The 25 October 2012 issue of The New Republic carries a story entitled “Thetans and Bowties” that I can’t quite get my head round. By this I do not mean I do not understand what the article says – but I am having a hard time classifying its species. Is this story about the convergence of the Nation of Islam and the Church of Scientology news, news analysis, a feature or a newsy magazine feature?
The article has a magazine opening. It is strong on adjectives, impressions and has a nice hook. While it has solid quotes, it also strikes me as being under-sourced for a 1600 words piece. While it does not display the narcissism that runs rampant in much magazine journalism, it is a tad too self-referential for my taste. It begins:
ON A COOL, clear evening in mid-September, the Church of Scientology held a grand opening for its new national affairs office in Washington, D.C. Located in a handsome, 122-year-old mansion in Dupont Circle—a genteel neighborhood populated with embassies and well-appointed homes—the office had been established to lobby on various Scientology pet causes, such as religious freedom, prisoner rehabilitation, and the evils of psychiatric drugs. Three members of Congress showed up to deliver words of welcome, as did a FEMA official, who praised the Church’s volunteer efforts after national disasters like September 11. Finally, Scientology’s leader, David Miscavige, addressed the several hundred people in the crowd. Miscavige is 52 but looks at least a decade younger. Dressed in an expertly tailored suit, his slicked hair parted to one side, he spoke excitedly of Scientology’s goal to have a presence in every city in America.
The message of the event couldn’t have been clearer: The Church of Scientology was directing the full force of its persuasive powers at the Washington establishment. But who the Church courts and who the Church converts is a very different matter. And when Mike Rinder, Scientology’s former chief spokesman, visited the Washington church last year, he noticed something strange. “Half the damn people there were Nation of Islam,” he told me. “[It’s] the weirdest, weirdest thing.”
The article then recounts the growing affinity of the two groups, but with the framing round Scientology – the theme being the Nation of Islam moving into (and propping up) Scientology.
I applaud TNR for exploring the issue and this story is worth a read. However, I was struck by the repeated use of the phrase “he told me” in the story. Perhaps I am too hard boiled but I am turned off by first person pronouns in news stories – and the five told me’s here are a bit much.
The research on this issue is also somewhat thin. The Tampa Bay Times has done some very fine stories on the general topic of Scientology – and has also explored the intersection of the Nation of Islam and Scientology -- as has the Chicago Tribune and the Village Voice. I’ve written about this work also for Get Religion. Citing the work that others have done is not always necessary, but this is not virgin soil The New Republic is plowing.
One of the anecdotes offered in this story also struck me as being not quite right.
…But the story of how Farrakhan came to embrace it concerns a Nation minister in Los Angeles named Tony Muhammad. In 2005, Muhammad was beaten by the LAPD at a prayer vigil he’d helped organize for a young man killed in a drive-by shooting. The incident plunged him into an agitated, depressed state. A concerned friend introduced him to Scientology, which he credits with saving his life. When Farrakhan later met with Muhammad, he was amazed by the transformation and, as Muhammad tells it in an audio clip posted on YouTube, exclaimed: “Whatever you’re on—I want some of it.”
The TNR writes as if there was no doubt that Muhammad was “beaten by the LAPD at a prayer vigil”. That is not the story reported in the LA Times – and the National Review’s Jack Dunphy offers a scathing critique, calling Muhammad a “charlatan”. Is this account of how Louis Farrakhan began his move towards the Church of Scientology a good story, or is it a true story? And -- what does Islam say about Scientology? Does this effectively remove the Nation of Islam from the ummah -- the community of Muslim Believers?
Which takes me back to my opening -- what sort of story is this? As a straight news story the article falls short. If it is a feature story, it does the job. What is it?