Comments of the Week

February 22-26, 2010

Every Friday, we excerpt some of the most insightful, articulate, interesting, and entertaining comments we’ve received that week. Think we’ve missed something? Well… comment!

The Scientology Study

On Monday, CJR executive editor Mike Hoyt wrote a post for The Kicker in response to a Howard Kurtz column about the Church of Scientology commissioning several veteran journalists to probe the work of theSt. Petersburg Times, which has published numerous investigative pieces on the church. The study’s editor was Steve Weinberg, a longtime CJR contributor who told Kurtz he “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.” Hoyt concluded: “That’s not a transaction we’d take part in, and we’re sorry Steve invoked our name.”

Although Weinberg states that he has an agreement that the COS will not release any of the report, unless they release it unedited, [church spokesman] Tommy Davis has already announced its purported contents— i.e. allegedly very negative of the St. Petersburg Times reporting. So the question is, what is Weinberg’s response in light of Tommy Davis’ release of the alleged gist of the report? Is he now going to release the whole report, is he suing the COS for breach of contract, or is he full of it?

— Timmy Magnavox

Excellent comment by Timmy Magnavox.

Steve Weinberg here, the journalist approached by the two investigative reporters (not by the Scientologists) to edit the study of St. Petersburg Times coverage.

If the Scientology spokesman really told Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post that the study is “highly critical” of the newspaper, I believe he now has an obligation to release the study in full, as specified in the contract. That way, anybody interested can read a high-quality work of media evaluation, and can decide whether it’s highly critical. I have not dealt with that Scientology spokesman or anybody else at the organization, except to complete paperwork. But I am hoping the two reporters will do everything they can to ensure that the Scientologists place the study in the public domain.

— Steve Weinberg

CJR makes some invaluable points and distinctions. One fact that I haven’t seen reported anywhere is that one of the “reporters” involved has spent most of the past decade as the Director of Investigations for a law firm – not for a media entity.

This is Richard Behar here – an investigative journalist and the author of two lengthy exposes on Scientology in Forbes and Time magazines (1986; 1991). Time, Inc. and I were sued by the church for libel – and spent a decade in extremely time-consuming and costly litigation until the US Supreme Court refused to hear the church’s appeals.

The St. Petersburg Times should be applauded for being the only major, independent and professional media entity in America today that is willing to put resources into ongoing coverage of the church. Whatever the results of this strange, secret study that Steve Weinberg and the two writers have crafted, it’s not investigative journalism as I have ever learned it and understood it. I urge Steve, who I have respected immensely throughout my career, to rethink his actions here. And I’m optimistic that if he thinks long and hard about this, he may even conclude that he should return the money to the church — or donate it to a worthy charity.

And then let’s all get on with all the investigative journalism that so desperately needs to be done in the country — now more than ever.

— Richard Behar

As editor of The Boston Globe, let me clarify the extent of Christopher Szechenyi’s involvement with He does not currently work at The Boston Globe or His time at was sharply limited, did not represent a significant portion of his working life, and ended many years ago. Szechenyi was employed at from March 13, 2000 until January 9, 2001. Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post seems to have made more of his very brief association with than it deserved.

— Marty Baron

Christopher Szechenyi, Steve Weinberg and Russell Carollo wrote and edited a work for hire with the contractual terms specifying the report would be released in full or shelved and never released.

However, since Tommy Davis has violated that contract, the three must respond forcefully and rapidly to this grievous affront to their good names and reputations. Tommy Davis, it seems, has done material harm to their good names and reputations. Will they allow that?

The small statement they have made about about it and one interview concerning it are, I think, inadequate response to the injustice done to them by Davis and the Church of Scientology. They should consider: 1) returning the funds, or donating to them a worthy organization, 2) publishing the report in full and taking the legal consequences, 3) publishing a new report of some kind to set the record straight.

I wish them well. They have cast their lots with an organization known for its litigious nature, however, and they need to take affirmative action to clear their names and reputations, which have been so badly sullied by Mr. Davis and the Church of Scientology.


Statement and interviews:

— Stephen

Countering Counterfeiting

With a couple episodes of plagiarism in the news lately, Craig Silverman devoted this week’s “Regret the Error” column to tips that can help reporters and editors avoid lifting others’ work—and detecting instances of plagiarism when they occur. Silverman asked for more suggestions from readers, and quickly got one.

