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Scientology in clearwater
whAt hAppens when An independent jOurnAlist tAkes An ObjectiVe lOOk At St. PeterSburg timeS cOVerAge Of the church Of scientOlOgy?
An Outsider’s View Of
Downtown clearwater, a visiting journalist finds, shows a restoration complete with cobblestone streets, new restaurants and a host of shops offering a wide range of amenities. Prominent on the downtown skyline are the Scientology Flag building, now in the final phase of construction, and the 267,000-square-foot restored Fort Harrison Hotel, which re-opened in March 2009 as a Scientology religious retreat. Both are above at far right.
Clearwater – At first blush it’s difficult to discern any difference between this coastal city and many others hugging each coast of the Sunshine State. Gulf to Bay, the main thoroughfare leading into downtown, is lined with the usual generic shopping malls anchored by the big-box stores, while restaurants ranging from shrimp joints to barbecue eateries sit snug with the standard beach motels displaying vacancy signs. It’s right on the cusp of the busy “snowbird” season. It’s only on foot after a close inspection of the city’s downtown that the differences come to a stark end. While many of the tonier communities lining the East Coast of the state, extending from Palm Beach County down the 50-mile stretch to Miami, have been blighted by the double whammy of the real estate collapse
By Jim Lynch
preceding the harshest recession since the Great Depression, downtown Clearwater has by all appearances largely escaped the downturn. A stroll along Cleveland Street in the heart of downtown reveals a restoration complete with cobblestoned streets, new restaurants and a host of shops offering amenities ranging from Starbucks coffee to beachwear. Amid this array of downtown edifices stands by far the most prominent, a sevenstory Mediterranean-Renaissance building under construction, tan-hued with orange tile roof, under construction and scheduled to be completed by fall 2010. Tentatively named the Flag Building, a pedestrian bridge connects it to a jewel in the city’s crown, the Fort Harrison Hotel, which reopened in March after restoration, down to the last detail, to its former beauty and grace when first constructed in 1926. To this reporter from outside the community, even amid the grim economic news, the inescapable conclusion for the visitor to downtown Clearwater is that somebody is doing something right to
“This city has seemed to escape that unrelenting economic downturn.... Somebody is doing something right.”
counter the buffeting financial storm and propel the city forward through the hurricane-like economic gales that have not been witnessed in generations. To the knowledgable local resident, it’s not quite that simple. Here in this quiet, placid town, if one read only the major newspaper’s headlines, one could think a war is raging, one that’s been dragging on for 30 years. An objective observer could assume that any differences between the Church and the St. Petersburg Times would have receded into the fog of history, but for the newspaper, Scientology continues to be its standard fare and, some say, at the top of its “hit list.” Clearwater, of course, is the home and spiritual headquarters of the Church of Scientology, which established itself in the community in 1975. Much of the downtown renewal can be attributed to the Church, both through their restoration of many of the 40 or so buildings and the direct economic and social impact of thousands of Scientologists who visit the area every year. The Church is also involved in local initiatives to attract visitors and businesses to downtown, say local business owners and politicians. “Not Exactly Objective or Disinterested” For this story it would be impossible to chronicle in detail the subjects, content and vast number of articles the St. Petersburg Times has published on the Church. Some 4,100 stories and 72 follow-up editorials on Scientology over the past 33 years, according to Church officials.
Veteran journalist Jim Lynch is a former managing editor of the New York Post and former executive editor of the New York Daily News, as well as a former senior editorial manager of the Chicago Sun Times Media Group. He has also held senior-level editorial positions and acted as a consultant for various national publishers in the celebrity magazine field. Currently he works as a media consultant and freelance writer based in Florida.
