The press vs. Scientology

After years of conflict, the church and the media seem to have reached a truce. Is it because Scientology has become less confrontational -- or because the press is scared?

Salon Magazine/June 30, 2005
By Joe Strupp

For anyone interested in the Church of Scientology, the May 6, 1991, issue of Time magazine remains a milestone in news coverage. For those who back the church, it ran an outrageously biased account that eventually led to a libel suit by the church -- later dismissed -- and prompted Scientology leaders to launch a counterspin that continues today.

But for many who have long questioned the church, founded by the late L. Ron Hubbard and embraced by a string of Hollywood stars, that article represents one of the genuinely aggressive reports on the organization. And their concern is that what subsequently happened to Time -- and to other publications that tried to peek behind the church's cheerful exterior -- explains why few investigative reports on the church have followed.

The Time cover story, written by Richard Behar and headlined "The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power," called the church "a hugely profitable global racket" and described its intimidation methods as "Mafia-like." The story was one of several by major news operations who took on the church with in-depth reports in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Los Angeles Times launched a series that focused on Hubbard's rise to power and the myths and distortions about his life -- including bogus military claims and a dysfunctional relationship with his son. The series also looked at church marketing techniques and high-pressure tactics against members; accounts of former Scientologists about life in the church, which included the micromanagement of everything from careers to the preparation of baby food; and its counterattacks against critics, including the press and the IRS.

But several of the news outlets paid for their curiosity, either (like Time) through costly lawsuits or, according to reporters, personal harassment. In the intervening decade, there's been a détente of sorts. What's less clear is why. Has the church simply been more open to journalists -- and less quick to take critical reporters to court? Or has the press simply shied away from potential court fights, especially at a time when many news outlets are cutting back on budgets and facing stronger competition in a growing media market?

It's tough to dispute how aggressive the church has been in the past. Behar has said he had 10 lawyers and half a dozen private detectives following him as he researched the story, asking friends about his health and tax history. Joel Sappell, who co-wrote the June 1990 multipart series in the Los Angeles Times, recalled similar counterattacks. "They had private detectives follow us and they were rummaging through my past," he recalls. "They have a real history of hardball and litigation."

In addition to the libel suit, the church countered the Time story with a 12-week ad campaign in USA Today that summer. "This consisted of daily full-page advertisements and two full-color supplements," says Ed Parkin, vice president of cultural affairs for the Church of Scientology. "It was so effective that we have heard from journalism professors that they have used it as a model in their university journalism classes."

And while the Los Angeles Times was never sued for the series, the church bought up many billboards and bus ads in the L.A. area to counter the paper's charges. "They even put a billboard at the end of my street, where I lived," Sappell says. Other news organizations examined the church on everything from its tax-exempt status -- which was granted in 1993 after a long fight with the IRS -- to allegations of pilfering the savings of unsuspecting members and to cases of suicide by followers. Allegations by former Scientologists of being held captive were common, along with coverage of the church's battles for recognition with government leaders in Germany and France.

Reporters have said the church fought back in other ways. In 1988, a St. Petersburg Times reporter accused the church of illegally obtaining his credit report, making obscene phone calls to his wife, and sending a private investigator after him. That followed revelations in the Boston Herald that one of its writers had been pursued by a private detective after a five-part series ran the same year.

"There was a lot of negative coverage, and they had a policy that if you write something about the church that is incorrect or libelous, they will take you to court," says J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, who has observed the church for years. "They are very persistent."

Scientology leaders also went after individuals and other groups seeking to expose their questionable doings, such as the Cult Awareness Network, which had targeted the church with public warnings for years and went bankrupt in 1996. It had been the subject of many suits from the church. (The CAN site was promptly snapped up by a Scientologist, and it now links to pieces sympathetic to the church -- and disparaging to its critics.) The church maintains that reporters who truly made efforts to learn about Scientology have never been a problem. "Where reporters have taken the time to understand the Church and really get their questions answered, the public have been presented with an accurate view of Scientology," Parkin said in a statement to Salon about press coverage. "Where reporters have not taken the trouble to understand who we are and what we are about, the public has been presented with an inaccurate view of Scientology. When this happens, it does the public a disservice."

In recent years, however, the type of coverage the church has faced is decidedly different from the investigative reports of the early 1990s. Stories still refer skeptically to Scientology, but most of the coverage focuses primarily on celebrity members such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Any negative stories are usually limited to a specific church program under mild scrutiny, or to fans' concerns that a celebrity, such as Cruise fiancée Katie Holmes, has unwittingly joining the flock. "My sense in general is that America increasingly blends entertainment with news, to the neglect of important news items involving Scientology, " says Stephen Kent, a professor at the University of Alberta, who has written extensively on Scientology. But what caused this shift to more lightweight coverage? "The church has changed the way it conducts business," Sappell says. "They are trying to be much more mainstream."