I think this is great to give some guidance, especially for journalists just starting out, on practices that can prevent problems. Making them a habit will help keep them out of trouble unless they are dedicated to deception. In my career of more than two decades as a newspaper reporter, I came up with a range of techniques myself including:

+ Using some kind of typographical notation for common-knowledge passages that need checking and paraphrasing before submission

+ For information that in fairness to another journalist and in service to the reader needed attribution to another source, be sure to jot down all the needed info from the start. That makes citations easy to do, especially as deadline looms rather than another rushed last-minute, backtracking task.

One concern, however, came up when out of curiosity, I checked out the tips with the eHow link. The first one reads: “Determine if the information is common knowledge. If the information has been cited in five other sources, it’s safe to assume that it’s common knowledge and does not need citation.”

I would disagree, and I worry for newer journalists or those just now getting religion if they follow this. The five apparent distinct sources can actually just be one (say several publication, broadcast and online outlets under the same ownership repeating what a sister entity reported.) Plus, for the sake of news consumers, even including a line about “In widespread news reports” can help prod them to think about the difference between what’s been reported, what’s common knowledge and what’s been established as fact.

— Maya Blackmun

The Press and Climate, Redux

On Tuesday, Robin Lloyd and Cristine Russell filed a dispatch for The Observatory from San Diego, where climate researchers and environment reporters had gathered for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Up for discussion was how to improve understanding of climate issues and communication between scientists and the press amid concerns about an erosion of public trust.

If you’ll read and re-read this article — and then again — you’ll note that there is hardly any critical self-examination of the media.

We read that scientists need to do a better job of communicating and of working with the media. We learn that scientists need to be more forthcoming and clear. We read that the public doesn’t get it. We DO read about some problems in the media — in some far-away country, as if our own media are doing a great job???!!!

I’m shocked at the LACK of self-examination here. Another gentle self-pat on the back to the media, with a few very gentle tips here and there.

— Jeff Huggins

I think “We are not very good in dealing with the press” really means “we should have been more honest.” The press, especially in the US, has given the AGW movement a free pass, being all too eager to hype the latest alarmist theme and bury any negative publicity. This led to a situation where the scientists felt they could act with impunity.

Through a combination of hubris, dishonesty and paranoia the AGW movement has poisoned the well. Among a significant portion of the population they are simply no longer credible. No matter what report or chart they offer the reaction will be “these are the same guys that lied to us before, and we’re supposed to believe them now?”

My advice would be to do the simple things: respond to FOI requests promptly, release all information, and do not overstate your case. If you have the slightest reservations about a finding, say so. If you find an inaccuracy, admit it. Clean house at the IPCC, and put the Climategate principals out to pasture. Don’t get embroiled in arguments over minutia. Stop talking about “settled science” and apologize for ever once having used the word “denier.”

If you want society to act you need a consensus, and a consensus requires trust.

Good luck. You have a long road ahead of you.


CJR and media, please read the comment by “JLD” posted above.

Keep in mind also what you (hopefully) already understand: The fact that all of the major scientific organizations worldwide, with any credibility, see climate change as being a very real and highly-highly likely problem.

Now, do you (media) understand that your coverage of the matter is partly, and perhaps wholly, responsible for the (lack of) understanding that many people seem to have? Look at JLD’s comment, compare that to the broad scientific assessments, and then ask yourselves, “did our coverage contribute to this misunderstanding?”

— Jeff Huggins

> “Margot Roosevelt, an environment reporter for the Los Angeles Times, said scientists need to engage more actively in the public debate. She said her paper’s environment blog, Greenspace, was frequently barraged with comments— …from climate contrarians”

I’m hoping this juxtaposition doesn’t mean that she wants scientists wasting their time in unmoderated, unfiltered comment sections. If the newspaper’s providing a forum for spreading disinformation, it is the newspaper’s responsibility to fix.

Also, ditto to Jeff H’s first comment, that the lion’s share of the blame for this predicament sure as hell doesn’t lie with the scientists.

— Anna Haynes

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.