Why the Media Is No Longer Afraid of Scientology (Analysis)

THR’s Kim Masters, in the wake of Lawrence Wright’s best-selling exposé "Going Clear," writes of her own experiences covering the Church and how the Internet and Tom Cruise have helped thaw a chill on investigative reporting.
Illustration by Shout

This story first appeared in the Feb. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Maybe he was just imagining things. John H. Richardson, my former colleague at Premiere magazine, says curious incidents began happening after he started reporting on the Church of Scientology in 1993. It didn't seem coincidental to him: People knocking on his neighbors' doors, saying he was under investigation. A phone call telling his wife he had sent her some kind of sex-gram that the caller would read aloud.

Former Los Angeles Times writer Joel Sappell, in a recent Los Angeles magazine article, tells of alarming events that allegedly transpired while he and colleague Robert Welkos worked on a series on the Church in the mid-1980s -- such as the apparent poisoning of his German shepherd, Crystal. "Did I have proof the Church of Scientology was to blame? No," Sappell wrote. "But I was haunted by the warnings I remembered getting at the start of what would become a five-year investigation of the Church. More than one source had told Bob and me to keep an eye on our pets." Sappell recently spoke with ex-Scientologist Marty Rathbun, who admits to having been involved in a campaign to intimidate Sappell. But even Rathbun, now a vocal critic of Scientology whom the Church has called a liar, tells Sappell it's impossible the Church would have sanctioned killing a pet. Rathbun speculates that if someone harmed the dog, it was "some 'third party' who wanted to make the Church look bad."

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Richardson and Sappell might remember working in fear, but Karin Pouw, a spokesperson for the Church, writes to THR, "It is absolutely not true that the Church was involved in any aggression toward any reporters or the Times."

While nothing untoward has happened to me as I covered the Church intermittently over the years, writing about Scientology used to be not just a frightening proposition but a difficult one. Aside from the suspicions about harassment and the threat of litigation, it was hard -- during the late '80s and early '90s -- to get Scientology's critics with firsthand knowledge to speak out, even off the record. Some I knew were not just afraid but terrified. Former Scientologists often were reluctant to reveal even their names. One wanted to tell her story but would only give me a false first name, which made it impossible to report anything she said.

I remember a former member advising reporters in some detail to take steps to protect themselves. We were told to shred documents, even at home. And, of course, to keep an eye on pets.

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Sappell writes that reporters' fear arose from directives articulated by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who wrote in a 1967 policy letter that adversaries could be "injured by any means … tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed." Many knew about the problems of journalist Paulette Cooper, who wrote The Scandal of Scientology in 1971. Scientology filed more than 15 suits against her, but there was worse trouble. Janet Reitman's 2011 book, Inside Scientology, recounts fliers being posted telling Cooper's neighbors she was a prostitute and even bomb threats sent in her name to the Church. She was indicted for three felonies. (The government decided not to prosecute.) Pouw says in a statement to THR that any threatening acts toward Cooper were not authorized or directed by the Church but originated with a "then-autonomous unit that was disbanded 30 years ago."

Litigation, or the threat of it, was a devastating weapon in the Scientology arsenal. After running a thoroughly reported 1991 cover story that described Scientology as "mafia-like," Time went through a decadelong court battle. Although the case ultimately was dismissed, Time's costly experience sent a deep chill through the publishing world. When I was a contributing editor at Vanity Fair in the '90s, Barbarians at the Gate author Bryan Burrough and I enthusiastically pitched a story about Scientology's compound in the California desert. Editor Graydon Carter wouldn't consider it. (Carter says through a spokesperson that he doesn't remember the meeting.)

How times have changed. "The last time Scientology sued anyone in the media was 18 years ago," says David Touretzky, a critic of the Church. He attributes the shift to a case involving the Washington Post, in which the judge stuck the Church with legal costs and included material that the Church considered secret in her written opinion. Pouw explains matters differently. "The Church ended that period long ago, victorious, and has little litigation today,” she says. “Today the Church is focused on its humanitarian mission.”

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The publication of Lawrence Wright’s book, Going Clear -- Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief, which reached No. 4 on Amazon after being published Jan. 17, is a testament to the changes in the climate. And these days, finding former Scientologists to speak on the record has become as easy as dialing a number. One former Scientologist who helped me over the years with the understanding that her name was never to be mentioned has gone public for the first time in Wright’s book. Spanky Taylor still is nervous about having her name in print, though not like she was. “I would talk to people under false names,” says Taylor, who was John Travolta’s handler in the mid-’70s. “I was just afraid. I had and still, to some degree, have a very healthy respect for the shit they’ll do to people. But they can’t be everywhere at once.” (Pouw calls Taylor’s stories “a work of fiction.”) Ironically, for an organization that refers to its practices as the “tech,” the biggest game-changer was the Internet. Suddenly, deep secrets about Scientology -- like the notion that the world’s troubles originated with the misdeeds of the galactic warlord Xenu -- were online. And as former Scientologists could find one another easily and feel a sense of community, more talked to the media openly.

It was Tom Cruise who inadvertently did the most to draw the media to Scientology. His escapades in 2007 (the Oprah episode, the chiding of Matt Lauer) opened the door. Then in January 2008, a leaked tape of the actor extolling Scientology’s virtues went viral. Cruise has worked to put the negative publicity behind him. But by now, even Vanity Fair is emboldened. Six years earlier the magazine had bought into the fairy tale, putting Holmes, Cruise and the first picture of baby Suri on its cover with a piece that scarcely mentioned Scientology. But in September, it ran an article on the Church’s alleged role in recruiting a girlfriend for Cruise. (Pouw calls the piece “hogwash.”)

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Though the atmosphere of fear surrounding covering Scientology seems to have subsided, the Church’s lawyers still routinely send letters to journalists who write about it, including to THR. And some of the veteran reporters who covered it in decades past haven’t let go of their anxiety: Touretzky thinks reporters should follow those old precautions, as does Tony Ortega, who has covered Scientology for years. “[The Church] still has a lot of money to spend on private investigators,” he says. And referring to litigiousness and alleged intimidation, he says, “It is a different era, but I would not assume that Scientology has changed its ways.”

What do you think?

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