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Home > Publications > Quill > The Scientology-St. Petersburg Times Quagmire Continues


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Friday, April 2, 2010
The Scientology-St. Petersburg Times Quagmire Continues

What happens when the investigated become the investigators? A tangled web of finger pointing and journalism ethics. In short: a big mess.

By Matt Stroud

It's been more than a month since Howard Kurtz revealed in his Washington Post media column that the Church of Scientology hired two journalists – who then hired an editor – to "investigate” journalistic coverage of the Church by the St. Petersburg Times.

The Times' reports, by Joe Childs and Thomas C. Tobin, investigated accusations from former Church leaders, who described "a culture of intimidation and violence under David Miscavige," the Church's leader.

Kurtz wrote, "three veteran journalists – a Pulitzer Prize winner, a former ‘60 Minutes’ producer, and the former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors – are taking the church's money to examine the paper's conduct." The column ran under the headline "Scientology Church hires reporters to investigate newspaper."

The veteran journalists hired by the Church were Russell Carollo, a 1998 Pulitzer-winner, and Christopher Szechenyi, an Emmy-winning former television producer. Steve Weinberg, who has taught at the University of Missouri for decades, served as editor for the Scientology project. Weinberg points out that he became involved after Carollo and Szechenyi – not the Church – contacted him. Weinberg has said that he had very little contact with the Church other than receiving a contract to sign and a check to cash.

"As part of our efforts, we made the St. Petersburg Times fully aware of our work from the beginning and aware of the conditions under which it was being conducted." – statement from Russell Carollo and Christopher Szechenyi.

Kurtz reported that no one from the St. Petersburg Times had been willing to speak with Carollo and Szechenyi for their report.

Carollo and Szechenyi reconfirmed that in a joint statement to Quill last week.

"As part of our efforts, we made the St. Petersburg Times fully aware of our work from the beginning and aware of the conditions under which it was being conducted," the statement said. "We never misrepresented ourselves or our connection to the church. We offered reporters and editors at the Times several opportunities to hear in more detail about what we were doing and what we had found. We repeatedly offered them the opportunity to make their observations part of the report. We were prepared to meet with them in person in Florida on two separate occasions, but they declined."

Neil Brown, executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times, responded to Quill in an e-mail.

"Mr. Carollo asked us to participate in what he referred to as an 'independent' review of our work," Brown wrote. "Yet upon being pressed, he acknowledged that the review was paid for by the Church of Scientology – the subjects of our reporting. We decided it was not appropriate to participate in a study that was bought and paid for by the Church, a position bolstered by the fact that the Church has repeatedly threatened us with legal action before and after publication of our journalism."

"It seemed, frankly, ridiculous," Brown wrote.

As news of the report spread to blogs and Web sites, it was further revealed that the report by Carollo and Szechenyi also failed to include interviews with the Church's detractors – subjects of the Times’ most recent investigation of the Church.

“We decided it was not appropriate to participate in a study that was bought and paid for by the Church … It seemed, frankly, ridiculous.” – Neil Brown, St. Petersburg Times executive editor

Weinberg, who frequently publishes book reviews with newspapers and magazines nationwide, defended the journalists' decision to avoid contacting the subjects of the Times' reports.

"Most of the time when I do journalism review pieces – and if you look at most journalism reviews published in major magazines and newspapers – what they're trying to get at is whether the journalism itself is done well, and not whether every person quoted was quoted 100 percent accurately," Weinberg said. "If they had talked to the four former Scientologists, who were the basis of so much of what the Times ran, then I would have been fine with that, but that's just not how [Carollo and Szechenyi] decided to do their critique."

Church spokespeople did not agree to be interviewed for this article, but Tommy Davis, a Church spokesman, spoke to Kurtz about the report. Kurtz characterized Davis’ interpretation of the report as “highly critical.”

Still, the report itself has not been released, and there's no guarantee it will be. Though Carollo, Szechenyi and Weinberg have said they insisted upon complete editorial freedom when they signed contracts with the Church, they also accepted the Church's stipulation that the Church would ultimately have the freedom to decide whether or not to publish the report.

