Most companies—and even many religious organizations—work to enhance their image through public relations. But over the years the Church of Scientology, a religious group that some have accused of acting more like a powerful corporation than a church, has been more aggressive about P.R. than most religious groups, enlisting a team of communications specialists to carefully promote its message and setting loose lawyers on journalists or other critics who differ with the party line.
In recent months, however, the Church has faced a series of attacks that have challenged both its carefully burnished image and its standard methods of self-defense.
Some of the criticism has centered on Tom Cruise, the world’s most famous Scientologist. But other challenges—including public protests that have attracted thousands of people around the globe, criticisms from former members and a relative of the Church’s current leader, and mysterious chemicals that were mailed to Church offices—represent the latest chapters in the long-running battle between the Church and its assorted and increasingly vocal critics.
And just as the recording and publishing industries have been forced to address the implications of our digital age, the Church has struggled to come up with an effective strategy for battling people who use the Internet to organize mass protests, distribute internal Church documents, hack Church Web sites, and create online communities for ex-members and other vocal critics.
Even though celebrity journalist Andrew Morton’s Tom Cruise: An Unauthorized Biography was neither a critical nor popular success, the book’s highly anticipated January 15 release provided the mainstream media and the blogosophere with an occasion to focus on Scientology and the man who, for most people, is a better-known Church icon than its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. The results were less than flattering for both the actor and the Church.
Morton, who previously wrote books about Princess Diana and Madonna, labeled Cruise a “movie messiah” who exploits both “the unfettered power of modern celebrity” and “our embrace of religious extremism.”
As for Cruise’s willingness to be the “poster boy” for Scientology, Morton says Cruise has used his own “charm and persuasiveness” to promote the organization’s “relentless expansion” while obscuring its “totalitarian zeal” with his own sex appeal and fame.
Morton gives readers a combination of facts (Cruse was introduced to Scientology by first wife Mimi Rogers), rants by ex-members (who expose the Church’s inner workings), and his own psychological interpretations (Cruise’s deep emotional needs made him vulnerable to the lure of a powerful organization to which he could dedicate himself).
Both the Church and a spokesperson for Cruise have criticized the book and claimed that its author did not seek them out for comment. “Accuracy and truth were not on Morton’s agenda,” said a Church statement.
And questions about the book’s accuracy were among the factors leading Macmillan, which planned to publish the book in Britain, to announce in April that it would be too risky to do so, given the UK’s more stringent libel laws. A Macmillan spokesman told London’s Telegraph: “By the time our lawyers had been through it, there was nothing left but red ink. We have explored every possible option, but have concluded that once the potentially defamatory sections are taken out, there is not enough left to make a good read.”
Cruise’s million-dollar smile has been featured in dozens of films, but his star doesn’t shine as brightly as it once did. His last major film was Lions for Lambs, a movie about the war in Afghanistan, which fared poorly at the domestic box office.
Even his media appearances have become more problematic. In 2005 he angered many fans when he turned an appearance on the Today show with Matt Lauer into a Scientology-driven anti-psychiatric attack against Brooke Shields, who had taken antidepressant medications after the birth of her child. And his June 2005 couch-jumping exuberence over Katie Holmes on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show convinced some fans he had lost his mind—a perception he tried to repair during a May 2 interview with Oprah at his Colorado estate.
During that May appearance, Cruise apologized for his earlier behavior and sought to present a calmer, friendlier face, both for himself and Scientology, which he said was “not the only way” to find God. Or as New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley wrote, “the encounter was less like a movie star interview than like a news conference with a political candidate seeking to undo a gaffe.”
Cruise remains a major player behind the scenes. In 2006 he and longtime production partner Paula Wagner were put in charge of United Artists, the venerated Hollywood studio founded nearly a century ago by Charlie Chaplin and others. But Cruise’s connections to Scientology have complicated things for UA’s first Cruise/Wagner release, the World War II drama, Valkyrie.
In June 2007, German officials cited Cruise’s link to the “cult” of Scientology as one reason for originally prohibiting United Artists from filming scenes of Cruise at German military installations. The government later allowed the scenes to be filmed, but the film has encountered other problems, and its release date has been pushed back twice.
According to the New York Times, the controversy over Valkyrie shows that Cruise “appears to be both an asset and a liability.”
“Anonymous” on the Attack
While most people have heard of Tom Cruise and Andrew Morton, no one’s exactly sure who is behind the group called Anonymous, which has used the Internet to organize attacks on the Church of Scientology. And that’s just the way leaders of Anonymous want it.
In the last year, people claiming to be affiliated with Anonymous have claimed credit for a variety of anti-Scientology activities:
When the Church pressured YouTube (the popular site that enables anyone with a camera) to remove copyrighted materials from the site, including a video of a 2004 speech by Cruise, Anonymous posted its own video that portrayed the Church as a Big Brother seeking to trample freedom of speech and thought.
Anonymous also organized a series of attacks on Church computers that shut down its main Web site (www.scientology.org) for a day in January, forcing the Church to switch to an Internet service provider with tougher security.
And in February representatives of Anonymous allegedly mailed packets of white powder to twenty-three Church offices in California, causing evacuations, road closings, and an FBI investigation.
The reaction to the Anonymous attacks has been mixed. Some critics have cheered the antics of Anonymous, rejoicing in the fact that the Church has been less successful at halting its activities than it has been in the past when it sought to muzzle critics who used the mainstream media as their platform.
On the other hand, the take-no-prisoners approach of the attacks has worried some long-time critics of the Church who fear that they may bring about reprisals that stifle opponents of Scientology. As critic Mark Bunker of the www.xenutv.com Web site told the Los Angeles Times, “I hope it doesn’t hurt the larger critic community who have been speaking out for years about Scientology’s abuse.”
