When the Church of Scientology took out full-page ads in The New York Times and other outlets slamming Alex Gibney’s Scientology exposé Going Clear in advance of its Sundance Film Festival premiere last week, many wondered if the church might send members to protest the premiere, or stir things up at the customary post-screening Q&A. But at that screening, and in the week of festival showings that followed, no protestors were seen and no scenes were caused. Instead, the Church is taking a less obvious (and perhaps more 21st-century) approach: social media outrage and emails to film critics, a campaign that director Gibney tells Flavorwire is “so ham-fisted and so predictable.”
The morning after the Sundance premiere, promoted tweets began appearing in my (and many other) Twitter timelines, from something called “Freedom Media Ethics.” That account, @freedomethics, sent its first tweet on January 16, but went full-bore the day Going Clear premiered, with nearly 100 tweets (and counting) in the eight days since, accusing Gibney of religious bigotry, desiring a “#nannystate,” and, um, copyright infringement. They accuse his sources of spousal abuse, sex tourism, and false lawsuits. They’ve also asserted that the film is “a Rolling Stone/UVA Redux” — 15 times so far, in fact.
That’s what they’re doing in public. Here’s what they’re doing in private.
On January 27, four hours after my review of Going Clear was published on Flavorwire, our editorial director Elizabeth Spiers — not just my boss, but my boss’ boss — received this email from Karin Pouw, Director of Public Affairs for Church of Scientology International:
Dear Ms. Spiers, The above article concerning Going Clear, Alex Gibney’s film, was posted without contacting the Church for comment. As a result, your article reflects the film which is filled with bald faced lies. I ask that you include a statement from the Church in your article. There is another side to the story which has to be told. Do not be the mouthpiece for Alex Gibney’s propaganda.
Following that was a 201-word statement, which I’m not going to reprint here; suffice it to say that it includes the phrases “free speech is not a free pass,” “the usual collection of obsessive, disgruntled former Church members,” “documented history of making up lies about the Church for money,” and, of course, “Rolling Stone/University of Virginia redux.”
Spiers responded, obviously, that we don’t ask for comment on movie reviews, and that’s not really how film criticism works. But we were far from the only ones to receive this email; as best as I can tell, pretty much every critic who reviewed Going Clear got it, and some even politely obliged by running the statement, or excerpts from it. (The first round of emails reportedly bore the blanket salutation “Dear Sirs,” in spite of the fact that some of the writers and editors in question were women.)
But what’s interesting about this tactic — aside from the fact that it somehow doesn’t include the phrase, “Actually, it’s about ethics in Scientology journalism” — is how neatly it comports with the film’s portrayal of the Church as a hive of shady, paranoid control freaks. The assumption is that they merely have to email film writers, chastise them for not doing something that’s never been done in the history of film criticism, and get them to run their “Rolling Stone, though!” response with the unblinking acceptance of an OT I — or, perhaps more accurately, of an outlet terrified of the notoriously litigious organization. (HBO announced they’d lawyered up all the way back in November.)
And that’s their MO, as Gibney told me in an email exchange Friday. “Anytime someone writes something — film criticism or social criticism — about Scientology, the CoS counter-attacks by smearing critics,” Gibney writes. “But a careful investigation of the church’s claims will reveal that most of the misdeeds by critics (Rathbun, et al) were committed on behalf of the CoS! As you saw in the film, these people are now repenting and the CoS wants to punish them for it.” (Contacted for comment, Pouw responded by slamming his sources: “Mr. Gibney’s definition of a ‘smear’ is telling the truth about paid, professional smear artists now in their sixth year of a media campaign against the Church.”)
As for the organization’s contention that 25 Church members were flown to New York to “provide him and HBO with firsthand knowledge,” Gibney responds, “Our requests for interviews were denied. We asked for any relevant new documents but the CoS did not supply any. Instead the church ‘offered’ 25 unidentified people — whether for interviews or background is unclear — to smear the subjects of the film.” (Pouw again: “Those people worked side by side with the sources in his film, were married to sources in his film and are the children of sources in his film. At least three are mentioned by name in his film as doing something that is categorically false. So if he had agreed to meet when they traveled to New York instead of arrogantly ignoring them, he would have heard hard evidence that these specific allegations in the film are false.”)
And the back-and-forth will continue, presumably at full steam until Going Clear premieres on HBO in March. But again, the specifics of this strategy are fascinating. The Church knows they can’t do a full-on public offensive, because — thanks to the career and PR problems that have beset celebrity members like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, to say nothing of their effective skewering at the hands of South Park (whose creators were allegedly investigated by the Church) — much of the general public sees them as, well, a creepy cult.
So instead, they’ll try to discredit Gibney’s sources via promoted tweets from a shady account whose links to the Church are only stated after you click through to their website. (If you can get that far; your film editor got blocked after I shared the email from the church’s PR people on Twitter.) They’ll also divert anyone googling the movie to said site; it is the top-listed, targeted-ad result on “Going Clear,” as well as “Going Clear movie,” “Scientology documentary,” “Alex Gibney,” “Alex Gibney documentary,” “HBO documentary,” “Alex Gibney Flavorwire,” and pretty much any related combination of words you can think of. (As Gibney points out, these ads are all paid for by tax-exempt dollars.) They’ll try to bully anyone who writes about the movie into running their responses to it. (When I contacted them for the above comments to this piece, their 400-plus word “statement” was preceded by this dictum: “We ask that if you are printing Alex Gibney’s statement in full, that in fairness you print in full this as well.” Of course, Gibney didn’t send us a statement — he answered my direct interview questions.) And they’ll keep shouting “Rolling Stone/UVA Redux” over and over again, hoping that if they say it enough, it’ll be true.
But the problem with that comparison is, even if you’re full-on Chuck C. Johnson about the Rolling Stone UVA story, it was based on the testimony of one person. Gibney’s film, like the Lawrence Wright book that inspired it, is based on dozens. And it ends up boiling down to who, exactly, you want to believe. I exchanged six emails with Scientology PR to clarify their second quote above, and while I got them to name the three people in question (the ex-wives of former members Marty Rathbun, Mike Rinder and Tom DeVocht), they subsequently insisted the comments about them in the film are “provably false” — yet, when I pressed further, “provably false” ended up merely meaning conflicting testimony. (This is all apparently based on secondhand accounts, by the way; the Church claims not to have seen the film.)
So you have to decide who you trust: an Oscar-winning filmmaker and a Pulitzer-Prize winning author, or a famously secretive organization whose members have been accused, and convicted, of wrongdoing on the Church’s behalf. The Church of Scientology is clearly in a panic-driven spin mode — they’re scared of Gibney’s film and the reach it will certainly have, and it’ll be hard to attack every person they talked to and every writer who reports on the movie. But that won’t stop them from trying.