On August 5, we started a countdown that will give credit — or blame — to the people who have contributed most to the sad current state of Scientology. From its greatest expansion in the 1980s, the church is a shell of what it once was and is mired in countless controversies around the world. Some of that was self-inflicted, and some of it has come from outside. Join us now as we continue on our investigation of those people most responsible…
#13: Janet Reitman (and other journalists)
Janet Reitman didn’t set out to cripple Scientology. She wanted to give it a fair shake. As she’s made clear in interviews with the Voice and many other publications, she took on the assignment of learning about Scientology with more than an open mind: she was determined to see things from the church’s perspective. So she walked into the New York org one day after her editors at Rolling Stone asked her to learn about it, and that first day, she wondered what all the fuss was about. These seemed like normal folks who wanted to help.
As her investigations guided her first to a Rolling Stone piece in 2006 and then, earlier this year, her book Inside Scientology, Reitman examined the controversies surrounding L. Ron Hubbard and his church, but she repeatedly looked for opportunities to show how things looked from inside the organization. She wanted her book to be the first comprehensive and really objective narration of Scientology history written by a journalist.
She succeeded beautifully. A bestseller, Inside Scientology is a compelling introduction to the unusual church, something the field of Scientology watching has desperately needed for a long time. It could be argued that no journalist has given Scientology a better portrayal, has so generously praised Hubbard for his charisma and skills as a master planner, and has worked so hard to understand young church members who are optimistic about Scientology’s future.
So, naturally, Scientology has celebrated this thoroughly balanced examination of its roots and current state, right? Well, no. With complete predictability, Scientology has attacked Reitman and her book with half-truths and exaggerations.
Scientology seems utterly incapable of understanding a journalist like Reitman, who weighs all kinds of evidence in order to come up with a rounded portrait of something as complex as Scientology. But then, historically, Scientology has had only the most contentious relationships with journalists — some of whom have experienced stunning acts of retaliation by the church and its agents. We’re listing some of them here, writers from the past and present who, like Janet, have labored to understand Hubbard and his creation, even as the church fights every attempt to learn even its most basic facts. In the end, Scientology has crippled itself as it treats every new journalist as an outright enemy.
Paulette Cooper was one of the first, and certainly no one has suffered anything near what she did. In revenge for her 1971 book, The Scandal of Scientology, the church filed more than a dozen lawsuits against her into the 1980s, and its Guardian’s Office — the GO was its covert operations wing, replaced later by the Office of Special Affairs — carried out or planned operations against her intended to get her imprisoned or institutionalized. GO operatives stole her stationery and then mailed bomb threats on it that included her fingerprints. In “Operation Freakout” the GO was planning even more severe schemes, including getting Cooper indicted for threatening Arab Consulates and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Finally, in the 1977 FBI raids that ended a massive federal government infiltration by Scientology, documents laying out Operation Freakout were discovered and made public, showing how Cooper had been framed. And all that for writing a book.
John Sweeney may have become world famous for blowing his top, egged on by Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis, but Sweeney’s BBC specials are among the most thorough and well done television exposes of Scientology ever produced. It was especially satisfying to see him joust with chief church spokesman Mike Rinder in his 2007 special, “Scientology and Me,” and then, last year in “The Secrets of Scientology,” sit down with the now defected Rinder, who confirmed all of his suspicions about being followed and harassed in the previous film.
Bryan Seymour has been extremely busy breaking one story after another on the “Today Tonight” show as Scientology in Australia has turned into a massive shitshow. Among his hard-hitting programs include segments on Sen. Nick Xenophon’s stunning parliamentary allegations; Mike Rinder’s first television interview following his defection; L. Ron Hubbard’s audio recording describing galactic overlord Xenu; Scientology’s retaliation against Xenophon; exclusive interviews with Nancy Cartwright, Anne Archer, and her son Tommy Davis; exposing how Scientology uses Australia to avoid paying taxes in the UK; and many more. Sweeney and Seymour put this country’s national television journalists so much to shame, we’re very consciously including none of them in this countdown — with one local exception, which you’ll see below. (And yes, we’re sure we’ll hear about that in the comments.)
