Nightline's Scientology "Exclusive": What was Exclusive About It, Exactly?
I had a strange and powerful case of déjà vu last night while watching Nightline's interview with Debbie Cook as she talked about being held in "the Hole" at Scientology's international base in California, where executives who fall out of favor with church leader David Miscavige are sent to rot in an office-prison for weeks, months, even years at a time.
Well, OK, it wasn't really déjà vu I was experiencing. Which fancy French term do you use when you're seeing a news organization claim it has an "EXCLUSIVE" on an interview that quite a few of us other journalists have already heard numerous times before?
I don't know. Anyone out there good with French? Anyone know how to say "cringeworthy mainstream media epic fail"?
OK, I don't want to sound too harsh. I want to make it very clear that it is thrilling to see Debbie Cook taken seriously by a national news platform with such a large audience. Her story reached millions yesterday as it appeared on both Good Morning America and Nightline.
But for those of us who have been covering Debbie Cook as a breaking story since the first few minutes of 2012, it was maddening to see the way Nightline reported her story yesterday from what could only be characterized as abject fear.
ABC appeared so terrified of Scientology's litigious reputation, it not only allowed the church to hurl unsworn smears of her character in large quantities, but more egregiously, it failed to give any indication that Cook is only the latest of several former executives to come forward and describe the same exact allegations of abuse inside the church.
Cook came off last night the same way she did in a Bexar County, Texas courtroom on February 9: credible, factual, and unflappable. But ABC seemed to go out of its way to make her sound like a lone voice crying out about abuses without any kind of previous corroboration.
ABC had no excuse for presenting Cook's allegations without any kind of larger perspective or history: It's been nearly three years since Tom Tobin and Joe Childs exposed the horrors of "the Hole" in their explosive series, "The Truth Rundown" at the St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times).
Janet Reitman also wrote about "the Hole" in her book Inside Scientology, published last summer. And Marc Headley wrote about the horrors of the Int Base in his escape narrative Blown for Good, which came out in 2009.
But even if we give Nightline the benefit of the doubt and assume that, as a typical view-from-nowhere national television program that can't deign to admit that it actually gets its story ideas from newspapers, magazines, and -- heaven forbid -- blogs, we still can't let Nightline off the hook on this one.
Here's why: Nightline had no excuse making Debbie Cook look like she had no corroboration for her tales from the Hole, because Nightline could have used previous accounts told to...
Two years ago, Martin Bashir, following up on the St. Petersburg Times revelations, put together a hard-hitting expose of his own about David Miscavige's degrading treatment of Scientology executives....
Instead, Nightline made no reference to its earlier reporting, and not only didn't explain that others have come forward about "the Hole," but it made another puzzling decision to focus so closely on whether Debbie Cook was slapped or her finger was bent backwards.
Personally, I don't give a crap if Debbie Cook's finger was bent backwards.
We're covering Debbie Cook's story not only because of the way she was treated in 2007 at Scientology's desert headquarters, but for what she revealed about what's happening in Scientology right now in her stunning New Year's Eve e-mail.
Oh yeah, you didn't hear about that last night on Nightline, either.
Why is Debbie Cook's e-mail so significant? Because its allegations that Scientology is amassing a billion-dollar reserve through "extreme fundraising" appeared only weeks after the latest expose from Tobin and Childs -- "The Money Machine" -- provided hard data about similar allegations of a church mania for impoverishing its own members.
And yet, with the Tampa Bay Times series and reporting done here at the Village Voice tending to back up Debbie Cook's allegation, for example, that the "Ideal Org" push is a cynical ploy for the church to appear to be growing when it really isn't, how did Nightline begin its broadcast last night?
Naturally, with Terry Moran stating unequivocally that Scientology is growing.
Sigh. Well, I suppose we have to put up with a certain amount of that kind of genuflecting from the mainstream media.
Thursday's Stats, Upstat or Downstat? On Thursdays, Scientologists rush to get in their weekly statistics, and we like to do the same, weighing the church's fortunes over the past week. Of course, Debbie Cook appearing on ABC is a huge downstat for Scientology. But we can't help thinking of the opportunities missed here, from the crappy web headline ABC chose (A "PR crisis?" Is that what you call it when people are held against their will in degrading conditions, when 8-year-olds are signing billion-year contracts and are made to work long hours with no access to the outside world? PR, that's the church's biggest problem, really?) to Nightline's failure to cite its own past reporting on this subject. But still, this has been a disastrous first two months of the year for the church, and the lawsuit against Cook is only getting started.