Scientology in clearwater | a FreeDoM SPecial rePort
An example is a story by St. Petersburg Times reporters Joe Childs and Tom Tobin that appeared in November 2009. Curiously, it was about events that allegedly transpired in 1992, involving a longtime staff member of the Church who apparently decided to remain on Church staff rather than depart with her husband, who left to live in Canada. The story, as told by her ex-husband to whom she was married for one year, 17 years ago, and several other embittered former staff of the Church, was that his wife was convinced to remain in a staff position in the Church in California rather than go with her husband. In an italic disclaimer at the top of the story, the Times explained that the staff member and her attorney categorically denied all subsequent events that the Times published in the story. This was backed up by a letter from the staff member’s attorney that was also published on the paper’s Web site. As an exercise in assessing the ethics in truth and accuracy consistent with fair and balanced reporting, a guiding tenet of all mainstream U.S. newspapers, this article was offered for evaluation to Kelly McBride, Group Ethics Leader at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, a nonprofit journalism think tank that also gives courses and seminars to journalists. When asked to evaluate the ethical implications of the story, McBride issued a terse “no comment,” citing a conflict of interest because the Poynter Institute owns the St. Petersburg Times. But Professor of Communication and Media Studies Paul Levinson at New York City’s Fordham University had much more to say about the journalistic ethics employed by the Times in its reporting of the story. According to Levinson, who is also the author of New New Media, which has a section on ethics and journalism in the digital age: “I think the St. Petersburg Times story probably does not meet the minimum standards for responsible journalism. The subject of the story denies that the reported events took place. The sources are her ex-husband and four former Church of Scientology staff members, not exactly objective or disinterested parties.” Levinson concludes his analysis with this observation: “In terms of serving its readers, and the public interest, the Times did no one any good by publishing this story, and, as a matter of policy, it probably should not have published it until the events were corroborated by objective sources.”
Ethically Challenged Prior to that story, the Times ran a three-part series in early November 2009. The thrust of the series was that attorneys for the Church hired private investigators to investigate former Church staff who were reportedly planning actions against the Church’s best interests. The series reads like a cross between a suspense novel and a travelogue, with locations ranging from Telluride, Colorado, to Las Vegas to the Caribbean. All the events documented in this Times series took place from 1990 to 2001. Again, the Times printed wholesale denials by the Church of what was being alleged by these sources. But more striking, and going directly to Professor Levinson’s point concerning the more recent story, none of these events were “corroborated by objective sources.” And to cite Levinson’s journalism ethics analysis, the subjects involved as sources in the series were again “not exactly objective or disinterested parties.” The paper followed up this series with an editorial published on November 8 with a brief summary of the series’ revelations. But it was the last paragraph of the editorial that was really telling, though it offered a
Final construction of the Scientology Flag Building, using dozens of local firms, is scheduled to complete by fall 2010. the 377,000-square-foot building will become the largest part of the Scientology religious retreat in downtown clearwater.
The same four Scientology defectors who were used as primary sources for the later series came forth to tell the Times, on the record, their version of a series of events. Their stories were published in the June three-part series. The first part detailed alleged incidents of roughhousing and manhandling involving various Church workers. The second part revisited a lawsuit settled in 2004 alleging documents critical to a legal case were destroyed by the Times’ main
their assigned Church duties and were bitter and disgruntled. The Church also produced written statements from the sources in which they admitted to the neglect and mishandling of their Church duties. Furthermore, the Church flew in from Los Angeles a host of Scientology executives to respond in detail to the allegations of the sources. And, lastly, Church officials made Church leader David Miscavige available to the Times for an on-the-record interview. Scheduling difficulties made him unavailable until the following month, July 2009, to which the Times reporters agreed. It was slated to be only the first print interview Miscavige had given in more than a decade. The only other interview given to U.S. print media, ironically, was published by the Times in 1998 in which Miscavige gave Times managing editor Joe Childs, who has overseen the Times’ Scientology coverage since 1993, full access to Scientology facilities in Clearwater and Los Angeles in an effort to broker a truce and “put the past behind us” in regard to the contentious relationship between the paper and the Church. The truce was not to last. The following three points illustrate why it broke down and, simultaneously, reveal some disturbing facts that cast the Times’ sources in a highly dubious light as to the veracity of the information they gave to the Times, a newspaper where ethical standards and factual accuracy ostensibly demand that both sides of any story be told. 1) Three of the Times sources freely admitted to the paper that they had been on the delivering end of physical abuse that they alleged. Furthermore, if hypothetically they were only on the receiving end of the abuse, why did they not lodge a police report? Regardless of any religious affiliation, that’s what most people do when they suffer a physical attack.