Washington Post reporter Richard Leiby was for decades the gold standard of print journalists writing about Scientology. Leiby was usually first and always a compelling read, from his days at the Clearwater Sun, where he first publicly revealed the Xenu story in 1981, to his years at the Post, where just a few years ago he was uncovering bizarre details about a New Mexico underground vault where Scientology stores L. Ron Hubbard’s written works, engraved on stainless steel tablets and encased in titanium capsules. For his efforts, we learned recently in documents made public by Marty Rathbun, Leiby was the subject of a Scientology operation in 2006 that tried to silence him by investigating his divorce.
Lawrence Wright is an author, a playwright, a screenwriter and a staff writer at The New Yorker who dropped a megaton bomb on the field of Scientology watching earlier this year with his 24,000-word profile of director Paul Haggis. In 2009, the Crash director had revealed that he was leaving Scientology after he learned that one California branch of the church had endorsed the anti-gay-marriage ballot proposal, Proposition 8. Wright’s story takes us not only into the turmoil in Haggis’s life over his increasing doubts about Scientology, but also narrates the church’s entire history in a way that captivated the country. Wright is working on a book from the same material, and we expect another megaton explosion when it comes out.
Jonny Jacobsen is a British-trained journalist living in Paris. He operates a blog, “Infinite Complacency,” that is murderously rigorous and detailed. Jacobsen writes widely about Scientology, but he is especially focused on legal matters, in particular his massive coverage of Scientology’s French fraud trial and developments in Australia.
John Cook uncorked a lengthy profile of Scientology and the challenge it faced from the Anonymous movement for the now-defunct Radar magazine in 2008. He’s now in his second stint at Gawker, where he occasionally, and mercilessly, takes a dig at Scientology. In particular, he recently ran with a revelation from Marty Rathbun about Cook’s former Radar colleague John Connolly, who Rathbun and Mike Rinder claim was for years a paid Scientology informant. That story was so hot, even Gawker wouldn’t run it, and Cook instead placed it at the New York Observer.
Mark Ebner has done many good pieces about Scientology, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s the author of one of the best pieces ever written about the church: in 1996, Ebner experienced Scientology from the inside, signing up to be audited and purified. In a brilliant stroke, he opened his Spy magazine piece by dead agenting himself — anticipating the blowback he’d get from Scientology, he started out by listing his own shortcomings and run ins with the law. Inspired. And so Ebner. Watch him describe to Mark Bunker the stunt he pulled with a disguised script of Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth.
Roger Friedman is a celebrity and entertainment reporter who isn’t afraid to tangle with the stars he covers. In particular, he’s written great Scientology-celebrity scoops for Foxnews.com and now on Showbiz 411. I loved his recent column calling bullshit on the puff piece written about Kelly Preston and how Scientology helped her get through her son Jett’s death — when it was Scientology that prevented her from dealing with her son’s autism to begin with.
One of the reasons you place the worldwide headquarters of a secretive organization on a 700-acre compound in the middle of the Southern California desert is so that you can keep what you’re doing away from the prying eyes of major media. Scientology has always counted on sleepy Riverside County leaving it alone as it goes about its bizarre business at its “Int” or “Gold Base” near Hemet. But Scientology didn’t count on Nathan Baca, an aggressive and persistent television reporter working for little KESQ, the ABC affiliate in Palm Springs. Baca punched several classes above his station’s weight as he put spokesman Tommy Davis on the spot, got him to seemingly confirm the Hubbard OT III materials, and otherwise exposed the Gold Base in ways that hadn’t been accomplished before. Alas, here’s the sad coda to this story: Baca moved to the CBS affiliate in Las Vegas — seemingly a smart career move — but his old station recently pulled all of his Scientology segments from its website. (The general manager insisted to me that Scientology itself had nothing to do with it.)
Russell Miller, a British journalist, worked with ex-Scientologist Gerry Armstrong and his trove of original documentation to put together a biography of L. Ron Hubbard in 1987, just after the Scientology founder’s death. Still an excellent source for information on Hubbard’s entire life, from childhood to church leader, it exploded Hubbard’s many myths about himself. It also faced fierce legal opposition from Scientology itself, which sued its publishers in multiple countries.
