituaries for Unification Church founder the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, rogue Hare Krishna leader Swami Bhaktipada, or Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. All three groups gained prominence in the 1970s and all three have been labeled "cults" by critics, either for doctrinal reasons, sociological reasons or both.
NXIVM seems more psychological than spiritual, but there were spiritual elements, it seems:
In March, Ms. Edmondson arrived for an initiation ceremony at Ms. Salzman’s home in Clifton Park, N.Y., a town about 20 miles north of Albany where Mr. Raniere and some followers live. After undressing, she was led to a candlelit ceremony, where she removed a blindfold and saw Ms. Salzman’s other slaves for the first time. The women were then driven to a nearby house, where the branding took place.
Other media have given more prominence to the "cult" claim. In 2012, the Albany Times-Union ran an investigative series, "Secrets of NXIVM," which used the word in a sub-headline, with the text going further:
At least one cult expert said Raniere directs one of the most extreme cults he has ever studied and has likened Raniere to David Koresh, who most Americans link with images of a burning cult compound packed with women and children. Raniere has denied that NXIVM is a cult.
Earlier, in 2003, Forbes magazine called NXIVM a "Cult of Personality," quoting billionaire Edgar Bronfman, Sr.'s assessment:
But some people see a darker and more manipulative side to Keith Raniere. Detractors say he runs a cult-like program aimed at breaking down his subjects psychologically, separating them from their families and inducting them into a bizarre world of messianic pretensions, idiosyncratic language and ritualistic practices. “I think it’s a cult,” says Bronfman. Though he once took a course and endorsed the program, he hasn’t talked to his daughters in months and has grown troubled over the long hours and emotional and financial investment they have been devoting to Raniere’s group. One daughter, Clare, 24, has lent the program $2 million, at 2.5% interest, the senior Bronfman says (she denies this).
In 2014, NXIVM sued some journalists -- including a Times-Union reporter -- over allegations the writers "hacked" into organizational computers to steal secret information. According to The Nation magazine, the suit cast a pall at the time. But in 2015 a judge tossed the lawsuit.
As I said, there's plenty of skittishness about using the word "cult" in news stories about religious or spiritual communities, but there are perhaps times when the label is deserved. Church historians, sociologists and others debate definitions of this term and much can be learned by paying attention to their discussions.
This might have been one of the times to use the word "cult" and then discuss it. If editors at The New York Times thought the word "cult" was suitable for what was very much the final quoted word in the story, then perhaps it could have been used -- and explained -- higher up.