Scientology’s open-handed compliment

It’s got to be hard being the Church of Scientology. Germany doesn’t want you; Wikipedia has banned your computers; protesters are trying to separate Beck from your fold; guys with samurai swords are challenging your guards; and all that Xenu talk just won’t go away.

Add to that the relentless, and outstanding, investigative efforts of Jedi reporters at the St. Petersburg Times and, yeah, you’d be ticked too. That’s why the Church of Scientology has decided to strike back:

After decades of digging into the Church of Scientology, reporters and editors at the St. Petersburg Times are accustomed to being denounced by its leaders.

But they find it unsettling that three veteran journalists — a Pulitzer Prize winner, a former “60 Minutes” producer, and the former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors — are taking the church’s money to examine the paper’s conduct.

While the journalists have promised an independent review, the Times has refused to cooperate, saying their work will be used to fuel the church’s ongoing campaign against the Florida paper.

“I ultimately couldn’t take this request very seriously because it’s a study bought and paid for by the Church of Scientology,” says Executive Editor Neil Brown. “Candidly,” he adds, “I was surprised and disappointed that journalists who I understand to have an extensive background in investigative reporting would think it’s appropriate to ask me or our news organization to talk about that reporting while (a) it’s ongoing, and (b) while they’re being paid to ask these questions by the very subjects of our reporting.”

Steve Weinberg, the former IRE executive, who has taught at the University of Missouri’s journalism school for a quarter-century, says he was paid $5,000 to edit the study and “tried to make sure it’s a good piece of journalism criticism, just like I’ve written a gazillion times. . . . For me it’s kind of like editing a Columbia Journalism Review piece.”

Yeah, if that CJR piece was about Beth McLean’s “Is Enron Overpriced?” article for Fortune and had been paid for by the former, phony energy giant. This is, to say the least, troubling. Especially because Weinberg is such a respected investigative journalist and author of “The Reporter’s Handbook,” a Bible for investigative basics.

Generally speaking, I’d love to see CJR tell the story behind the St. Pete Times‘ recent stories about the church’s leader and, to give context, the paper’s long history of covering the organization, based in nearby Clearwater, Fla. But funding such media-criticism journalism with money from the chief critic who is the subject of the media outlet’s attention — that just doesn’t pass the smell test. Is the freelance journalism pool so dry that former Pulitzer-Prize winners need to take assignments like this to pay the bills?

That issue aside, this move raises other questions more central to the Godbeat. Questions of power and politics and the external pressures against a dwindling stable of reporters dedicated to the coverage of religion.

What should reporters do when religious organizations push back by prying into them? It’s a discomfiting reality that, given the right occasion, journalists and media outlets can become not the newsgatherers but the newsmakers. And when that happens I hate to see the hypocrisy that often follows. We journalists sure know how to dish it out, but it’s hard to take it. And so we get tighter-lipped than the very people we write about.

But what’s happening with the Church of Scientology and the St. Pete Times is different. Editor Neil Brown didn’t mind talking with The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz. They just don’t want to cooperate with the reporters acting as agents of the church (and, as mentioned, we can argue about whether they are independent agents).

Few religious organizations have the same combination of pop culture popularity, money and public scorn as the Church of Scientology, so this isn’t likely to become a trend. But other organizations followed this model, it could present some real problems for the Godbeat.

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  • xenu

    “It’s got to be hard being the Church of Scientology. Germany doesn’t want you; Wikipedia has banned your computers; protesters are trying to separate Beck from your fold; guys with samurai swords are challenging your guards; and all that Xenu talk just won’t go away.”

    Not in Hollywood–they just LOVE Scientology.

  • Dave

    While the whole Scientology counter-investigation makes me queasy I cannot find a principle saying this sort of thing is wrong. It’s private journalism, for good or ill, even if a religious organization is involved.

  • viv

    Let’s face it. Unbiased journalism doesn’t exist. There’s little journalism out there that isn’t paid for. It’s up to the reader to navigate the maze of information that exists.

  • bob dobbs

    “guys with samurai swords are challenging your guards”

    That “guy” was actuallly a Scientologist himself, despite
    Scientology trying to hide that fact.

  • Ira Rifkin

    “Is the freelance journalism pool so dry that former Pulitzer-Prize winners need to take assignments like this to pay the bills?”