In 1991, Richard Behar ripped Scientology apart in Time magazine, which splashed the words “The Cult of Greed” across its cover. Yowza. The church hit back with a $416 million libel suit against Time Warner and Behar, which was eventually dismissed, but not before costing the company millions to fight. Even before publication of the story, Behar was investigated and harassed by Scientology’s attorneys and private eyes. Some argue that Scientology’s legal onslaught made other major media gun-shy about investigating the church for years afterwards. On the other hand, Scientology also seemed to have less appetite to sue publications following this debacle (except for a dumb and short-lived 1995 lawsuit against the Washington Post and Richard Leiby). But this story had another legacy: another lawsuit that grew out of Behar’s article resulted in the Fishman Affidavit being produced, which put evidence of Scientology’s secret upper level materials into a court record, which were ultimately posted to the Usenet, starting Scientology’s online nightmare in earnest. With one 8-page story, Behar really erupted a journalistic and legal volcano.
Joel Sappell and Robert Welkos, in 1990, put together a truly epic series, five years in the making, about Scientology for the Los Angeles Times. Not only for many of us was it our first lengthy, inside account of just about every aspect of L. Ron Hubbard’s organization, it came out right under the noses of Scientology’s executive ranks in southern California. Sappell and Welkos, meanwhile, were subject to extreme interference and harassment — Sappell believed that his dog was poisoned in retaliation for one of their stories. The two journalists are no longer with the Times today, and except for an occasional good piece (like a terrific 2005 series on Gold Base), the Times has largely ceded whatever claim Sappell and Welkos once gave it as the premier journalistic observer of Scientology. That’s really a shame, considering that it’s sitting in the belly of the beast. Instead, the Times lost that role to a newspaper in Florida, about which we will have more to say later.
Finally, we want to say that a new generation of younger reporters is making an impact as Scientology goes into perhaps its most newsworthy phase. We’re referring to the hard work being done by Mark Collette at the Corpus Christ Caller-Times, Mitch Perry at Creative Loafing Tampa (whose landlord is now, gulp, Scientology), Daniel Miller at The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily‘s Hunter Walker. As usual, we expect that our readers will have their own favorites that they will chastise us for overlooking. Have at it!
Nanette Asimov, niece of famed sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, wrote about Scientology for only about a year, starting in June 2004, but her impact was immediately felt, and ultimately crushed Scientology’s attempts to impose a Narconon program on California school children. Only one day after her initial lengthy article showed that school children were being instructed in medically inaccurate, pseudoscientific instruction functionally identical to Scientology teachings, the San Francisco school district sent a letter to Narconon asking them to fix the inaccuracies identified in Asimov’s article. A week later, a state-wide probe was ordered by California’s Department of Education. When Scientology, er… Narconon was unable or unwilling to “alter the tech,” and after numerous medical experts had savaged Narconon’s scientific accuracy in a state-funded report, State Superintendent Jack O’Connell urged all California Schools to drop Narconon from its curriculums. All of Asimov’s artilces on Narconon are linked here on a page hosted by David Touretzky.
The Top 25 People Crippling Scientology
#1: L. Ron Hubbard
#2: David Miscavige
#3: Marty Rathbun
#4: Tom Cruise
#5: Joe Childs and Tom Tobin
#7: Mark Bunker
#8: Mike Rinder
#9: Jason Beghe
#10: Lisa McPherson
#11: Nick Xenophon (and other public servants)
#12: Tommy Davis (and other hapless church executives)
#13: Janet Reitman (and other journalists)
#14: Tory Christman (and other noisy ex-Scientologists)
#15: Andreas Heldal-Lund (and other old time church critics)
#16: Marc and Claire Headley, escapees of the church’s HQ
#17: Jefferson Hawkins, the man behind the TV volcano
#18: Amy Scobee, former Sea Org executive
#19: The Squirrel Busters (and the church’s other thugs and goons)
#20: Trey Parker and Matt Stone (and other media figures)
#21: Kendrick Moxon, attorney for the church
#22: Jamie DeWolf (and other L. Ron Hubbard family members)
#23: Ken Dandar (and other attorneys who litigate against the church)
#24: David Touretzky (and other academics)
#25: Xenu, galactic overlord
Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he’s been writing about Scientology at several publications.
