What we’ve learned from years of reporting on Scientology is that if you don’t watch carefully, it will get its tentacles into your school district or worm its way into your local city council chambers or somehow use one of its “secular” front groups to fool some other group of chuckleheads who don’t see it coming from a mile away. However, that’s getting a bit tougher for the church as more and more people seem to be keeping a vigilant eye on its every move.
Take the Tampa Bay Times, for example. We already knew about Joe Childs and Tom Tobin, the formidable duo who really ought to win some big prizes for their latest blockbuster series, “The Money Machine.” But who knew the paper was nursing another great talent like this Drew Harwell fellow?
Harwell comes along and not only exposes a frightening bit of mold growing under a rock — the surreptitious takeover of a Florida charter school by the unholy alliance of a Scientology front group and members of the Nation of Islam — but in a little more than a week, his thorough expose has resulted in local school officials moving rapidly to close the abomination down.
Results! This is the advantage that sizable daily newspapers have over scribblers in their underground bunkers. Let’s go back over the progression of this Tampa Bay Times takedown…
February 26: Harwell’s investigation hits the front page of the Times. His piece is chock full of nightmarish details about Scientology front group World Literacy Crusade moving in on a charter school in trouble, installing a member of the Nation of Islam on the school’s board, replacing the curriculum with Scientology’s “study tech” and then sending the Crusade substantial payments even as the school was in bankruptcy. Harwell even tracked down that the school’s president, Hanan Islam, was calling herself “Doctor” based on bogus credentials.
February 29: In the wake of Harwell’s expose, Pinellas County School Board superintendent John Stewart recommended that the board issue a termination order for the school.
March 5: The Times runs an editorial that doesn’t mince words:
…since Islam came to Life Force some parents and former teachers charge that the school’s children have been targets for recruitment by the Church of Scientology….All of this exposure to Scientology-related material violates prohibitions in the U.S. and Florida constitutions on religion in public schools….The church may freely open its own private schools, but it cannot infiltrate public schools like charter schools or have its teachings influence the curriculum. Life Force receives about $800,000 in taxpayer support per year….The sooner this school is shut down and Islam is given her walking papers, the better.
March 6: The school board does, indeed, give Islam her walking papers, approving a 90-day termination notice that will shut down Life Force, pending a possible public hearing.
Talk about textbook public service journalism.
So you might wonder, how is it that for so long Scientology has been able to get away with so many similar outrages over the years? Well, not every town has a Tampa Bay Times, or reporters like Harwell, Childs, and Tobin.
In fact, not even the Tampa Bay region can count on that kind of reporting when the Times isn’t supplying it.
Here’s what I mean: With that progression of Harwell’s reporting and the results it produced in mind, I invite you to watch a report on the exact same story which appeared Tuesday night on Tampa’s local Fox affiliate, WTVT Fox 13. Not only is there no indication that this story was blown wide open by a deeply reported series of stories in the Times, but reporter Steve Nichols never actually explains that Scientology and its “study tech” are at the center of the controversy…
I cannot think of a single good reason for why Nichols and Fox 13 whitewashed this story or didn’t at least have the professional courtesy to acknowledge that the school came under scrutiny after an investigation by the Times.
I left a message on Nichols’ voice mail last night, explaining my concerns about that, and asking him to please explain to me his thinking in presenting this story the way he did. I’m genuinely curious how he can possibly explain this kind of non-reporting reporting.
Wonder no more how Scientology gets away with so much.
Thursday’s stats: Upstat or Downstat? Every Thursday, Scientologists race to turn in their weekly stats, and we like to do the same, assessing the church’s fortunes in the world press. In this case, even with friendly treatment by the likes of Fox 13, I think there’s a big downstat here, not only for how a Scientology front group tried to foist its “study tech” onto a public school, but also for bringing back to the news the bizarre relationship between Scientology and the Nation of Islam.
Story #2: More Front Group Missteps, a Hemisphere Away
Two more cases of Scientology front groups getting called out happened recently in Australia and New Zealand.
In New Zealand, a news report revealed that one of Scientology’s anti-drug fronts had managed to score government grants to hand out its literature in schools. Kirsty Johnston’s story contained these gems from commenters alarmed by New Zealand’s tax money being used to support church nonsense…
“This kind of quackery should not be in our schools – we are talking about young people’s lives,” said a non-Scientology drug counselor.
“In the case of someone who is struggling with drugs, they are very vulnerable. So their exploitation by the church for their own ends is despicable,” said a Green Party member of New Zealand’s parliament.
In Australia this week, the country’s mental health minister denounced an attempt by Scientology’s anti-psychiatry front group, Citizens Commission on Human Rights, to mischaracterize proposed changes to legislation regarding minors and mental health.
Really, CCHR? Sticking your nose in a debate about kids and mental health? In Australia? Where your president is awaiting trial for allegedly covering up the molestation of a child in order to keep Scientology out of the news?
Thursday’s Stats: Upstat or Dowstat? At least our antipodean press colleagues are quick to jump on the tentacles of Scientology reaching into places it doesn’t belong. The downstats happening there never seem to cease.
Story #3: Philip Seymour Hoffman is OT!
A website that obsesses over film director Paul Thomas Anderson managed to get out of one of the producers of his next film, The Master, that it may have an October release.
That seems fast, but we hope it’s true. For years, we’ve heard that Anderson’s film will dramatize L. Ron Hubbard’s post-war rise as the prophet of his own religion, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Commodore. And despite studio denials that the movie is about Scientology’s beginnings, it’s hard to believe that a movie about a disillusioned WWII vet who starts a post-war religious craze won’t at least have fun with Dianetics in some way.
Thursday’s Stats: Upstat or Downstat? Hoffman is an obvious dead ringer for Hubbard, but who is Joaquin Phoenix supposed to be as a “drifter” who becomes the “Master’s” most trusted aide? And is Phoenix’s character going to pull a Dr. Winter on Hoffman’s Hubbard? Well, anyway, all of the speculation will only build as the movie nears, which will lead all sorts of folks new to the scene to look into this Scientology thing on the Internet, and then, well, you know what happens. The church just can’t seem to win these days…
UPDATE: Speaking of keeping a vigilant eye on things, one our tipsters snapped these photos of a truck that was blocking the driveway of the charter school Tuesday afternoon in Pinellas County. Note the Scientology logo on the back..
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, a Tumblr, 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.