by Christopher Hodapp
The Most Worshipful Grand Master of Pennsylvania, Jeffrey M. Wonderling, has posted a message on Facebook following the airing of the Fox Nation streaming network's program, Freemasons: A Society of Secrets with Tom Shillue. The show premiered this week, featuring interviews with Grand Master Wonderling, Pennsylvania Mason Salmon Sheikh, and Scottish Rite SJ's Grand Archivist, Arturo De Hoyos.
(NOTE: Many Masons have been commenting online without actually having seen the whole program, and several have seen only a 2- or 5-minute promo for it that's laden with all the conspiratorial comments they could manage to squeeze in. The complete 25-minute show can ONLY be seen with a subscription to FoxNation.)
It's enormously frustrating to sit and talk on camera for an hour or more with an interviewer, only to have a total of two or three minutes appear in the show – if that. From the tenor of his note below, it would appear that this was the GM's first experience with a media interview, and he was less than enthused with the result:
Foxnation is airing a piece on Freemasonry. I was interviewed at the Masonic Temple in Philadelphia in June and the 25 minute piece was released yesterday. I understand it was on Fox News nationally this morning. The piece Tom Sillhue and their crew put together is the same old, same old, talking about the “conspiracy theories”, “new world order” and “cultism”. My friends, if were (sic) any of the above were true and we were in control, the World would mirror our integrity and values, and be a much better place. Tom didn’t mention that we kneel before GOD and stand for the flag. He didn’t mention that you must be able to be trusted with our wives, sisters, daughters, mothers, and wallets to gain admission into our organization. He didn’t mention the 2 million dollars PER DAY we contribute various charities in the USA that in no way benefits our organization. He didn’t mention that you must have a servant’s heart to gain admission.
Can you guess why?
BECAUSE THE TRUTH DOESN’T SELL SOAP.
It may also be important to note that a member of the production crew who saw the 90% of the interview you didn’t see asked for direction on petitioning a Long Island NY Lodge.
After having been in more than a few of these types of programs over the last two decades or so, I sympathize with the Grand Master.
Permit me an illustrative anecdote. The very first History Channel show I was in was about the so-called 'secrets of the founding fathers.' At one point, the offscreen interviewer asked me an offhanded question about the history of England's infamous Hellfire Club in the 1700s, a topic I was totally unprepared to discuss at the time. He wanted to know if I knew anything about Ben Franklin being a member, but I really didn't. And I told him so.
"Wow, the Hellfire Club. I actually don't know that much detail about them, apart from the basics. You know, Sir Francis Dashwood and his buddies, dressing up like monks, getting blasted on weekends, and running a creepy sex club down in some cave under his mansion..."
And that was the end of it.
When the show aired six months later, the Hellfire Club part of the show began with creepy lettering, creepy photos, creepy music, and a creepy announcer giving creepy narration. Suddenly out of nowhere, they cut to a shot of me saying just three words:
"Creepy sex club."
I wasn't entirely surprised, because I'd been a film editor for much of my adult life. I even try very hard with these interviews to talk in short, complete sentences instead of the usual pause-filled, comma-laden, run-on sentences that normally characterize my conversations. (Rambling answers are deadly in video interviews.) But even that didn't protect me from the editor.
Creepy sex club? Three words? Seriously?
Unfortunately, the reaction of lots of Masons online today immediately took on the usual reflexive partisan venom that characterizes so much of anti-social media conversations these days on Twitbook, Facegram and Instatwit: "Whaddya expect from Fox News? Only an idiot would talk to those clowns! They're in cahoots with the far-right conspiracy mongers!" Etcetera, etcetera, et.al. They hate the messenger, so there's no reason to actually watch it, because it must be trash.
Rest assured: History, AHC, Discovery, PBS, NPR, CNN, MSNBC – every one of them has done the very same thing. And the print world is no better. The NY Times and the Wall Street Journal have reduced hour-long interviews with me to a single sentence in superficial Masonic stories (and I promise, we're not special). By the way, just to answer a point that several brethren have tried to bring up, no news organization is ever likely to let you see the final edit of a program before it airs, and NO ONE is going to let you have final approval of their edit.
Admittedly, one possible lapse in judgement was in not being familiar with the interviewer's past work – Tom Shillue thinks he's a laugh riot, so all of his interviews have an air of sarcasm to them, not serious curiosity or even a desire to inform. It's kind of like watching a bad Catskills comic giggle while telling his own jokes because he knows the punch lines and just can't contain himself.
But in fairness to the program itself, the Grand Master actually did get his $2 million a day figure into the show, and he is being much too hard on himself. Overall, the show did no harm, the three brethren onscreen were perfectly fine spokesmen for the fraternity. Brother Sheikh talking about being a Muslim Mason was ultimately an effective shorthand for explaining our religious diversity in a positive way. Art proved that a Catholic rosary wouldn't burst into flames if a Mason held it in his hand. And Tim Shillue clearly demonstrated why he can't get a better gig than an occasional, obscure Fox Nation assignment that few will actually watch.
There are lots of Masons who criticize brethren who appear in TV and print interviews, saying the world was a better place back in the days when Masons shut the hell up in public and kept the whole fraternity mysterious. But the reason why Masons like Art, Brent Morris, Akram Elias, myself and others agree to be on these programs is because if we don't, the producers will find someone else who may not be as enthusiastic or truthful about the fraternity. The world has enough disgruntled, and downright angry, former Masons with a bone to pick against their former brethren, or who nurse a desire to present us in the worst possible light. Notorious conspiracy peddler Alex Jones has spent two decades making up absurdities about Freemasonry, and he got plenty of air time for a long while dishing nonsense until producers finally figured out his lucrative motives. (You might have seen him several years back manage to get three cast members of Brad Meltzer's Decoded arrested on camera after sneaking them onto the property of the Bohemian Grove, then fleeing before cops could collar him.)
Dr. David Staples served as the CEO, Grand Secretary, and chief spokesman for the United Grand Lodge of England for several years, and he was quite forceful about demanding fair and honest coverage of the fraternity by the media, answering every critical story immediately, and doing his level best to take back control of the narrative. You might recall his '#Enough Is Enough' campaign in the light of a wave of anti-Masonic stories in the press.
The truth today is that we are now almost three generations away from when a typical man's father or grandfather was a Freemason. The combination of time, smaller and smaller families, fatherless households, the generational loss of respect for longstanding institutions, the plunging rates of believers in organized religious traditions, unstable adult careers, and the growing isolation of men working in an online environment with little or no personal contact – all of this and more has broken the traditional ways Freemasonry was historically passed from one generation to the next. We're not special - all voluntary associative organizations have taken a painful spear to the gut in a straight-line decline now for 60+ years. So when the media gives us a chance to beat on the coffin lid and let the world know who and what we are, we have got to seize that opportunity when we can.
So, kudos to the Brethren who appeared in the Fox Nation program for answering the call and presenting us in a positive light on camera. If it piques the interest of even a single man in every state enough to knock on the door of a lodge, it was a resounding success.