“Both members of the Church and non-members have been instrumental in their efforts to revitalize the downtown area,” Bill Sturtevant
Chairman, Clearwater Downtown Partnership
disconnect in terms of the series’ time frame. Given that the most recent actions described in the series took place in 2001 and many other allegations dated from 1990 as chronicled by the paper, that last paragraph stated in part, “those politicians and community leaders who have normalized relations with Scientology can no longer claim ignorance about the nature of the church and the treatment of its workers.” This is a 2009 editorial addressing issues that allegedly took place at least eight years ago and as long as 19 years ago. Perhaps the most egregious and ethically challenged series of the year, again coauthored by Childs and Tobin, was published in June 2009.
source himself, 14 years ago. The third part of the series dealt with more allegations of roughhousing. By way of comparison, and to put the stories in context, if the Times had given as much ink to past altercations in newsrooms it would likely have filled the entire paper. And, as this reporter knows from his own background, if it had done so regarding every physical contact in Catholic schools, there would undoubtedly not be enough trees in the forest to cover those “stories.” The Church, for its part, again categorically denied all the allegations leveled by the Times sources. In effect, the Church’s response was that all of the “defectors,” i.e., Times sources, had been demoted by the Church for mishandling
Florida State Representative
“[Scientologists] buy up properties, repair them and clean them up. Plus they bring to Clearwater people from all parts of the world.”
Founder and Executive Director St. Petersburg Sunscreen Film Festival
“Some of our Board members are Scientologists and we also have Muslims, Jews and Catholics.”
Scientology in clearwater | a FreeDoM SPecial rePort
2) Bolstering the argument that the Church defector sources may, indeed, have an ax to grind against Church leadership, it’s evident in all the Times reporting that the sources never attack the beliefs and basic tenets of Scientology. 3) Childs and Tobin did pay several lengthy visits to the Clearwater Church to interview the executives who had flown in from Los Angeles to respond to the allegations. However, after several hours the final meeting was called to a halt by Childs shortly after he was offered interviews with the actual parties involved in the alleged incidents. Most importantly, he then informed the Church that the Times was ready to go with publication of the story imminently, in June. When reminded of the July 6 interview the Times had set up with Miscavige and asked by Church officials to hold off publishing until that interview was conducted, Childs reneged. Considering that many of the allegations in the series were squarely aimed at Miscavige, it defies logic that the Times would not hold their stories until he was interviewed. Plus, it was an exclusive to the paper. They had no competitors breathing down their necks with the same information and had no urgency to be first with the story—an alleged story which was 10 years old or more and took place thousands of miles from Clearwater. The story was, indeed, holdable, given these considerations. So what was the rush to print before Miscavige could be interviewed? And since he wasn’t, could this be construed as a rush to judgment? United Efforts Improve Community Moving forward, it indeed becomes apparent that the Church leader has been interested in forming better community ties and involvement on the part of Scientology. Despite the unreceptive audience, i.e., the Times, his and the Church’s community outreach efforts have borne fruit in volunteer assistance to schools, helping troubled youth with anti-drug programs and in economic terms, generating jobs and revenue for the city. Bill Sturtevant, chairman of the Clearwater Downtown Partnership, a volunteer board that offers marketing, advertising and financial assistance, says he remains 110 percent neutral when it comes to matters of religion. “It’s not our responsibility to justify the Church or to support those who detract from it.” He says that Scientologists and non-Scientologists are both on the board and the matter of what they worship is irrelevant. He adds, “Both members of the Church and non-members have been
instrumental in their efforts to revitalize the downtown area” and that he has a “very talented board, regardless of religious denomination.” Sturtevant points proudly to a community monthly event called Fourth Friday, essentially a street fair comprised of musical attractions, food vendors and the like. He says the event draws 2,000 people each month. “Families come downtown and everybody has a ball and they keep coming back.” He adds, “The Church has never, ever told us what to do or not to do. It’s all about attracting people downtown to have a place to live, work and have fun. And it works.” Local developer Jim White, also active in the Downtown Partnership, has a view of the Church that encompasses past and present. His take: “We in the community hope we have gotten by the past.” A subscriber to the Times for the last 25-30 years, he says of the recent Church coverage, “Reading about stuff that’s ancient history doesn’t benefit the community at all, especially when it’s rehashing things 25 years old that took place in other states. The Church has worked hard to repair community relations and has done a good job.” When he developed the Publix Super Market in downtown Clearwater, White said that he met with local Church officials due to some sentiment in the community that parishioners would frequent only Scientologist-run businesses.
