More from investigative reporter who chose to work with ‘hostile’ Scientologists
In November, I wrote a short post highlighting that the Church of Scientology had recently placed ads with JournalismJobs.com seeking investigative journalists. It seemed weird to me that an organization known for attempting to stifle anti-Scientology rhetoric with lawsuits and disinformation would be on the lookout for “experienced investigative reporters” and I said as much.
However, realizing that a lot of writers and reporters (including myself) are having a rough time finding work, I made the flip observation that “work is work” — implying that if working for the Church of Scientology is the only gig you can get, then so be it. Who am I to judge?
My colleague Steve Weinberg — professor of investigative journalism, author of well-researched books, and writer for seriously good publications like Miller-McCune and the IRE Journal – commented to say the following:
Because I’m so deeply identified within the journalism world as an investigative journalist, I often receive requests for advice. Recently, an experienced investigative journalist who has found it difficult to conduct his work because of the economic downturn asked me if he should apply for the Scientologists’ opening. I told him no, even though I like to see superb investigative reporting no matter who is funding it. 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.
But then earlier this week, Howard Kurtz posted an article about investigative journalists working for the Church of Scientology. And guess who’s featured in the post?
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.”
He says their agreement requires that the church publish the study in full, if it decides to make it public, but that “the contract says the church has the right to do nothing with it except put it in a drawer.” That means Scientology leaders have an out if the recently completed study isn’t to their liking.
Weinberg acknowledges that the “unusual situation” gave him pause, saying: “It certainly wouldn’t be something just any reporter would do. My role was more limited, and I can certainly use the money these days.”
I have a deep respect for Weinberg. I’m a member of the organization he helped to found so many years ago. I e-mailed him for comment: “What made you change your mind and take $5,000 from this organization to edit copy? Was it purely the (admittedly very good) money, or something else about their terms? A combination of the two? Something else?” After an exchange of a few e-mails, he said the following (I’ve chosen to quote him at length, verbatim, giving him the opportunity to explain his thinking in his own words):
The two reporters, both of whom I respect and have read for decades, asked me to serve as the editor. They paid me from a larger sum they negotiated with the Scientologists. The Kurtz account is imprecise, and he has expressed his regret to me in writing that his posting failed to note various nuances. I realize that the nuances might feel irrelevant to some folks, but they are vital to me.
He followed that with:
Here is the context: Two veteran investigative journalists — one who has won a St. Petersburg Times coverage of the church, they contacted me about serving as the project editor. I did not deal with the Scientologists, except to receive a contract and later payment in the mail. I dealt entirely with the two superb investigative reporters.and many other national honors, the other who has won numerous national print and broadcast awards — replied to a Scientology advertisement about hiring freelancers for various projects. I knew nothing about the advertisement. After the two reporters agreed to examine
We received payment before the reporting and editing began so the Scientologists could not influence the project by withholding the entire fee or offering a kill fee. As journalists often do when being examined by other journalists (foror wherever), those at the St. Pete Times refused to cooperate. The “ongoing coverage” excuse is sad to read, because the coverage at the Time of the Scientologists will always be “ongoing.”
The Scientologists have the contractual right to withhold the study. If it’s published, it must be published without changing a comma, much less the substance.
Kurtz is writing and Times editor Brown is commenting without knowing what the two independent investigative reporters wrote. At this juncture, I have no idea whether the Scientologists will publish the study.
I edited the manuscript with the same devotion to factual and contextual accuracy as I would edit any piece of first-rate reporting.
Naturally, I asked about editorial independence. They showed me the contract they had negotiated with the Scientologists, which spells out complete editorial independence. That independence included payment in full before the reporting/writing began. That independence also included the proviso the study would be published as submitted, without any alterations (not even comma placement) or would simply become an internal document for the Scientologists.
Except for filling out standard paperwork so that I would receive my share of the overall payment, I had no contact with the Scientologists. The reporters submitted their draft to me in late January, I edited for a couple of weeks as drafts passed back and forth among Szechenyi, Carollo and me, and then I declared my editing complete. Szechenyi and Carollo then submitted the study to the appropriate Scientologist executive.
Now, I’m hoping the Scientologists will choose to publish the study soon. The Scientologist spokesman, Kurtz tells me those were not the exact words of Davis, but that those two words fairly capture the gist of Davis’ characterization.) I would liek everybody interested in this situation to read the actual study reported/written by Szechenyi and Carollo, plus edited by me. Then each reader can decide on her/his own about the quality of the newspaper’s coverage and the quality of the study examining that coverage., characterized the study of the St. Petersburg Times coverage as highly negative. (
If you’ve made it to this point, congrats: You’ve fallen about as far into the rabbit hole of journalism ethics as I’d recommend. But you’ve made it. So what do you think? Is it ok for veteran investigative reporters to write for the Scientologists? Or is working for an organization “so hostile to outside journalists” just not right?
We’ll really get to the bottom of this when we find out if the CoS publishes the investigation or not.