Scientology Hires Reporters to Investigate St. Petersburg Times

Russell Carollo
Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Russell Carollo says he had complete editorial control of the review of the St. Petersburg Times.
TAMPA (2010-2-25) -

The Church of Scientology is deploying a new weapon in its three-decade battle with the St. Petersburg Times: award-winning investigative journalists.

Those reporters completed their own review of the newspaper's coverage of Scientology, but church officials won’t release it.

In 1980, The St. Petersburg Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the secretive religion, headquartered in Clearwater. Since then, church officials have said the newspaper’s coverage is unfair.

So church officials decided to do something about it, according to spokesman Tommy Davis.

“To be honest, I think we just took a playbook from the media,” Davis said. “Media pay reporters all the time to investigate things.

“So we thought it warranted some investigation, and so we hired some reporters to investigate. It’s pretty straightforward, in that regard,” he said.

Those reporters are Christopher Szechenyi, an Emmy-winning television producer from Boston, and Russell Carollo, a Colorado-based reporter who won a Pulitzer for uncovering medical malpractice in the military.

They called Neil Brown, executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times, who refused to answer their questions.

“We were surprised and a little disappointed that they felt it was a good idea to stop what we were doing and cooperate on an independent review of our work,” Brown said, “particularly when I, only upon pressing them, found out they were being paid to do it by the Church of Scientology.

“So they wanted us to participate in a study of our work paid for by the subjects of our work. It seemed odd at best,” he said.

Carollo and Szechenyi declined to be interviewed for this story. In a statement, they said they never misrepresented themselves or who they were working for. They also said they were paid in advance and had complete editorial control of their work.

In any case, the newspaper declined to cooperate with the investigation, saying it would fuel the religion’s ongoing campaign to discredit The Times.

“They have, at various points, threatened litigation against us for performing this kind of journalism,” Brown said. “When you’ve been threatened with lawsuits, it doesn’t make sense to have a conversation with subjects who are threatening you about the work.

“So, we ultimately had to say, this isn’t an independent, objective review, and we’ve got a lot of journalism left to do and we’re going to go forward with it.”

The reporters completed their review and turned it over for an edit to Steve Weinberg, a long-time University of Missouri journalism professor and former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors.

He agrees with Brown that this arrangement is unique.

“This is unusual. I would presume that not many organizations that get covered seek and find investigative journalists who would then study the coverage,” Weinberg said.

Weinberg said reporters increasingly are being funded by nonprofit organizations, foundations and other non-traditional means, and the report in question is similar to stories he edited for journalism reviews.

“I never would have been interested in editing a story or a report that would be used as some kind of weapon by the Scientologists against any journalist,” Weinberg said.

The report has been turned over to the Church, which is refusing to release it to the public.

But that didn’t stop Davis from speaking about the report to Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz, who broke this story Monday. Davis called the report “highly critical” of the Times.

In their statement, the reporters said Davis “did not accurately portray the full scope of our work” and urged the Church to release the report.

But they say they can’t talk about their findings, because of their contract with the Church.

Click here to listen to full interviews with Tommy Davis, Neil Brown and Steve Weinberg.

Full Text of Statement from Christopher Szechenyi, Steve Weinberg and Russell Carollo, Feb 25, 2010:

During an interview with the Washington Post, Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis discussed a portion of the findings of our independent review, and, in doing so, did not accurately portray the full scope of our work. We have urged the church to release the complete report of that review.

Because our full report has not been released, any characterization of our work is premature and purely speculative.

We are proud of the work we did. We took great care in insuring that our work was free of all outside interference by any entity, including the Church of Scientology. We insisted on and maintained the highest ethical standards of journalism. We constantly challenged each other to ensure we were upholding those standards. To that end, we insisted on being paid in full for our work before we started our examination.

As part of our efforts to uphold the highest ethical standards, we made the Times fully aware of our work and the conditions under which it was being conducted. We never misrepresented ourselves or who we were working for. We offered reporters and editors there several opportunities to hear in more detail about what we were doing and what we had found. We repeatedly offered them the opportunity to make their observations part of the report. We were prepared to meet with them in person in Florida on two separate occasions, but they declined.

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