the 267,000-square-foot Fort Harrison Hotel reopened in March 2009 after top to bottom renovation and restoration. the 1926 structure has been a hub of the community for decades and is open for use by nonprofit community groups today.
White adds, “If you’re trying to make downtown Clearwater a better place, part of that must include the Church. And they have definitely made improvements to the downtown area. They’re big and they’re a big part of that.” Speaking from his own personal experience, White says, “People are nice there at the Church. They’re part of the community.”
bring to Clearwater people from all parts of the world.” Ed Turanchik is a former Hillsborough County Commissioner and now a Tampa developer and president of ConnectUs, Florida’s high-speed rail initiative. He offers a unique perspective on how the Church impacts both Clearwater and the greater Tampa Bay area: “On the city side, the Church has made significant efforts in Clearwater to turn around a struggling town. Their investments have been positive both in major infrastructure projects as well as generating traffic, which is good for Clearwater.” It was a groundbreaking development on the regional end of the spectrum, Turanchik says, when the Church got involved as an active sponsor to attract the 2012 Olympics to Tampa, an effort he spearheaded. The Church has also contributed significantly as a member of the Board of Governors of the Tampa Bay Partnership. “The Church of Scientology is recognized as an important community member in the Tampa Bay area,” says Turanchik. “They’re involved in a lot of programs and invest a lot of money. I think they’ve made a positive impact.” Community Impact From his perspective, Lee Fugate, attorney and native of the Tampa Bay area, has seen a big turnaround in the evolution of the Church’s impact and regard in the community. Fugate was a prosecutor with the State Attorney’s Office in the late ’70s and ’80s and as such directed official investigations on many subjects. Since 1996, Fugate has acted at various times as counsel for the Church.
“If you’re trying to make downtown Clearwater a better place, part of that must include the Church. And they have definitely made improvements to the downtown area. They’re big and they’re a big part of that.” Jim White
Instead, he says, “The Church became an ally. They were able to tell me that people from all over the world come for religious services and that city businesses are frequented by all those visitors with no attention paid to religious affiliation, be it Catholic-owned or Scientologist-owned.” Church officials confirm that some 12,000 students or trainees visit per year, many from out of state and from other countries. And they are never encouraged to spend their money at any particular establishment. It’s completely up to them as individuals. Economic Impact Ed Hooper is a politician and careful with his words. A former Clearwater City Councilmember and veteran Clearwater firefighter, he is a second-year Florida State Representative whose district includes the Church facilities. According to Hooper, there’s no question that Scientologists are doing positive things on the Clearwater economic stage. “They buy up properties,” he says, “repair them and clean them up. Plus they
>>The Rev. Charles Kennedy
Pastor, Glorious Church of God in Christ
Tampa Bay attorney
“I’ve seen the impact [of The Way to Happiness]. It’s all about finding that moral base.”
“It became clear to me … that the Church was interested in building a stronger Clearwater. The Church brings in people from all over the world and that is a good thing, especially when you consider that Clearwater is a tourist-driven town.”
