Opinion Brief

Scientology's new media war

Under fire, the Church of Scientology has hired journalists to "investigate" one of its most aggressive critics: A Florida newspaper

The media has long accused the Church of Scientology of everything from brainwashing to bribery — investing in heavily reported exposés that attempt to document the church's mysterious hold over its members (including high-profile zealots such as Tom Cruise and Kirstie Alley). (Watch a scathing report about Scientology's influence.) But, recently, the church decided to fight back by hiring top reporters to carry out an "independent" investigation against the St. Petersburg Times (which has earned a Pulitzer Prize for its Scientology reporting).

Why is the church taking this unprecedented step?
It believes the Florida newspaper's extensive coverage of the church's operations has been biased and distorted. "We wanted to get an outside view," says Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis.

So it hired its own reporters?
Yes, and not just any reporters. The church's high-powered investigative team includes: Russell Carollo, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist; Christopher Szechenyi, a former "60 Minutes" producer; and Steve Weinberg, a former IRE executive and a tutor at the University of Missouri's journalism school.

Are these journalists really independent?
They claim to be. Szechenyi and Carollo have released a statement saying they've been given "total editorial independence." All three say they're not Scientologists.

Why would respected journalists take on this assignment?
"Every entity has the right to receive fair treatment in the press," say Szechenyi and Carollo. Weinberg's rationale is less high-minded: "I can certainly use the money these days."

How much are they getting paid?
Weinberg says he was paid $5,000 for his "limited role," but Szechenyi and Carollo have not named a sum. The church also refused to disclose their fees.

How have other journalists reacted to the hirings?
Dismissively. Tina Dupuy at Mediabistro calls the three reporters "guns for hire." Mike Hoyt at the Columbia Journalism Review says no right-minded journalist would take payment from an entity "notorious for bringing terrible pressure on any journalist who dares to examine it."

How has the St. Petersburg Times reacted?

By refusing to cooperate with the investigation. Executive editor Neil Brown said he did not take interview requests "seriously," because Scientology has "bought and paid for" this report to "fuel" its campaign against the paper.

How exactly did the St. Petersburg Times provoke the church?
Citing "former high-ranking Scientology officials" as sources, the newspaper recently published a series of articles reporting that church leader David Miscavige is a violent bully. According to the newspaper, the church has subjected former members to "months of interrogation, humiliation, and manual labor."

How did the church originally respond to those charges?
Davis accused the paper of "naked bias," claiming that the "sources" the Times is quoting are individuals who were thrown out of the church for "gross malfeasance."

Will the public ever see the report from the church's investigative team?
The church says the report will "not necessarily be made public." Its contract with the journalists apparently says that it must be published in full, or not at all.

Is this the first time Scientology has targeted the newspaper?
No. Its own magazine, "Freedom," has "repeatedly assailed" the St. Petersburg Times, labeling its editors "merchants of chaos," and noting libel cases filed against the paper.


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