Beyond talking points at Scientology opening

The Denver Post‘s Eric Gorski hasn’t been exclusively on the Godbeat for a while. So I was quite happy to see him dip back into religion reporting for his piece on the Church of Scientology’s grand-opening celebration in Denver. We’re told that the celebration filled a city block downtown with balloons, confetti and cheering throngs.

Midway through the story we get this tidbit:

The media were not invited to the Denver grand opening, which included an appearance by Hubbard’s successor, David Miscavige. Church officials later provided excerpted remarks and video.

So with an event closed to the media, how does a good reporter cover the event? Gorski filed open-records requests to get a pretty interesting story. He found out that Denver Police Chief Robert White and City Councilman Albus Brooks gave remarks working from talking points provided by the church.

And so what could have been a bland repeat of a press release instead gets very interesting. Gorski explains that the church is aiming for a higher profile by renovating historic buildings and transforming them into “gleaming” new churches that serve the community:

As part of that effort, the church has successfully recruited community leaders to praise its drug-prevention programs, commitments to homeless initiatives and other outreach work.

We’re given good details about the building that was transformed, including how much it cost to purchase and what church officials report about how its renovation was paid for. There are also good quotes from outside observers as well as church members.

Here’s how Gorski handles the membership issue:

Church spokeswoman Erin Banks said Denver-area Scientologists number 10,000, and the church puts global membership in the millions and growing. Scholars say the numbers are exaggerated, and a 2008 survey identified 25,000 U.S. Scientologists and a church in decline.

There’s some background on how the church started as well as later controversies.

But the most interesting part is what Gorski found out from the open records request:

“I have seen your fabulous programs, and I know that they are open to all citizens in our community,” White said.

Denver Police Capt. Jennifer Steck, who heads the department’s public-affairs bureau, said she wrote prepared remarks for the chief.

At the church’s request, Steck sent the speech to Banks, the church spokeswoman, for review. Banks replied with suggested additions to lengthen the speech, including more references to community respect and collaboration, according to e-mails obtained in a public-records request.

The “fabulous programs” line was among those added by church officials. All the church’s suggestions were accepted, Steck said.

The provision of talking points is put into context by the reporter, too. He interviews White and finds out that White was unaware of many of the criticisms of Scientology.

He tries to interview Brooks but is only able to do so via email. Other speakers from the event are interviewed for their thoughts, too. And more context:

Because Scientology seeks legitimacy as a mainstream religion, winning approval from prominent local leaders is important to church officials, said journalist Janet Reitman, author of the 2011 book “Inside Scientology.”

“Scientology has excellent PR skills, they know how to talk to officials and other opinion leaders, they make huge overtures to win people of local and national importance to their side, and they are very, very smooth,” Reitman said.

Anyway, I just had to highlight some good reporting on a notoriously difficult to cover religious group.

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  • David Rupert

    I am from Denver and read this story in the Post. I was surprised at the candidness of the piece. Normally, reporters stay away from Scientology because of their scads of lawyers ready to harrass anyone who opposes the church.

    Local radio talk shows took up this issue too, and wondered if the police chief would have been so glad-handing of a new evangelical or catholic church. And letting Scientologists write your comments? Not smart.

    This story was front page and then jumped to the middle section. So, kudos to the Post for at least talking about religion, even though in this case (rightly so) it was negative

  • Mike Hickerson

    Agreed: a good story on a difficult subject. One thing that seemed to be missing: specifics about Scientology’s “fabulous programs” in Denver. The lack of specificity (# of people served, stories from those helped, etc.) jumped out at me, because it makes me wonder whether the church’s programs are real or merely aspirational. Rev. Kelly mentions working with Scientology volunteers 20 years ago – anything more recent?

    Also, kudos to Gorski and the Denver Post for providing links to the actual documents cited in the article. I wish more media would do that when running stories online.

  • Gregg Nullquest

    I wish they had revealed what Scientology’s program for the homeless has been in Denver.

    The problem with Scientology and politicians, police and even some activists (like in mental health), is that the cult knows how to manipulate and use people, by faking support of, or in many cases donating $ to their cause. You can bet there was a donation given to the police association of Denver.

    These people (mayors, police, etc.) often don’t know squat about Scientology and are acting like virtual puppets in the hands of the master, vaguely based on thinking whatever Tom Cruise is into, can’t be all that bad, because it’s all about HELPING, right?

    It’s as simple as spending 10 minutes reading the Wiki on Scientology, but these important people can’t do that, or even enlist their PR people to check it out for them.

    I’m really glad the reporter in Denver exposed these officials for the clueless puppets they are, when it comes to America’s largest brainwashing cult.

  • Jerry

    Thanks for the report, Mollie. One of the best did another outstanding job in spite of the obstacles put in his way by Scientology.

  • Eric Gorski

    Thanks for the comments, folks. These grand opening events are happening all over the country. Anyone, reporter or otherwise, can file a public records request to see how Scientology courts public officials and how those officials respond. It will be worth watching whether the church changes its approach – or whether public officials take a different approach to the material provided to them.

    Wes Gentry, a former intern at the Post (and a theology student) hit the nail on the head with a comment on Twitter: this is a window into the church’s culture of control.

    Others have asked me about what specifically the church is doing on homelessness. At this point, as far as I can tell, nothing specifically. But the issue didn’t appear out of nowhere: how to deal with homelessness has been a big news story in Denver this year. The city banned overnight camping on sidewalks, which sparked a debate. It’s been a major political and policy issue for the police – and for Councilman Albus Brooks. We’ll see if anything grows from it.