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FROM THIS EPISODE

Galactic Gospel

For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

At first blush, the idea that Tom Cruise might have gotten an episode of South Park yanked off the air because it spoofed his favorite cult, Scientology, didn't seem like a big deal. Movie stars have pulled rank in Hollywood for decades, and the studios that rely on them for box-office dollars are not in the habit of denying them anything.

But the problem with the coverage of Cruise's connection to Scientology is that very few reporters in Hollywood take the trouble to look into what Scientology actually is. They simply parrot the line that a few celebrities are members, so it must be cool.

The other day on TV, an editor from US Weekly gushed that there was "no evidence" Cruise had silenced Comedy Central's program. Of course there wasn't, buddy. He's not likely to leave a paper trail, is he?

If those celebrity reporters had done their homework, they would have found that the so-called Church of Scientology has a long history of trying to silence its critics, many of them former members. Some of the faithful have ended up dead, including the son of founder L. Ron Hubbard, a science-fiction writer who decided in the late 1940's that there was more money in religion than in pulp novels.

Hubbard determined that recruiting celebrities was the best way to spread his galactic gospel. A Los Angeles Times story in June 1990 said that Hubbard told his disciples to "target prominent individuals as their 'quarry' and bring them back like trophies."

"The church has a special branch that ministers to prominent individuals, providing them with first-class treatment," the Times story said. In other words, they are not treated like run-of-the-mill disciples, some of whom have reported being subjected to extortion, persecution and other abuses. Not to mention the exorbitant fees they are charged for courses that are supposed to lead to an ultimate state that will "clear" them of unhappiness.

In a cover story in 1991, Time magazine said Scientology is "a hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner." Eleven top Scientologists, including Hubbard's wife, were sent to prison in the early 1980's for infiltrating, burglarizing and wiretapping more than 100 private and government agencies in attempts to block their investigations, the magazine reported.

Predictably, the church sued the magazine, claiming that its story was defamatory. But, as the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported in January 2001, a federal appeals court upheld a dismissal of the lawsuit.

Still, other reporters who might have written similar stories have clearly been intimidated into silence.

Robert Vaughn Young handled the media for the Scientology empire for 20 years, before abandoning the organization in 1989. Four years later, in an article in Quill, the magazine of the Society for Professional Journalists, Young wrote that he had used "secret directives" from Hubbard "on how to handle reporters, how to deal with police and government agencies, how to create front groups, and how to discredit or destroy a person or a group."

"Scientology," he wrote, "stands ready and able to unleash an assault on the journalist that can include private detectives and lawsuits."

There were other tactics. In Clearwater, Florida, where the church maintains a huge base, Scientologists planted spies in the 1970's in the newsrooms of the Clearwater Sun and St. Petersburg Times, both newspapers reported.

I should note that a person close to me spent 30 years as a Scientologist, and it wrecked his life. He ended up penniless, chain-smoking and neglectful of his children. When he got chest pains, he ignored them, believing that only Scientology could provide healing. Finally, a heart attack killed him.

He was my brother, and his name was Tom, too.

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.

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