Web of Deceit Lawrence Wright and Paul Haggis Reach to the Underbelly of the Internet for Research
“His inquiry, much of it conducted online, mirrored the actions of the lead character he was writing for The Next Three Days; the character, played by Russell Crowe, goes on the Internet to find a way to break his wife out of jail.”
So writes Lawrence Wright, working overtime to cast Paul Haggis’s trolling of apostate websites into some heroic light.
Rather than engaging in anything that could be characterized as an “investigation,” Haggis was simply in search of others who shared his anti-Scientology sentiments.
And he found them, perched on the Internet fringe. There were the blog ramblings of a self-proclaimed psychotic with a long history of violence and a tiny disaffected group ranting about being expelled from the Church.
Haggis viewed these posts as gospel and began spreading their lies to friends, colleagues and, of course, Lawrence Wright.
Like Haggis, Wright, his collaborator-in-arms on TheNew Yorker piece, sees the Internet, notably the unreliable Wikipedia, as one-stop shopping for sourcing on Scientology. Here’s what his own publication had to say about Wikipedia:
“Anyone with Internet access can create a Wikipedia entry or edit an existing one. … Pettiness, idiocy, and vulgarity are regular features of the site.”
Reporter Stacy Schiff published those words in her New Yorker feature article, “Know It All: Can Wikipedia Conquer Expertise?” She went on to tell the story of one regular Wikipedia editor known as “Essjay, who holds a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law and has written or contributed to sixteen thousand entries.”
The article described Essjay as “a tenured professor of religion at a private university” who “made his first edit in February 2005” and continues to diligently edit, correct errors and remove obscenities from Wikipedia.
But as a red-faced New Yorker editorial staff would admit seven months later, Essjay in real life was Ryan Jordan, then 24, professor of nothing—a community college dropout with no degrees, let alone advanced degrees, who had never taught anywhere.
Kelly McBride, the Ethics Group Leader at the Florida-based Poynter Institute, was consulted on the use of Wikipedia for journalism research. “There is lots and lots of bad information on Wikipedia. I would never suggest using Wikipedia as a primary source,” she told Freedom.
Wikipedia itself confesses to its shortcomings, noting that some articles “are admittedly complete rubbish.”
Anyone on the well-burned New Yorker staff, one might think, would be twice shy about relying on the same source.
Not Lawrence Wright. He’s earned his citizenship papers as a full-fledged Wikipedian. Indeed, a measure of his methods can be found in the “fact-checking” statements sent to the Church by The New Yorker in the course of preparing his “profile” of Paul Haggis. Of the magazine’s 1,150 statements submitted for verification, as many as 600—more than half—were patently false. Moreover, many of these false statements were lifted verbatim from the web—including some straight from the “reliable pages” of Wikipedia.
But Wright dug even deeper into the online trash dumpster for the Haggis story. One allegation tracked back to a site that describes itself as “the soft white underbelly of the net, eviscerated for all to see” and offers users a database of pornography and photographs of gruesome deaths. Even a high schooler writing a term paper would know better than to click through to that one for sound research. Yet another of Wright’s baseless claims was attributable to an obscure astrology site.
Truth, in Wright’s eyes, is no big deal. As he once expressed it in an interview with journalism professor and fellow New Yorker writer Robert Boynton: “Truth is one of those subjective terms that are pointless to get too tied up about.” It’s no surprise, then, the truth was rarely to be found on Wright’s journalistic GPS in regards this story.
Truth, in Wright’s eyes, is no big deal. As he once expressed it in an interview: “Truth is one of those subjective terms that are pointless to get too tied up about.”
While he eschews conducting interviews over dinner (“I don’t like being exposed, with people gawking,” he told Boynton), he is quite happy to get his sources soused: “Sometimes going out and getting somebody drunk is an absolute necessity.”
As for Haggis, ever the Hollywood pitchman and mythmaker, he now sells his storyline about how he grew disenchanted with his religion through the equivalent of his own personal Paul Haggis Internet Correspondence Course.
So skilled is Haggis at pitching storylines, he used his movie The Next Three Days to pitch something else he stumbled over on the web—namely, the electric toothbrush a fellow apostate hawks over the Internet and through cheesy TV infomercials. Haggis embedded the product placement into the script, letting his stars pitch the “thirty second smile” on screen. The press announcement of the “Next Three Brushes” alliance is enough to make one cringe with embarrassment: “This suspense thriller is centered around the confines of time, a perfect fit for the thirty second smile revolutionary electric toothbrush which uses 6 microbrush heads that surround teeth with soft bristles automatically cleaning the top, bottom, front, back and biting surfaces, all at the same time, for the perfect cleaning every time…” And if you act now, you can get a second ticket for The Next Three Days absolutely free—just pay the shipping and handling.
What’s even more embarrassing, however, is the fact Wright used the toothbrush huckster as one of his unnamed sources. The man was expelled from the Church 14 years ago but nonetheless winds up with uncredited appearances in two pieces of fiction—Wright’s article and Haggis’s movie.
It’s no wonder the webcentric film tanked at the box office and critics panned it. Wrote Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers of the Haggis film: “It’s damn hard to enjoy a thriller when you don’t, won’t, can’t believe a word of it.”
Kind of similar to the reaction engendered by Haggis, his and Wright’s Internet “sources” and The New Yorker’s 24,605-word story.