Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post reported this week that three experienced and reputable journalists recently were paid by the Church of Scientology to examine a newspaper the Scientologists despise, the St. Petersburg Times.
The reporters in the project were Russell Carollo, who won a Pulitzer for investigative journalism at Dayton's Daily News in 1998, and Christopher Szechenyi, formerly a producer at 60 Minutes. The product's editor was Steve Weinberg, former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors and a longtime faculty member of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
Weinberg told Kurtz he was paid $5,000 for his work, which was "kind of like editing a Columbia Journalism Review piece." The project was an "unusual situation" and "certainly [not] something just any reporter would do." But "my role was more limited, and I can certainly use the money these days." He said the Scientologists can put the report "in a drawer" if they wish, but if they publish it they must publish it in full.
In a joint statement to Kurtz, Carollo and Szechenyi said they hesitated to take the job and "that's why we insisted on being paid in full before we started our work, total editorial independence and having someone with the reputation of Steve Weinberg involved."
So what we have here is the Scientologists hiring top journalists to bolster their counterattack against the journalists who have been plaguing them for decades. No surprise — the Times wasn't very happy with the situation and wouldn't cooperate with Carollo and Szechenyi. "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," Times executive editor Neil Brown told Kurtz.
Is there a whiff of a sense of betrayal in Brown's comment? Carollo and Szechenyi could hardly wait until the reporting was no longer ongoing — the Times won a Pulitzer in 1980 for a series of articles on how the Scientologists had set up shop in nearby Clearwater, Florida, its international headquarters, and it's been preoccupied by the church ever since. Last June the paper ran a series of three exceptionally long articles, Scientology: The Truth Rundown, a narrative — based on the recollections of two former top officers — of how "physical violence permeated Scientology's international management team."
Last month brought another lengthy expose — about the so-far futile efforts of a prominent former spokesman for the Scientologists to recover some $120,000 he'd prepaid for programs he would never take because he'd decided to leave the church.
As for who's paying whom to do what, would this be an issue if instead of journalists for hire we were discussing lawyers for hire? A team of top-flight attorneys who consider the Scientologists a wacko cult could represent them in court against equally distinguished practitioners who sing the Times's praises to a judge but wouldn't read the paper on a bet. That could happen and no questions would be raised about what's appropriate conduct and what isn't.
But journalists are touchier than lawyers. We tell our children we afflict the rich and powerful, not represent them. If the Church of Scientology is the plucky but outgunned underdog in its long war with the mighty Times, that's only in the war being fought in its imagination.
The Scientologists hardly needed Weinberg, Carollo, and Szechenyi in order to mount a defense against the Times. They're old hands at counterattacks. As Kurtz noted, their magazine Freedom "has repeatedly assailed" the Times. It just produced a "special report" that takes readers "inside the St. Petersburg Times." The front-page headline: "STEAL, BRIBE AND SPY."
The longest story in the package was written by Jim Lynch, yet another veteran journalist who took the Scientologists' shilling. When I wrote about Lynch last October he was dissecting the Sun-Times Media Group for me as he'd gotten to know it as editor and publisher of its Naperville Sun from February 2006 to June 2008. When the STMG let him go, he moved to Florida and looked for work.
Lynch's story in Freedom is headlined, "An Outsider's View of Scientology in Clearwater / What happens when an independent journalist takes an objective look at St. Petersburg Times coverage of the Church of Scientology?"
What happened is that Lynch disapproved of it. He called it "perhaps the most egregious and ethically challenged series of the year." He tells me, "You sort of doubt the veracity of sources when there's no corroboration. If a guy said he had the shit beaten out of him, why didn't he file a police report. Why didn't he file a lawsuit? Come on!"
The Times series has answers to those questions, but they are answers that hang on our ability to believe that some people so totally surrender their egos to wills stronger than their own that when their masters treat them like whipped dogs they convince themselves they have it coming. This is an easy premise to embrace if you're telling a terrific story that hangs on it, and it's just as easy to reject if you want to knock the story down.
Lynch wrote that "it defies logic" that the Times published its "Truth Rundown" series without waiting a few days longer for a promised interview with the head of the Church of Scientology, David Miscavige, to take place. The series described Miscavige as a mesmerizing bully and sadist. "What was the rush to print before Miscavige could be interviewed?" Lynch wondered. "And since he wasn't, could this be construed as a rush to judgment?"
It's a question "Truth Rundown" could have done a better job of anticipating. The series did say this: "On May 13, the Times asked to interview Miscavige, in person or by phone, and renewed the request repeatedly the past five weeks. Church officials said Miscavige's schedule would not permit an interview before July." So apparently the Times concluded that despite the promises it was getting the runaround.
Lynch, who lives in Boca Raton, Florida, spent two weeks in Clearwater reporting and writing the story in Freedom. He spent additional time working on a more complicated second piece — not yet published — about the Times's relationship with the not-for-profit Poynter Institute that owns it. Much of his first story consists of chats with local people who describe the Scientologists as solid citizens who are good for the community. "They're involved in a lot of programs and invest a lot of money," says a former county commissioner who became a Tampa developer. "I think they've made a positive impact." Says an unnamed police officer, "Nope, never had any issues with them."
But from the Times, and only from the Times, Lynch spotted "long ingrained hostility." (He says nobody there would talk to him either.)
Lynch didn't know anything about the other project until I sent him Howard Kurtz's story. "This was kept at arm's length," he says. "I can certainly use the money," Steve Weinberg had told Kurtz. "That's a quote I would not have used," says Lynch, and not only because he thinks it was a dumb thing to say. "I didn't necessarily do this for the money. I've always had an interest in religion and this gave me a good way to examine a religion I never had a chance to examine." However, Lynch also says that when he took the job he made it clear to the Scientologists he wouldn't stand for any proselytizing, and as long as they understood that he didn't care what they believed. "I told them, I said, 'Look, I happen to be a Catholic. My wife's Jewish. My views on religion are if people want to worship at Mayan temples, fine with me. You guys, albeit a nontraditional religion, are a religion under the auspices of the U.S. Constitution."
Lynch kept an eye on the Internet reaction to Kurtz's story, and it didn't surprise him. "I love the way the aggregators jumped on these guys, like they betrayed the nobility of journalism and it's like the end of the world. It's another instance of journalistic self-flagellation. I've never understood any industry that beats itself up like journalism does. The truth is, journalism is a for-profit enterprise like anything else."
As for that, he doesn't want to say what the Scientologists paid him. But he asks, "Just don't make me look like a shill for Scientology." And he adds, "Say hello to my pals at the Sun-Times. You can stick that in there too, all right."