Keep up on all of our New York news coverage at this blog, Runnin’ Scared
SCIENTOLOGY IN THE VILLAGE VOICE
[Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis secretly recorded discussing “disconnection”]
[Benjamin Ring, LA deputy sheriff, wants you to spend your 401K on Scientology]
[Scientologists: How many of them are there, anyway?]
MARTY RATHBUN AND THE SIEGE OF SOUTH TEXAS
[Scientology has Rathbun arrested] | [Rathbun and Mark Bunker reveal surprising ties]
In Germany with Ursula Caberta: [Announcing plans] | [Press conference] | [Making news about Tom Cruise, Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair] | [Post-trip interview]
The Squirrel Busters: [Goons with cameras on their heads] | [Rathbun’s open letter to neighbors] | [Ingleside on the Bay, Texas rallies to Rathbun’s cause] | [Squirrel Buster’s claim to be making a “documentary”] | [VIDEO: “On a Boat”] | [“Anna” sent to creep out Monique Rathbun] | [Squirrel Busters go hillbilly] | [A videographer blows the whistle on the goon squad] | [Ed Bryan, OT VIII, shows the power of Scientology’s highest levels]
SCIENTOLOGY SPYING AND “FAIR GAME”
[Secret Scientology documents spell out spying operation against Marc Headley]
[Scientology’s West U.S. spies list revealed] | [Scientology’s enemies list: Are you on it?]
Spy operation against Washington Post writer Richard Leiby: [Part 1] | [Part 2]
[A Scientology spy comes clean: Paulien Lombard’s remarkable public confession]
[Scientology advertises for writers in Freedom magazine]
[Accidental leak shows Scientology spy wing plans to “handle” the Voice]
SCIENTOLOGY AND CELEBRITIES
[“Tom Cruise told me to talk to a bottle”] | [Tom Cruise likes coconut cake] | [Tom Cruise has a sense of humor] | [“Tom Cruise not a kook!”] | [Paulette Cooper on Tom Cruise]
[Paul Haggis, director of Crash, issues an ultimatum, leaves the church]
[Character actor Jason Beghe defects noisily] | [Actor Michael Fairman reveals his “suppressive person” declaration] | [Michael Fairman talks to the Voice]
[Giovanni Ribisi as David Koresh: Scientology-Branch Davidian link makes sense]
[Russell Brand weds ex-Scientologists in wild ceremony] | [Skip Press on Haggis]
[Placido Domingo Jr.: Scientology’s retaliation is “scary and pathetic”]
Grant Cardone, NatGeo’s “Turnaround King”: [Doing Scientology’s dirty work?] | [Milton Katselas complained about Cardone’s smear job] | [Cardone runs to Huffpo]
JANET REITMAN’S INSIDE SCIENTOLOGY
[Our review of Inside Scientology] | [An interview with Janet Reitman] | [A report from Reitman’s first book tour appearance] | [At the Half-King: Reitman not afraid]
[Scientology doesn’t like Inside Scientology] | [Q&A at Washington Post]
[A roundup of Reitman’s print reviews, and why isn’t she on television more?]
HUGH URBAN’S THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY
EX-SCIENTOLOGISTS SPEAK OUT
[Marc Headley: “Tom Cruise told me to talk to a bottle”] | [The Nancy Many interview]
[Sympathy for the Devil: Tory Christman’s Story] | [Jeff Hawkins’ Counterfeit Dreams]
[86 Million Thin Dimes: The Lawrence Wollersheim Saga] | [Mike Rinder on spying]
[Scientology singalong, “We Stand Tall”] | [Captain Bill Robertson and “Galactic Patrol”]
[Scientology wins a major award!] | [Scientology wants your money: Meet Dede!]
[Birmingham in the House! The “Ideal” dance mix] | [Scientology and the Nation of Islam]
[When Scientology was hip] | [Sad: David Miscavige makes fun of his own fundraisers]
[Freedom magazine parodies The New Yorker. Hilarity ensues.]
[Scientology surf report: Anonymous parties outside the New York “org”]
THE VIEW INSIDE THE BUBBLE
[A scientologist’s letter to the Voice and its readers] | [Scientology silent birth]
[Tad Reeves: Scientology might listen to this guy] | [More Tad Reeves and family]
[Scientology never forgets: A heartwarming telemarketing holiday miracle]