Journalists for hire
Monday, February 22, 2010; 12:24 PM
After decades of digging into the Church of Scientology, reporters and editors at the St. Petersburg Times are accustomed to being denounced by its leaders.
But they find it unsettling that three veteran journalists -- a Pulitzer Prize winner, a former "60 Minutes" producer and the former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors -- are taking the church's money to examine the paper's conduct.
Although the journalists have promised an independent review, the Times has refused to cooperate, saying their work will be used to fuel the church's ongoing campaign against the Florida paper.
"I ultimately couldn't take this request very seriously because it's a study bought and paid for by the Church of Scientology," says Executive Editor Neil Brown. "Candidly," he adds, "I was surprised and disappointed that journalists who I understand to have an extensive background in investigative reporting would think it's appropriate to ask me or our news organization to talk about that reporting while a) it's ongoing, and b) while they're being paid to ask these questions by the very subjects of our reporting."
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."
Church spokesman Tommy Davis says he recently received the approximately 20-page study and that it will not necessarily be made public. It was commissioned, he says, because "we wanted to get an outside view" of the situation. Davis, who would not disclose how much the reporters were paid, calls the report highly critical of the Times stories on the church.
Asked about Brown's view that the study could not possibly be objective, Davis says: "It's easy for the St. Pete Times to pop off and say that, but oh, please. It's a normal thing. It's done all the time." He likened the effort to CBS hiring an outside panel to investigate Dan Rather's 2004 story on George W. Bush and the National Guard, which the network later retracted. That report was a self-examination, however, and was made public.
The reporters hired for the study are Russell Carollo, who won a 1998 Pulitzer for the Dayton (Ohio) 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 involved. Every entity has the right to receive fair treatment in the press."
As for accepting payment from the church, they said: "We were as objective in doing this job as we were in pursuing all the other assignments we've done for news organizations during the past 25 years."