Scientology's open-handed compliment

It's got to be hard being the Church of Scientology. Germany doesn't want you; Wikipedia has banned your computers; protesters are trying to separate Beck from your fold; guys with samurai swords are challenging your guards; and all that Xenu talk just won't go away. Add to that the relentless, and outstanding, investigative efforts of Jedi reporters at the St. Petersburg Times and, yeah, you'd be ticked too. That's why the Church of Scientology has decided to strike back:

After decades of digging into the Church of Scientology, reporters and editors at the St. Petersburg Times are accustomed to being denounced by its leaders.

But they find it unsettling that 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.

While the journalists have promised an independent review, the Times has refused to cooperate, saying their work will be used to fuel the church's ongoing campaign against the Florida paper.

"I ultimately couldn't take this request very seriously because it's a study bought and paid for by the Church of Scientology," says Executive Editor Neil Brown. "Candidly," he adds, "I was surprised and disappointed that journalists who I understand to have an extensive background in investigative reporting would think it's appropriate to ask me or our news organization to talk about that reporting while (a) it's ongoing, and (b) while they're being paid to ask these questions by the very subjects of our reporting."

Steve Weinberg, the former IRE executive, who has taught at the University of Missouri's journalism school for a quarter-century, says he was paid $5,000 to edit the study and "tried to make sure it's a good piece of journalism criticism, just like I've written a gazillion times. . . . For me it's kind of like editing a Columbia Journalism Review piece."

Yeah, if that CJR piece was about Beth McLean's "Is Enron Overpriced?" article for Fortune and had been paid for by the former, phony energy giant. This is, to say the least, troubling. Especially because Weinberg is such a respected investigative journalist and author of "The Reporter's Handbook," a Bible for investigative basics.

Generally speaking, I'd love to see CJR tell the story behind the St. Pete Times' recent stories about the church's leader and, to give context, the paper's long history of covering the organization, based in nearby Clearwater, Fla. But funding such media-criticism journalism with money from the chief critic who is the subject of the media outlet's attention -- that just doesn't pass the smell test. Is the freelance journalism pool so dry that former Pulitzer-Prize winners need to take assignments like this to pay the bills?

That issue aside, this move raises other questions more central to the Godbeat. Questions of power and politics and the external pressures against a dwindling stable of reporters dedicated to the coverage of religion.

What should reporters do when religious organizations push back by prying into them? It's a discomfiting reality that, given the right occasion, journalists and media outlets can become not the newsgatherers but the newsmakers. And when that happens I hate to see the hypocrisy that often follows. We journalists sure know how to dish it out, but it's hard to take it. And so we get tighter-lipped than the very people we write about.

But what's happening with the Church of Scientology and the St. Pete Times is different. Editor Neil Brown didn't mind talking with The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz. They just don't want to cooperate with the reporters acting as agents of the church (and, as mentioned, we can argue about whether they are independent agents).

Few religious organizations have the same combination of pop culture popularity, money and public scorn as the Church of Scientology, so this isn't likely to become a trend. But other organizations followed this model, it could present some real problems for the Godbeat.

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