With the debut of Alex Gibney's new documentary "Going Clear," the Church of Scientology has a host of new targets for its PR campaign: film critics. Bob talks with Jason Bailey, the film editor at Flavorwire.com, who found himself at the center of the Church's latest salvo after he published a review of the film.
BOB: True to form, the Church of Scientology has launched an aggressive PR campaign to discredit “Going Clear”, the movie -- including a new category of targets for PR spin. Jason Bailey is neither a religion beat reporter or a muckraker; he’s a film critic for Flavorwire.com, and last week -- after publishing a glowing review of “Going Clear” -- he found himself fending off the Scientology Image Complex.
BAILEY: 4 hours after that review went live on Flavorwire, our editorial director received an email from the PR director for the Church of Scientology. And it informed us that that article was posted without contacting the Church for comment, and it reflects the film, which is filled with, quote, “bald-faced lies,” and they asked that we included a statement from the church in our article because there is another side of the story and we shouldn't be a mouthpiece for Alex Gibney's propaganda. And it then included, you know, about a 200 word statement that told us how false the film was and that it was Rolling Stone-UVA redux, and so on and so on.
BOB: Rolling Stone-UVA, the now discredited story of a gang rape on the campus of the University of Virginia. I suppose they could be right; Going Clear could be a tissue of lies, but you didn't write Going Clear -- [LAUGHS]
BAILEY: [LAUGHS] I did not --
BOB: You wrote a review of the movie.
BAILEY: Well, and as I started poking around on Twitter with that same “whaaa?” response, I discovered that in fact it appeared that all of my colleagues who had reviewed Going Clear at Sundance had received the same email. And some of them even ran the response, either, sort of, free of context or in the form of a "Hey, Scientology sent us this statement" sort of thing.
BOB: This piqued your curiosity so you started digging around more. Tell me about the scope of the PR campaign. What did you learn?
BAILEY: Well, before I had even run the review, I had noticed that there were these tweets appearing in my Twitter timeline, promoted from something called Freedom Media Ethics. Freedom magazine is mentioned occasionally in the film--it's apparently the official PR publication for the Church of Scientology--but this was an account that had clearly been set up specifically to combat the film. It's just this sort of rolling series of accusations against the film, accusations against Alex Gibney, apparently coupled with a very aggressive Google ad buy. As of Wednesday, as we're speaking, if you google “Going Clear”, “Going Clear documentary”, “HBO Scientology”, any combination of names or phrases that have anything to do with this film - heck, I Googled “Bob Garfield Going Clear”, and the top response directs you to the webpage on the Freedom Magazine website that is all about the film and what a bundle of lies it is. And only at the very bottom of that page do you see that it is affiliated with the Church of Scientology. You know, if you see the Google hit, it doesn't say any of that, it just says, “Get the facts about Alex Gibney's new movie!” And it looks fairly innocuous unless you notice the little ad icon right next to it.
BOB: That's interesting, because whether you are a perfectly respectable religion that has been unfairly besmirched or a continuing criminal enterprise that has been uncovered, there's some risk to fighting back like this, because the very process just creates more attention for the film.
BAILEY: Right. There are a lot of people who will at least have their curiosity piqued to a degree that they would want to see the film. It's all very bizarre, but it is interesting to note that, while it is an aggressive campaign, it's a campaign that is not being conducted in an out-front method. They're sort of tipping around and emailing journalists, they're doing these promoted tweets that are not directly tied at first glance, they're doing these ads that are not directly tied at first glance. Because they're aware that the Church's image is not the best right now. There have been a few years of murmurs and chatter and Wright's book was fairly well covered. And what's interesting about all of this is how neatly this response fits in with the film's image of them as being hyper-paranoid, super-controlling and basically going after anyone who dare speak ill against them.
BOB: Now, a minute or two ago, I kind of laughed off the notion of asking a film critic to provide an alternate point of view in his or her review of a film. But in a case like this, when a film critic goes to review a documentary where the filmmaker clearly has a point of view and an agenda, and is an activist or an advocate, whether you have to, you know, bone up and follow up in a way that you wouldn't if you were going to review a romantic comedy?
BAILEY: It's an interesting point. And I think a lot of it has to do with what kind of film critic you are, I think it has a lot to do with what kind of a publication you're writing for, if documentary is your specificity, if you're writing for an academic journal as opposed to like a pop culture blog like I do. But the film critic's primary job is to discuss how a film works, as a film. And certainly to be very careful to make clear that this is an activist film, this is an opinion film, it alleges these things. But what it comes down to, I think, is for someone with my job...it's mostly the responsibility to view it as a film. To view it as a work of art.
BOB: Jason, thank you.
BAILEY: Thank you.
BOB: Jason Bailey is the films editor for Flavorwire.com, and the author of the “Ultimate Woody Allen Film Companion.”
[SOUTH PARK CLIP]
SCIENTOLOGIST: L. Ron Hubbard did an amazing thing telling the world this incredible truth. Now all we're asking you to do is pick up where he left off.
STAN: But I don't know any of this stuff.
SCIENTOLOGIST: Neither did L. Ron when he started. He said he just closed his eyes and wrote down whatever came to mind. You can do the same. Just let it flow.
STAN: Okay, I'll try. I just wish I could write in my room but Tom Cruise won't come out of the closet.
SCIENTOLOGIST: I know. We've sent Nicole Kidman up there to see if she can help.
BOB: That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Sarah Abdurrahman, Laura Mayer, Kimmie Regler, Meara Sharma and Kasia Mihailovic. We had more help from Reem Abdou and Jesse Brenneman. And our show was edited…by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was David Grinbaum.
Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for news. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I’m Bob Garfield.
And before we go, an apology. On this broadcast last year, in an attempt to commemorate the outbreak of World War I and honor those brave souls who made the ultimate sacrifice, I recounted my personal eyewitnessing in 1914 of the Sarajevo assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This was a bungled attempt to give heroes their due and a terrible mistake. Somehow I conflated my visit to the 2012 Sarajevo film festival and my ninth-grade history curriculum. Similarly, contrary to what I might have casually mentioned on the Letterman Show, I was not technically in the command module of the crippled Apollo 13. Turns out, that was someone else. I unreservedly apologize for any confusion I may have caused.