Story #2: Ray Jeffrey Gets a Following
Voice readers seem to be taking a liking to Debbie Cook's attorney, Ray Jeffrey, particularly after we got a close look at the way he has been handling a flurry of sternly-worded letters coming from Scientology's attorneys.
But Jeffrey told me that although Scientology's letters don't bother him, there is one thing that has him angry -- the surveillance being done on Debbie Cook and on his law firm.
He shared with me the following e-mail that he sent Tuesday evening to Scientology's local attorneys, George Spencer and Mark Cannan:
Subject: Scientology v. Cook
The surveillance of my office and my clients is back on - you must be so proud!
I gave Jeffrey a call when I saw the e-mail.
"I guess the one thing that gets under my skin about this is, lawyers that I've seen at the courthouse for so many years, who hold themselves up as so reputable, would get involved with something like this. And they act very innocent when things like this come out," he says, explaining that when he's brought up to the opposing side that private eyes have been seen taking videos of license plates in his parking lot, or that Cook has been followed, he is met with protestations that the local attorneys are shocked to hear that such shenanigans are going on.
"It really irritates me that colleagues would not have higher standards than this. And I have told them before about the surveillance," he says. "Debbie was followed last night. And do you know what activity she was engaged in that needed to be spied on? She brought some puppies to our office to look at."
Jeffrey sounded as calm as always, but it was clear that he wasn't happy about the snooping. "I've been a litigator for 20 years. You can understand videoing in a case where someone claims an injury and you want to catch them playing tennis or something. But this is just ridiculous, that you would have private investigators following people just because you have a lawsuit with them. I think I'm pretty confident in saying that it's just unheard of here. And why, if you were a lawyer, would you want to get involved in something like that? Because the obvious point is intimidation," he says.
"This is a law firm that holds itself out as the oldest firm in San Antonio and says it's the most prestigious in town," he says, referring to Clemens & Spencer, the local firm hired by the church to sue Cook. "And to participate in this thing, are they comfortable just doing anything?"
I thought that was a good question. When I was in San Antonio, I noted that George Spencer seems like a formidable litigator. He was joined at the plaintiff's table by his partner, Mark Cannan, a man who for years represented the daily paper in town, the San Antonio Express-News. (It was Cannan who started things out the morning of February 9 by trying to convince Judge Martha Tanner that Scientology's team couldn't comply with Jeffrey's request to find and turn over material in the case, including a 2007 video of Debbie Cook signing her non-disclosure agreement as she left the employ of the church. A few hours later, after Cannan argued vociferously that it was too burdensome for Scientology to track down the video, the church's attorneys showed the video as part of their own case.)
Yesterday, I sent this e-mail to Cannan. I'm hoping he'll reply, and if he does I'll post his response in an update here...
I'm wondering what you must be feeling after receiving an e-mail like this from Mr. Jeffrey.
For years, you represented the San Antonio Express-News, and fought for that newspaper's ability to shed light where it was needed most.
Now you represent a client known for its intimidation tactics, and which are well documented.
Even though your client is suing Debbie Cook, how does it comport with the thrust of your career that Ms. Cook should be followed by private investigators?
Just wondering how that sits with you. I've always had the greatest respect for attorneys who fight for the rights of newspapers. And I'm hoping you could say something about how you view the issue of surveillance of someone like Ms. Cook or Mr. Jeffrey.
Tony Ortega Editor The Village Voice
I suppose I could have also asked if Scientology's checks have been clearing without a hitch.
Thursday's Stats: Upstat or Downstat? As we saw last summer in another part of Texas, Scientology's habit of surveillance and intimidation can fail spectacularly. In this case, it's hard not to assume that hiring private eyes to dog Ray Jeffrey is a very unwise strategy. But for now, we have to wait and see.
Story #3: Rathbun and Rinder, Gagged?
I wanted to throw in just a brief follow-up item to yesterday's big document dump. A letter from George Spencer made some interesting statements about Marty Rathbun and Mike Rinder, two former high-ranking Scientology executives who have been very vocal for several years in their criticisms of church leader David Miscavige.They have also offered to be witnesses for Debbie Cook as she defends herself in the church's lawsuit. But Spencer warned Jeffrey that talking to Rathbun and Rinder about their knowledge of Scientology's inner workings is some kind of violation.
"Both Mr. Rinder and Mr. Rathbun signed confidentiality agreements with the Church," Spencer wrote.
That assertion created a stir in our comments section, so I called Rinder yesterday to ask him about Spencer's claim.
