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Scientology Church hires reporters to investigate newspaper

Editor Neil Brown
Editor Neil Brown (Fountain - St. Petersburg Times)
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It's been three decades since the Times won a Pulitzer for its reporting on the church, based in nearby Clearwater. In the latest chapter of this long-running battle, the paper began reporting new allegations last summer, using on-the-record interviews with former high-ranking Scientology officials. The Times quoted the defectors as charging the church's leader, David Miscavige, with "routinely attacking his lieutenants" and saying that he once "out of nowhere slapped a manager," while also acknowledging that they participated in violent acts. The Times said that the church pursued former staff members and subjected them to "months of interrogation, humiliation and manual labor."

Davis says the paper "relied on sources that had not only been removed by the person they were attacking, but . . . admitted to having engaged in the same behavior they accused others of. These guys got removed for gross malfeasance." He and the church's lawyer told the paper that some staffers were beaten up, but that Miscavige never engaged in violence. The Times included excerpts of Davis's statements accusing the paper of "naked bias" against "the fastest-growing religion on earth."

During 25 hours of discussions with the Times reporters, Davis says, church officials offered a rare, exclusive interview with Miscavige -- who last spoke to the paper in 1998 -- but the paper launched its series on June 21, about two weeks before the proposed July 6 sit-down. Miscavige was busy preparing for an annual international event and attending church openings in Dallas, Nashville and Sweden, Davis says. "I think they handled it totally irresponsibly," he says.

Brown says that the Times first asked to talk to Miscavige on May 13 and that the church had sent lawyers to talk to the ex-officials being interviewed. "They were already confronting some of our sources. We felt we had given them plenty of time," Brown says.

The church's magazine, Freedom, has repeatedly assailed the Times, and other properties owned by its corporate parent, under the rubric "Merchants of Chaos." Freedom has noted that a cardiologist won a $10 million libel verdict against the paper last year over reporting on his transfer from a local hospital post; the paper is appealing.

Whether the journalists' report is released or not, Davis says the church plans more scrutiny of its media adversary -- which comes as no surprise to Brown. "I counted up something like six or seven journalists the church has hired to look into the St. Petersburg Times," Brown says. "I've just got two looking into the Church of Scientology."

Connecting on campus

The Harvard Crimson has signed up. So have the Yale Daily News and Stanford Daily, along with the student papers at Georgetown, George Washington and Towson universities.

They are among the 55 publications that will share their content on a new College section at the Huffington Post, which is hoping to gain a foothold among the nation's 19 million college students. The section, which is being launched Monday, will include a batch of bloggers, ranging from faculty members writing on meaty subjects to a sex-and-dating columnist at Cornell University.

"This is a serious undertaking, but it has to be fun," says Jose Antonio Vargas, who already runs the HuffPost's technology section. "I want to create a virtual hub for college life in America."

Vargas, 29, a former Washington Post reporter, is sharing the workload with an intern, Leah Finnegan, who he says has greater campus cred because she's 23 and recently ran the student paper at the University of Texas at Austin.

Vargas plans to create a Facebook group for college editors, and he has tapped nine students and graduates to write or make videos on the impact of taking out big loans. (A Tulane undergrad says it is "humiliating" that she is $100,000 in debt.) The site has also lined up blogging contributions from Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Beverly Tatum, president of Spelman College, the nation's oldest black college for women.

At the same time, Vargas says, "of course we're going to have silly slide shows on college dating."

For some editors, Huffington Post College seems a natural fit. "There are stories in college newspapers, certainly in ours, that have broad appeal," says Paul Needham, editor of the Yale Daily News. "This is one more way we can reach people who wouldn't otherwise be inclined to go to our Web site. . . . We're no longer just writing for people in the dining hall."

But others have rejected Vargas's invitation. Andrew Dunn, editor of the University of North Carolina's Daily Tar Heel, says he was concerned that "the Huffington Post is a left-leaning Web site, and what sort of message that affiliation would send." Plus, "we really didn't want Huffington Post links" showing up in Web searches "instead of our links."

Vargas eventually hopes to add more papers. "This can't feel like talking down to our audience," he says. "This is a site for college-age kids, written and driven by college-age kids."

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