Scientology in clearwater | a FreeDoM SPecial rePort
In 1996, Fugate decided to do some investigating of his own. He paid for a trip to the Scientology Celebrity Centre in Hollywood, California, and was struck by the many plaques and letters of commendation from various Los Angeles officials and agencies praising the Church for its community involvement. His initial thought was, “Will I ever see such commendations and plaques in Clearwater?” Upon his return from Los Angeles, he began to see Scientologists as a vital force active in community development in Clearwater. He says, “You’ll always have your naysayers and you’ll always have detractors, but it became clear to me and the general business community that the Church was interested in building a stronger Clearwater. The Church brings in people from all over the world and that is a good thing, especially when you consider that Clearwater is a tourist-driven town. And they have a right to be respected for that effort.” He adds, “Church members actually get out there and roll up their sleeves, such as cleaning up the city for Jazz Fest. And a lot of their social programs appear to work and sometimes they get no credit.” Fugate may take some comfort in knowing that Scientology has received credit in Clearwater, especially in the area of social programs. The plaques and letters of commendation that he noticed in Los Angeles are now in abundance and on full display in Church buildings in Clearwater, for any visitor to see. But it is a story that goes largely untold to many in Clearwater simply because the St. Petersburg Times does not tell the story. The matter of individual worship seems to matter little to Tony Armer. He is the founder and executive director of the St. Petersburg Sunscreen Film Festival, now in its fifth year, and Church members, including celebrities, have contributed their efforts. Armer takes an ecumenical approach to his board: “A few of our board members are Scientologists, and we also have Muslims, Jews and Catholics. I notice that religious stuff never comes up with the Scientologists. They’re nice, good, hard-working people who offer their time and volunteer work,” he says. He also is aware of Scientologists’ efforts in the realm of anti-drug programs and plans to participate in an Anti-Cancer Walk in May. Armer concludes, “I’ve read quite a few of the articles in the St. Pete Times, but I prefer to look at things objectively. I just don’t know why they do so many stories on one religion.” Former Tampa mayor Dick Greco, now working in the development field, is well
“I’ve read quite a few of the articles in the St. Pete Times, but I prefer to look at things objectively. I just don’t know why they do so many stories on one religion.” Tony Armer
Executive Director Sunscreen Film Festival
Free to Choose Frank Murphy, communications director of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, says, “We take the position that every person, regardless of their religious beliefs, should be accorded dignity and respect and we value that position, living in the United States. That’s a wonderful freedom we have in this country. Every day there’s a new religion and there’s a goodness there and people support that religion whether it’s traditional or nontraditional. And people are free to choose what they decide to worship.” The Rev. Charles Kennedy, pastor for the last 30 years of the Glorious Church of God in Christ in Tampa, takes his embrace of Scientology a step further and sees the Church’s educational tools as a way to bridge the gap from a traditional religion to a relatively new one. He regards Scientology Founder L. Ron Hubbard as a “gentleman.’’ Kennedy uses Hubbard’s secular educational methods in the community center that is part of his own church. He finds them a valuable means to pre-test young students to find out where they actually are in terms of grade level and a useful way to move them up the educational ladder.
Kennedy says he also has seen the positive impact of Scientology outreach programs in the Florida state prison system, through inmates’ embrace of the Hubbard-authored The Way to Happiness, as a practical method aimed at helping them to lead better lives. Using these methods, Kennedy says, “I’ve seen the impact. It’s all about finding that moral base. Shortening that gap between the traditional and non-traditional in religion is what it’s all about.” “It’s Not What They Say, It’s What They Do” Founder and CEO of Tampa Bay Academy of Hope, James Evans is a big believer in bridging community divides and breaking down stereotypes. A former Tampa Bay Buccaneer, Evans and his organization provide at-risk youth with education and career assistance. He cosponsored a Human Rights Walkathon with Scientologists and has visited the teacher training campus, Applied Scholastics International in Missouri, and uses that secular methodology in his inner-city educational programs. As for Scientology, Evans speaks with no equivocation: “The Scientologists help us fight poverty, reduce violence and educate downtrodden youth in our community. They’ve reached across the aisle to make a difference. They take time to volunteer, they support us when we lack funds and they lend a helping hand to the community. The Scientologists have done this. It’s not a religious issue, it’s a human issue.” Evans says it has been a very inspiring experience to see how much the Church cares. As he puts it, “It’s not what they say, it’s what they do. They want to make a difference in the lives of others because they believe people’s lives have meaning and purpose.” An Honest Look While Tampa Bay elected officials and community leaders express support for Scientology in terms of contribution to the community, anecdotal responses from casual conversations with ordinary Clearwater citizens reflect another level of perceptions of the Church. A brief conversation with a Clearwater police officer, while thumbing through magazines at a local 7-11, indicated a peaceful relationship between the Church and the city. The officer’s words are short and sweet regarding the Scientology presence in Clearwater: “Nope, never had any issues with them.”