Kent agrees, adding, "It may not want to continue its aggressive court action, [in order] to maintain its image as a [mainstream] religion." Parkin maintains the church was no less open to the press in the past. "We have always been willing to work with the press to help them understand us," Parkin responded when asked if the church had taken a different tone with reporters. "As the Church expands in the United States and around the globe, there is an increased interest in finding out about us. And we are responding to that interest." But, he adds, "We have always tried to resolve disputes short of litigation. That was not always possible in earlier years when we were forced to go to court to defend our rights and the rights of our parishioners to freely practice their religion. But as we have won more and more victories, we have had to resort to the courts much less. Nowadays it is a very rare occurrence."

For many reporters who have written recently about Scientology, cooperation couldn't be better. "They are very media friendly and there is nothing you can't ask them," says Ken Baker, West Coast executive editor for US Weekly. Benjamin Svetkey, who recently interviewed Tom Cruise for Entertainment Weekly and who has interviewed Travolta in the past about Scientology, agreed. "I have never had a problem," he said, adding that both men have been glad to speak about the church. "Nobody [from Scientology] has told me not to ask them about it. Nobody has been anything but friendly about it." He goes on to say, "It's kind of bizarre in some ways how they have been villainized."

And Nanette Asimov of the San Francisco Chronicle found similar cooperation when she did report critically on the church's Narconon program, a drug treatment effort that drew scrutiny when it was incorporated into San Francisco's public schools. Because of the attention brought by Asimov's series, the city banned the Scientology program from its schools; several other school districts in the state, including Los Angeles, followed. Nonetheless, Asimov says, "I found that they were always accessible and polite for the most part," adding, "and eager to answer questions. Hostility wasn't part of it."

At the same time, she described church officials as "unlike anyone else I have ever interviewed" while reporting her stories. "I got more phone calls from them prior to publication than I have from anyone. 'Nervous' doesn't begin to describe how they were." (In preparing this series, Salon writers and editors have fielded frequent calls -- and one office visit -- from church officials.)

Though the church says otherwise, its kinder and gentler press image seems to be deliberate, according to observers. Having settled its last major lawsuit in 2002 -- in which it had to pay former Scientologist Lawrence Wollersheim $8.6 million for mental abuse -- the church appears to be focused more on improving its publicity and less on defensive retaliation.

In addition to seemingly open access to inquiring reporters, the church has even invited journalists on tours of facilities that give an inside view nearly unthinkable for probing reporters five or 10 years ago. "I think they have been able to make the case that lots of the stuff against them is reduced to a matter of opinion," Melton said about the Scientology press coverage. Kent says the church's use of its celebrity members as ambassadors also softens its image. "They increasingly use their celebrities in a newsmaking fashion," he says. "They are public relations officers for Scientology, and part of their mission is to represent Scientology to the outside world and to other governments." But are news outlets simply afraid of unleashing their investigative attack dogs in case legal action and harassment will follow?

Alice Chasan, senior editor at, which monitors religious issues and coverage, said Scientology spokespeople seem to be in greater supply, and a greater number of comments from the church. At the same time, the in-depth coverage is minimal. "There is less of that kind of investigative reporting going on. Clearly, the spate of lawsuits has had a chilling effect," she says.

One recent example of aggressive reporting, however, comes from the Buffalo News, which ran a four-part series in late January and early February of this year.

The paper reported that the local Scientology church pressures some members to cut off contact from relatives critical of Scientology, uses "deceptive tactics" to recruit members, actively seeks acceptance by linking to local government leaders, and practices intimidation and harassment. The series also profiled former Scientologist Jeremy Perkins, a 28-year-old who stabbed his mother to death in a violent attack after he had -- at the church's urging -- stopped taking psychiatric medication.

Sommer knew going in about the church's litigious history. "I was aware of their past enough to be reluctant to delve in to that world, how intimidating they could be and anticipated the likelihood of being sued," he said. "But I was not going to let that get in the way." He said he received "veiled threats" from local Scientology leaders, but would not comment on them further.

He did say that he found few former Scientologists willing to speak on the record for fear of retaliation. He also noted several instances of church officials misleading him -- then later admitting their false statements when presented with evidence. In one case, officials initially said Perkins, the man who killed his mother, had not been a member, Sommer said. He also said church officials denied writing a speech for the mayor of Buffalo that was read when he declared "Church of Scientology Day" in the city in 2003. The mayor confirmed they had.

"They have a storyline," Sommer said. "They get frustrated if you don't go along with it." The reporter also noted that while the Scientologists were willing to provide him with all of the information for the stories he sought -- and gave him a tour of the local church and facilities -- they also tried to micromanage the reporting as much as possible. "They were in daily contact with the paper days before the series ran, with great concern over what would appear," Sommer recalled. "We met with them, but we wouldn't back off on the stories."

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