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."
He says their agreement requires that the church publish the study in full, if it decides to make it public, but that "the contract says the church has the right to do nothing with it except put it in a drawer." That means Scientology leaders have an out if the recently completed study isn't to their liking.
Weinberg acknowledges that the "unusual situation" gave him pause, saying: "It certainly wouldn't be something just any reporter would do. My role was more limited, and I can certainly use the money these days."
Church spokesman Tommy Davis says that he recently received the approximately 20-page study and that it will not necessarily be made public. It was commissioned, he says, because "we wanted to get an outside view" of the situation. Davis, who would not disclose how much the reporters were paid, calls the report highly critical of the Times stories on the church.
Asked about Brown's view that the study could not possibly be objective, Davis says: "It's easy for the St. Pete Times to pop off and say that, but oh, please. It's a normal thing. It's done all the time." He likened the effort to CBS hiring an outside panel to investigate Dan Rather's 2004 story on George W. Bush and the National Guard, which the network later retracted. That report was a self-examination, however, and was made public.
The reporters hired for the study are Russell Carollo, who won a 1998 Pulitzer for Dayton, Ohio's Daily News for a series on medical malpractice in the U.S. military, and Christopher Szechenyi, an Emmy-winning former television producer who has worked for the Boston Globe's Web site.
Asked about taking on the assignment, the two chose to respond in a joint statement Sunday. "We were hesitant," they said. "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. Every entity has the right to receive fair treatment in the press."
As for accepting payment from the church, they said: "We were as objective in doing this job as we were in pursuing all the other assignments we've done for news organizations during the past 25 years."
It's been three decades since the Times won a Pulitzer for its reporting on the church, based in nearby Clearwater. In the latest chapter of this long-running battle, the paper began reporting new allegations last summer, using on-the-record interviews with former high-ranking Scientology officials. The Times quoted the defectors as charging the church's leader, David Miscavige, with "routinely attacking his lieutenants" and saying that he once "out of nowhere slapped a manager," while also acknowledging that they participated in violent acts. The Times said that the church pursued former staff members and subjected them to "months of interrogation, humiliation and manual labor."
Davis says the paper "relied on sources that had not only been removed by the person they were attacking, but . . . admitted to having engaged in the same behavior they accused others of. These guys got removed for gross malfeasance." He and the church's lawyer told the paper that some staffers were beaten up, but that Miscavige never engaged in violence. The Times included excerpts of Davis's statements accusing the paper of "naked bias" against "the fastest-growing religion on earth."
During 25 hours of discussions with the Times reporters, Davis says, church officials offered a rare, exclusive interview with Miscavige -- who last spoke to the paper in 1998 -- but the paper launched its series on June 21, about two weeks before the proposed July 6 sit-down. Miscavige was busy preparing for an annual international event and attending church openings in Dallas, Nashville and Sweden, Davis says. "I think they handled it totally irresponsibly," he says.
Brown says that the Times first asked to talk to Miscavige on May 13 and that the church had sent lawyers to talk to the ex-officials being interviewed. "They were already confronting some of our sources. We felt we had given them plenty of time," Brown says.
The church's magazine, Freedom, has repeatedly assailed the Times, and other properties owned by its corporate parent, under the rubric "Merchants of Chaos." Freedom has noted that a cardiologist won a $10 million libel verdict against the paper last year over reporting on his transfer from a local hospital post; the paper is appealing.
Whether the journalists' report is released or not, Davis says the church plans more scrutiny of its media adversary -- which comes as no surprise to Brown. "I counted up something like six or seven journalists the church has hired to look into the St. Petersburg Times," Brown says. "I've just got two looking into the Church of Scientology."