known throughout the state of Florida and enjoys the distinction of being one of the few U.S. politicians to have visited Cuba and met with Fidel Castro. Greco has strong views on Scientology, views that he’s reached through his own visits to and interactions with Church members and leaders. He says he came to be very impressed with the Church’s community outreach anti-drug programs after witnessing firsthand, during his tenure as mayor, the harm that drug abuse has done to Tampa Bay. He decided to take a tour of the Clearwater headquarters when asked several years ago to get involved in a city development project. “On the tour,” Greco says, and in subsequent dealings with the Church, “nobody ever tried to convert me or said anything about any other religion.” He points out that although the Church is such a significant member of the community, “most people know nothing about the Church,” despite their open-door policy. Greco says, “The Church gave me full access, and every question I asked them they answered thoroughly. They’re very open and anyone who wants to know something about the Church is always free to just come in and ask.”
“I have watched the Times repeatedly attempt to drive a wedge between Scientologists and others in the community, particularly trying to alienate civic leaders.” Mary Repper
Public relations consultant
Director of Communications Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg
Founder and CEO Tampa Bay Academy of Hope
“We take the position that every person, regardless of their religious beliefs, should be accorded dignity and respect, and we value that position, living in the U.S.”
“When we get past the differences of religion, beliefs and social stereotypes, we all bring something to the table. The Scientologists help us fight poverty, reduce violence and educate downtrodden youth in our community. They’ve reached across the aisle to make a difference.”
Scientology in clearwater | a FreeDoM SPecial rePort
During an unsolicited, small-talk conversation with an employee of the Marriott, in response to an observation that Clearwater is a “pretty nice city,” the employee responded, “The city used to be pretty run down, but it’s come a long way and Scientology has a lot to do with it. I would say a good 75 percent of downtown development is directly related to Scientology. Economically, this place would be nothing without them.” Mary Repper has been a political consultant in the Pinellas/Tampa area for more than three decades and now consults with the Church. Having lived in Clearwater since 1978, she is knowledgable and outspoken on local issues. She pulls no punches and goes straight to the point: “I have watched the Times repeatedly attempt to drive a wedge between Scientologists and others in the community, particularly trying to alienate civic leaders.” She acknowledges that in her former career as a political consultant she advised candidates to stay clear of Scientology. Her view shifted when she saw Scientologists in action in community and civic affairs. “I got it wrong,” she says. She recalls the black-tie gala the Church held in 2002 to mark the 75th anniversary of the historic Fort Harrison. Elected officials, Tampa Bay civic leaders and the business community were invited. She says Times editors were also invited but chose instead to publish a front-page story the day of the event, two columns with photos, of those who would and those who would not be attending the gala, based on speculation by the newspaper. Then, Repper recalls, the night of the gala the Times stationed photographers in ambush mode outside the Grand Lobby of the Fort Harrison, stunning arriving guests with cameras flashing. That incident, Repper says, “opened my eyes to just how heavy-handed that newspaper really is.” Ethical Violations After dozens of interviews that range from local business, civic and political leaders who support the economic impact of the Church on Clearwater, to religious leaders of many denominations who embrace Church methodology regarding social betterment programs and community outreach, to ordinary citizens who recognize the Church in the community, why does the St. Petersburg Times continue in attack mode? And what speaks to the motives of the Times in its campaign regarding Scientology? The answer comes from several former Times reporters who spoke on condition
“Joe Childs was rabid about Scientology. If there was anything that had anything to do with Scientology, it was hands off, because he made decisions on who would do what on Scientology. Bringing down Scientology is like grabbing the Holy Grail for Childs.”