Fred Brown, a former president of the Society of Professional Journalists, and current vice chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee, said contractual language like that should have waved red flags to Carollo, Szechenyi and Weinberg.

"It goes against the basis of any piece of investigative journalism," Brown said. "Investigative journalism is supposed to be when an organization whose mission is to get information to the public has an idea that something bad is going on and then tries to prove it. But here you've got an organization that doesn't want to get this information to the public, but wants it for its own internal satisfaction. Ethically, that's not something a journalist should get involved in."

In November, Weinberg himself wrote on my blog at the Web site trueslant.com that, "More than any other existing organization that comes to mind, the Scientologists have been so hostile to outside journalists that I cannot see crossing the line to accept employment there."

"With the freedoms we were given, the pay, and my ultimate role as an editor only, I just didn't see anything wrong with taking the assignment." – Steve Weinberg

Weinberg – who said he was paid $5,000 for editing the report (Carollo and Szechenyi declined to say how much they were paid by the Church for their work) – said that while cashing a check from the Church of Scientology gave him pause, the editorial freedoms the Church granted him eased his worries. Plus, he told Kurtz, "I can certainly use the money these days."

Then last week in a phone interview, he told me: "With the freedoms we were given, the pay, and my ultimate role as an editor only, I just didn't see anything wrong with taking the assignment."

He's not the only one who thinks this way.

An adjunct professor of magazine journalism at Point Park University, Chris Rodell is one of my professors in the print journalism master's program. He has contributed to Sports Illustrated, Men's Health, Playboy, and Esquire, among other national magazines. He said he's sympathetic to Weinberg's line of thinking.

"I think ethics become elastic when you're a freelancer," Rodell said. "Everybody strives to be ethical, and I don't want to do anything that's going to hurt anyone or damage my own credibility, but if you don't have a paycheck coming in in a long time, you do become more or less ethical depending on the organization offering the money."

Rodell said he doesn't think he would have accepted an assignment from the Church of Scientology because it's too historically hostile to journalists, but that the impetus for experienced journalists to take such assignments is growing stronger.

"I think the ethical walls are coming down right now," Rodell says. "Journalism is on the ropes in a lot of ways, and there are bloggers out there who will shill for any organization. So if someone says 'I just refuse to do this project on moral and ethical grounds,' there will be a lot of qualified people out there who will say 'I don't know what you're talking about; I don't even see an ethical dilemma.'"

"I think the ethical walls are coming down right now. Journalism is on the ropes in a lot of ways, and there are bloggers out there who will shill for any organization.” – Chris Rodell, professor and journalist

And that's just fine, according to Deni Elliott, professor and Eleanor Poynter Jamison Chair in Media Ethics and Press Policy at the University of South Florida. Just don't call that work journalism, she said.

"Journalism by definition serves the public interest and not the private interest," she said. "And if you have an organization that has the power to decide what part of an investigation or whether the piece of writing is used or not used – and furthermore if that organization is not part of a news organization – then you're not talking about journalism, you're talking about public relations."

And even if that's the case, some question whether or not Scientology took the right path in its attempts at public relations.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the Catholic Bishops, like Scientology, have faced numerous public and controversial struggles. But Walsh says ignoring trouble won't make it go away.

"If you're standing around with a chicken on your head, someone will ask about it," she said. "So when things are so obvious, we can expect people to ask about it. That's how we handle things internally. Externally, we try to get out as much information as possible."

"Hiding things is only going to make the situation worse," she said.

Still, Carollo and Szechenyi say they, along with Weinberg, did the right thing.

"[J]ust because a person or organization is controversial – such as the Church of Scientology – does not mean they forfeit the right to defend themselves," Carollo and Szechenyi wrote in their joint statement to Quill. "We live in America, where freedom of speech is protected. To imply that it is wrong for us to have examined a newspaper series on behalf of a controversial organization is an indefensible position."

Matt Stroud is a staff writer for Trib Total Media in Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate assistant for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University. Reach him at matt.stroud@yahoo.com.

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