"Every Sea Org member signs those. They're routine. They're signed every year or something," Rinder says about confidentiality agreements that Spencer must be referring to in his letter. "I signed 20 of them. Probably Marty has too. They're absolutely meaningless. They're not worth the paper they're printed on."
Rinder was Scientology's chief spokesman until he left the church in 2007. He also ran its intelligence wing, the Office of Special Affairs, and oversaw legal affairs.
"It's strictly gamesmanship," he says of Spencer's letters that were sent to Jeffrey in a flurry over the last week and that we published yesterday.
"They're trying to come up with anything. You talk about someone in a bunker. This person is totally in a bunker mentality," he says, referring to David Miscavige. "This is crazy. There's no precedent for how nutty the activities are they're engaging in, starting with bringing the case to begin with. This guy's living in a bubble of unreality. and I suspect if there are private investigators out there, they're being run...out of L.A., and the local guys don't even know about it."
Rinder says he sees things in Spencer's letters, the choice of words, that he has no question are coming from church management in Los Angeles, and ultimately from Miscavige himself. And the surveillance strategy -- that's definitely coming from the top, he says.
"I don't think even [Ken] Dandar had PIs following him. I don't recall ever having PIs following attorneys," he says, referring to the Florida attorney who represented Lisa McPherson's family in her wrongful death lawsuit while Rinder was still overseeing the church's legal strategy. And he says he's surprised that Scientology would consider it a smart tactic to tail someone like Jeffrey, who spent a couple of years as a local mayor.
"I wouldn't be following the guy who was the ex-mayor around that community. I'd be really careful about treading on the wrong people's toes down there," Rinder says.
Thursday's Stats: Upstat or Downstat? How bad is the decision to send private investigators after Ray Jeffrey? Well, what do you think motivated the man to share so many stunning documents with the readers of the Village Voice?
Smart, Miscavige. Really smart.
UPDATE: Just heard from Rinder, who had this interesting observation about last night's show. He points out that it wasn't only Nightline who seemed to be operating from fear...
Mainstream media in the US are unfortunately corporate animals where the cost/benefit ratio is more important than the integrity of a story. That Nightline story was so obviously carefully constructed to avoid any legal liability it was sort of a joke to those who know the facts. The bones they threw the church -- airing all their responses and even running their line about the massive expansion was really pathetic. I suspect the Producer of that piece was privately throwing up in her mouth....
But, for the uninitiated (and that is really the target audience for this, reaching people who know nothing about it) I think the demeanor of Debbie and the fact that the church REFUSED to provide a spokesperson but instead sent letters denying everything -- and there was not word one of denial from Miscavige -- isn't lost on viewers.
UPDATE 2: Scientology's attorney George Spencer might need to learn what these "blog" things are. Make sure you pay attention to the final paragraph of this predictable letter complaining about Debbie Cook's Nightline appearance...
George, we already spelled it out pretty plainly: as long as Scientology is up to its old tricks and tails Ray Jeffrey and his client Debbie Cook, you can expect the documents to keep flowing!
********** Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you ask nicely he'll put you on his mailing list for notifications of new stories, which tend to come out each and every morning at 8 am, but can suddenly appear at any time of the day. You can also catch his alerts at Twitter (@VoiceTonyO), at his Facebook author page, and even this new Google Plus doohickey.
New readers might want to check out our primer, "What is Scientology?" Another good overview is our series from last summer, "Top 25 People Crippling Scientology." At the top of every story, you'll see the "Scientology" category which, if you click on it, will bring up all of our most recent stories. As for our regular features, on Thursdays we do a roundup of world press, on Fridays we visit L. Ron Hubbard on the yacht Apollo circa 1969-1971, on Saturdays we celebrate the week's best comments, and on Sundays we publish Scientology's wacky and tacky advertising mailers that people send us.
As for hot subjects we've covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and is now being sued by Scientology. You might have also heard about the Super Power Building, Scientology's "Mecca," whose secrets were revealed here. We also reported how Scientology spied on its own most precious object, Tom Cruise. (We wrote Tom an open letter that he has yet to respond to.) Have you seen a Scientology ad on TV lately? We debunked some of the claims in that 2-minute commercial you might have seen while watching Glee or American Idol.
Other stories have looked at Scientology's policy of "disconnection" that is tearing families apart. You may also have heard something about the Sea Org experiences of the Paris sisters, Valeska and Melissa, and their friend Ramana Dienes-Browning. We've also featured Paulette Cooper, who wrote about Scientology back in the day, and Janet Reitman, Hugh Urban, and the team at the Tampa Bay Times, who write about it today. And there's plenty more coming.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.