Leaders of the Church of Scientology have long had the reputation of being uncooperative with the media. Still, we were surprised at their tenaciousness in trying to control our stories.
Whenever reporters delve into a topic that is even the least bit controversial, we take extra care in making sure we’ve pulled together as balanced a report as possible.
Such was the case on a package of stories published last Sunday on the Church of Scientology, one of the most unusual new religious movements. But never in our years of experience have we faced so much pressure, resistance and manipulation from an organization as we prepared our reports.
Leaders of the Church of Scientology, the organization founded 51 years ago by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, have long had the reputation of being uncooperative, litigious and vengeful with the media.
When Richard Behar researched a story on the Church of Scientology for a Time magazine special report in 1991, he wrote that at least 10 attorneys and six private detectives were unleashed by the church and its followers to threaten, harass and discredit him. The investigators contacted his neighbors and former colleagues, and a copy of his personal credit report had been illegally retrieved from a national credit bureau. Behar later learned the church’s leading private eye was behind the action.
A reporter at the Buffalo News who wrote a hard-hitting, four-part report on the religious movement earlier this year said Scientologists were quite aggressive in trying to micromanage what got into the paper.
“When I talked to them sometimes, it was if reality had become suspended and it was substituted by this all-encompassing mythology surrounding L. Ron Hubbard,” Buffalo News reporter Mark Sommer said. “Never did they admit a mistake or falsification about him.”
The church sent him what it claimed were Hubbard’s military records, showing medals for valor and distinctions that didn’t gibe with records Sommer got from the Navy. The church also denied that it had written a speech for Buffalo’s mayor, declaring Scientology Day in Buffalo, although the mayor later confirmed that the church had indeed prepared the speech.
Church officials could be friendly or completely evasive when he dealt with them, depending on how the information served their purpose, Sommer said.
But still, we were surprised at their tenaciousness in trying to control our stories.
At the Post-Gazette, the story began as a routine assignment from Assistant Managing Editor Tom Birdsong, looking at a small Scientology church that had opened recently on the South Side. While researching the new location, we learned about a longtime campaign by a Carnegie Mellon University computer science researcher to warn the public about what he called its dangerous activities. We also found a Carnegie man who had left the church after 27 years and hoped to create an Underground Railroad of sorts to help others trying to get out of the church.
The assignment grew to several stories to better explain what the organization was all about. Because the church was so controversial, Birdsong urged us to go overboard in being fair and to resist dwelling on aspects of the movement that a lay person might find too far out of the mainstream.
Little did he know he’d be spending hours on the phone with church spokeswoman Beth Akiyama, who handles media for the eastern United States.
She complained initially about the line of questioning the reporters were taking, saying she was afraid the article was going to be too critical of the church.
She particularly objected to a question about how much it costs Scientologists to advance to succeeding levels of the church, asking her own question along the lines of, “Would you ask a Catholic how much it costs to be a member of the Catholic Church?” Well, sure, if it was pertinent to the story.
She questioned why such a young and somewhat inexperienced reporter — Semuels — had been assigned to the story. It didn’t matter to her that Semuels had written dozens of strong, in-depth stories for the business, news and health-science desks of the Post-Gazette.
She asked about the religious affiliations of both Birdsong and Semuels, presuming that Semuels was Jewish, and then saying that the reporter didn’t understand religion enough to write a story about Scientology.
But most oddly, Akiyama criticized the story before it was even fully written, having seen nary a word of it, despite Birdsong’s insistence that we were going to be fair.
It didn’t matter. In what seemed to be a stalling tactic, she wanted to come to Pittsburgh to discuss the story before it was published.
She turned up the heat last Saturday evening, after someone sent her a copy of the story from the early run of the Sunday paper, which is available Saturday morning. She started calling late in the afternoon, only a couple of hours before the next deadline for the paper, wanting Birdsong to make changes. Her phone calls and e-mails continued far into the night.
It seemed to be yet another effort to halt publication.
Birdsong did agree to make two changes, on aspects that Akiyama said were incorrect, and that Birdsong couldn’t quickly verify. Later, though, we found that she hadn’t been exactly forthright on either of them.
Her biggest sticking point was the mention of the purportedly secret knowledge given to Scientologists who reach advanced levels. According to widely published reports, they’re taught that 75 million years ago the cosmic ruler Xenu paralyzed billions of people in our galaxy, stacked them in volcanoes and destroyed their bodies with H-bombs, though the traumatized souls survived. Those alien spirits invade human bodies today.
In 1995, the church sued The Washington Post in an attempt to prevent the publication of such information, saying it was copyrighted. The church lost the suit, and the Xenu story since then has been widely disseminated on the Internet, in the print media and on broadcast networks.
Akiyama called the information “offensive to Scientologists and incorrect,” even though another Scientology spokesman did not dispute the accuracy of the Xenu teachings included in a Toledo Blade report on the church earlier this summer.
In another matter, Akiyama also said Scientologists were not responsible for a lawsuit that led to the bankruptcy of the Cult Awareness Network in the mid-1990s.
Actually, the network in the early 1990s was hit with more than 50 individual lawsuits filed by Scientology members after they tried to “join” the network. When the network’s executive director turned them down because she was afraid they would take over the network, many of the Scientologists filed individual lawsuits, claiming religious discrimination. Although most of the suits were dropped or won by the network, it cost the network nearly $2 million to defend itself.
The crushing financial blow came after the network lost a lawsuit filed by 18-year-old Jason Scott, who was a member of the Pentecostal church in Bellevue, Wash. He had been kidnapped by a programmer referred to his mother by the network.
Although no criminal charges were filed, he pursued a civil suit. It turned out that he was represented by an attorney for the Church of Scientology.
At a subsequent bankruptcy court hearing, another Scientologist bought the network’s name, logo and hotline number.
Reflecting later, Birdsong said Akiyama seemed to be intent on telling him what she thought we should know while not directly answering anything we’d like to know.
That’s good public relations strategy, but not so great a way to get out the “truth” that Scientologists insist upon when they’re dealing with reporters. It’s got to be a two-way street.
PostScript is a regular column by Post-Gazette staff members examining an aspect of newspaper practice.