    But that doesn’t excuse their lack of integrity in insisting that what they’re doing is standard investigative journalism and not just diversionary public relations mud-slinging.

    BTW: Why illustrate this post with a Tony Alamo headline? Surely a St. Pete Times Scientology headline could be found. Hope it wasn’t done out of concern that Scientology might come after GR.

  • Sandra

    So let’s examine your style of journalism:

    1) Headline — makes it obvious the subject is Scientology.

    2) Big color photo on re-printed St Petersburg Times under the headline, “Fugitive cult leader arrested in Tampa.”

    3) Unless readers follow the link at the bottom of the page, they never learn that the photo and headline (from 1991) are about a Christian evangelist — nothing to do with Scientology.

    That is a little misleading, gentlemen.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    The photo was not meant to be misleading. I hope the new one is better.

  • Jeannette

    If the Scientologists want their side of the story out there, they should do what the other cults do: buy their own paper: the Moonies have the Washington Times, the Legion of Christ has the National Catholic Register, Zenit, Circle Press and who-knows-what else. Didn’t they cover this at the last cult get-together?

  • Sandra

    Hello Brad. Thanks for changing the photo. Was it my request or Mr. Rifkin’s that inspired you?

    Yes, I think the new photo is better. Although, as I’m sure can imagine, I would prefer another caption.

    As I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, I am a Scientologist. Am I naive to think that your willingness to change the photograph means that you are at least willing to consider something about Scientology other than the sensational stereotypes?

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    It was your comment. Thank you for that.

    I hadn’t intended to mislead. That was just the first religion-related image I found when I did a Google search. Looking with more specificity yielded this image from that summer story that provoked this response.

  • Deana Holmes

    Sandra, since you’re a Scientologist…how do you feel about this website?

    I admit I have a bias, since I and fifty-plus other people are identified as “anti-religious extremists” on this website, which is wholly owned and operated by your church.

    Do you think it’s appropriate for a church to run a website whose primary intent is to tar the names of the people on it? And there’s absolutely no redress, legal or otherwise, because the Church of Scientology has lots of legal resources and deep pockets and I don’t. Seriously, I’d like to know, particularly since the pictures and documentation about myself on RFW are well over a decade old by this point.

    Scientology wants to be treated nicely by the press and others, but it also wants to be free to treat its “enemies” like dirt. There’s a double standard here, I think.

    And, to keep this totally on topic, I rather think these three vaunted “investigative journalists” didn’t even do the least bit of Googling to find out exactly what kind of organization was paying them for their skills.

    It’s things like this that make me glad that I didn’t graduate in 1982 with that Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. My extremely flaky decision looks downright prescient nearly three decades later in light of the, uh, journalistic wh*r*ng going on here. At least I don’t have to explain that a B.J. doesn’t mean the sexual act.

  • bethanon

    @xenu: Do you truly believe Hollywood loves Scientologists? I think you are wrong about that. Scientologists are tolerated in Hollywood if they make money. But being a Scientologist is not a plus by itself.

  • Grizzly Evens

    Sandra, why didn’t you just ask an 0T8 to as-is the photo. I mean, gee, even I could have asked the author to remove it and I barely finished the comm course.

    For Brad, thanks for the entheta.

  • bob dobbs

    That’s extrememly rich, a Scientologist talking about being
    “misleading”. The Scientology OSA Internet patrollers have claimed to be 30 year journos(journalist), in some of the comments sections about this story. These OSA handlers are nymshifting like crazy these days, a change of modus operandi, Terryeo, James Lightfield, and all the old handlers are nowhere to be seen.

  • Ira Rifkin

    BTW, has anyone seen any mention of whether the journalists involved – or are they now former journalists? – have any prior Scientology connections? Has the question been asked?

  • Christie

    Hollywood loves Scientologists? In reality, there are very few celebrity scientologists aside from Cruise and Travolta, mostly B or C level. Steve Martin’s parody “Bowfinger” poked fun at them with Eddie Murphy acting like a member. There are lots of people who refuse to pay for a movie starring one of them.

  • Bob M

    Scientologist enjoys a tax-exemption and special privileges from the IRS, privileges that go beyond those afforded to any other taxpayer. What happened to a separation of church and state.

    Scientology is a totalitarian political movement operating as a criminal racket, disguised as a cult, parading as a religion, hiding behind 266+ front groups.