The World Wide Web of Intrigue
Anonymous has also used the Web as a platform to announce its campaign to destroy the Church and to call for worldwide protests, one of which drew thousands of people to anti-Scientology events at major cities throughout the world February 10.
Hundreds of masked protesters and gawkers showed up at rallies held in front of some of the Church’s Los Angeles facilities, where they carried signs and handed out brochures criticizing the Church’s crusading zeal and costly courses. the Los Angeles Times reported that other rallies were held in Boston, New York, Toronto, the U.K., and Australia.
But Anonymous isn’t the only group using the power, reach, and anonymity of the Web to go after Scientology. Other critics have uploaded hundreds of anti-Church videos on YouTube.
Some of the videos are simple productions. One entitled “Scientology Crazy Followers” (www.youtube.com/ watch?v=pPol_ m8wm8Y) is shot with a hand-held camera and features an individual who is prevented from attending a protest rally because the Church had the street in front of its building closed to public access. The video has been seen more than one million times.
TV and film actor Jason Beghe, who reached Scientology’s OT 5 level and appeared in promotional videos for the Church, has also released a series of anti-Scientology videos on You Tube claiming that the organization is a dangerous rip-off. You can find his profanity-heavy three-minute “preview” video at: http:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZvmvlZM1gw.
Other YouTube videos are creating bigger problems for the Church. One eye-opening video entitled “Scientology advocates violence against psychiatry” (http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=hfu7Sr50N7U) features a pirated copy of a speech by Church leader David Miscavige about the Church’s 2006 campaign “for the global elimination of psychiatry.”
The speech, which Church officials acknowledge is at least partly authentic, was clearly intended for an audience of the faithful. But now, thanks to the power of the Web, viewers can see for themselves how Miscavige sounds when he preaches to the choir. And, as many people have indicated in their responses on YouTube, their look into the inner workings of the Church have not increased their affection for Scientology.
The video has been taken down by YouTube at the request of Church officials. (YouTube honors such requests when organizations or TV networks claim that copyrighted material has been released without consent.) But in some cases, after anti-Scientology videos have disappeared from YouTube they have reappeared thanks to critics who then upload them again.
The video attacks have led the Church to create an online “Scientology Video Channel,” which offers numerous Church-sanctioned videos. When Web surfers go to www.scientology.org, they are sent to the video site and must click on a home page link to go to the main Scientology site.
There have always been former Scientologists who speak out about the Church, but in recent months three big-league insiders have joined the chorus of critics.
Jenna Miscavige Hill (the niece ofScientology leader David Miscavige), Kendra Wiseman (the daughter of Bruce Wiseman, president of the Church’s anti-psychiatricgroup, Citizens Commission on Human Rights), and Astra Woodcraft, whose parents joined Scientology’s elite Sea Organization when she was seven (and who was featured in a 2005 Glamour magazine article entitled “Why I Fled Scientology”) launched ExScientologyKids.com, a site for people who grew up in Scientology.
The site’s home page describes their goal: “We offer non-judgmental support for those who are still in Scientology, discussion and debate for those who’ve already left, and a plethora of easy-to-understand references for the curious.” And the site offers a variety of materials, including discussions of the Church’s disconnection policy, which requires members to disaffiliate from family, friends, or loved ones who leave the organization.
In April, Nightline, ABC TV’s late-night news show, did a segment called “Growing Up Scientologist” featuring Hill and Woodcraft, who described their difficult journey away from the Church.
Both women talked about the long hours they were required to work on Church tasks and the verbal attacks they received when they complained about being separated from family members. Woodcraft also discussed her pregnancy, and the response from Church leaders who suggested she get an abortion. (The Church denies it promotes abortion as a policy, and says it leaves the choice up to individual members.)
The Church declined to comment for the story until the last moment, sending ABC a statement on the day the program aired saying it would not respond to the women’s charges or impugn their character. The show remains among the most popular Nightline segments that viewers can watch on the ABCNews.com site.
Ever since the Church’s founding in 1955, Scientology has been a target for scrutiny and criticism because of its colorful founder, controversial history, unique doctrine, aggressive posture, and focus on celebrities.
Such criticism has taken on new dimensions in the Internet era, when people can view once-private Church videos or buy used e-meters, the devices that are used in Scientology “auditing” sessions and often appear on the Ebay Internet auction site.
Over the last two decades, the Internet has proven itself to be a powerful force in the world of religion, for groups both small and large. On the Web, even obscure groups like Heaven’s Gate have been able to proclaim their messages to the world. The Heaven’s Gate site even survived the group itself, whose nearly forty members engaged in a March 1997 mass suicide at a house in California.
The Web also empowers critics of religion, and most religious organizations have scrambled to develop strategies to address attacks and other negative buzz generated by “anti-” sites.
What makes the Internet-based attacks on Scientology so problematic are the ease with which critics can reach a vast audience, combined with the difficulty the Church has in silencing them.
But Scientology is not rolling over and playing dead. It is fighting back with its own videos, and it is trying to use copyright law to contain Internet links of Church-owned videos. Ironically, such responses run the risk of actually increasing Web traffic for controversial materials the Church seeks to suppress but that survive and thrive at a variety of sites.
The Church also prevented members of Anonymous from successfully staging a March 15 protest in front of the Church’s Los Angeles headquarters by scheduling a competing rally with the city.
But Church critics are more organized than in the past, and the war they are waging online is proving to be a difficult battle for Scientology leaders.