Former St. Petersburg Times reporter
there was a new restaurant or business downtown that was owned by a member of the Church of Scientology that was a routine community story, you had to put Scientology in the story. One day when I wrote such a story and didn’t include the bit about Scientology, Joe came in and asked me why I didn’t include it.” And in a telling anecdote reflecting Childs’ “disdain and disrespect,” recalled by the reporter: “A reporter picked up a picket sign from a Church protest of the St. Pete Times in 1997 and gave it to Joe. Childs had that and several other signs from the picket and whenever a story on Scientology would come out he would put all that stuff up on the glass walls of his office.” Another ex-journalist offers his view on the diminishing impact of Times coverage of Scientology: “They have done these series and there has been no public outcry. The public is by now so apathetic about the stories. After reading them, the reaction is ‘OK, so what?’” The journalist says Scientology has been “standard fare” for the Times for 30 years and that Joe Childs has apparently ignored journalistic ethical canons: “Joe Childs never made any bones about how he felt about Scientology and this has been reflected in the paper’s coverage for years. But anybody who knows anything about journalistic fairness knows that when a reporter or editor is biased on a particular subject, either negatively or positively, that person should not be writing or editing anything on that subject. How can the St. Petersburg Times allow Joe Childs to have an active hand in Scientology reporting?” __________ The negative Times coverage of the Church of Scientology runs decidedly opposite to the view this reporter found in the community at large. The Times is mired in the past and decidedly out of step with the experience of the community in relation to Scientology. If the Times allows this gap to widen, it bodes ill for the future of the paper and is a disservice to the community. Managing editor Joe Childs and reporter Tom Tobin, coauthors of the many Times series on the Church of Scientology, did not respond to voicemail messages left on their office phones asking them to comment on this story. Times attorney George Rahdert called to say that Childs and Tobin “would not be commenting” on the story. n In the next issue: Jim Lynch investigates the relationship between the St. Petersburg Times and the Poynter Institute.
of anonymity due to fears, they say, of retribution from the Times that might adversely affect future job opportunities. Each laid the blame on Times managing editor Joe Childs. He has supervised Scientology coverage since 1993 and, with reporter Tom Tobin, has personally written much of the Scientology coverage. One former reporter describes Joe Childs as an editor with an ego who exerts very tight control over what the reporter refers to as the “sacred-cow reporters” working under Childs. “Joe was rabid about Scientology,” the reporter says. “If there was anything that had anything to do with Scientology, it was hands off, because he made decisions on who would do what on Scientology. Bringing down Scientology is like grabbing the Holy Grail for Childs.” By way of explanation for Childs’ approach: “He has been with the Times, in one capacity or another, since 1976. He is obsessed with the Church and since he’s in the twilight of his long career, it’s all about winning a Pulitzer Prize, something that has always eluded him.”
As for the consistently negative tone and content of his coverage of the Church, the reporter offers: “He just doesn’t care.” Another former Times reporter concurs with the assessment of Childs’ endgame. “Yeah, he’s getting older,” the reporter says, “and definitely wants a Pulitzer.” Another former St. Petersburg Times reporter spoke about the June 2009 series by Childs and Tobin from a journalistic ethics standpoint: “I was ticked off that they never interviewed David Miscavige to get his side of the story,” instead cancelling the scheduled interview and publishing the series. The former Times reporter says he “has a big problem with that,” recalling that “I did a story on another subject under Joe and we took our time with the project until Joe was satisfied with it. Joe held the story for a good month and a half.” The reporter also wearied of the excessive—even incessant—demand by Childs to include Scientology references in stories that had nothing to do with the Church or any religion. He says, “Anytime
“Joe Childs never made any bones about how he felt about Scientology and this has been reflected in the paper’s coverage for years.... How can the St. Petersburg Times allow Joe Childs to have an active hand in Scientology reporting?”
Former Mayor, Tampa
Public relations consultant
“The Church gave me full access and every question I asked them they answered openly and quickly. … Anyone who doesn’t understand something about the Church is always free to just come in and ask.”
“Every person that has come forth in these negative St. Petersburg Times stories … says the Church has helped them.”
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