An Unfortunate Analogy

In Howard Kurtz’s Monday Media Notes column in The Washington Post today comes word that the Church of Scientology has hired three respected journalists to probe the work of the St. Petersburg Times on Scientology. The paper has focused considerable attention on its leader, David Miscavige, and what it calls a “culture of intimidation and violence” under his reign.

As Kurtz reports,

The reporters hired for the study are Russell Carollo, who won a 1998 Pulitzer for Dayton, Ohio’s Daily News for a series on medical malpractice in the U.S. military, and Christopher Szechenyi, an Emmy-winning former television producer who has worked for the Boston Globe’s Web site.

Asked about taking on the assignment, the two chose to respond in a joint statement Sunday. “We were hesitant,” they said. “That’s why we insisted on being paid in full before we started our work, total editorial independence and having someone with the reputation of Steve Weinberg [the study’s editor] involved. Every entity has the right to receive fair treatment in the press.”

While the writers say they’ll have editorial independence, the Church has the right to deep six the report if the reporters’ findings aren’t to its liking. Weinberg is a longtime writer for and friend of the Columbia Journalism Review and, in fact, invoked our name to Kurtz, saying that 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.”

Not really. The quality of this effort is not the point as much as the fact of this effort—hiring on to help an entity notorious for bringing terrible pressure on any journalist who dares to examine it. While the pay is likely meaningful to the journalists, and we know that times are hard, it is chump change to the Church. The Church can essentially gamble that these veteran journalists will find something of value that it can use as a weapon against the Times.

That’s not a transaction we’d take part in, and we’re sorry Steve invoked our name.

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Mike Hoyt was CJR's executive editor from 2001 to 2013, teaches at Columbia's Journalism School and is the editor of The Big Roundtable, a startup that is a home for narrative writing.