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The New Yorker What a Load of Balderdash
A Freedom Special Report

A 24,000-Word Odyssey to Nowhere
The New Yorker Didn’t Let Facts Get in the Way of Their Meandering “Profile”

Paul Haggis has never directed a blockbuster film. He is still unknown outside of Hollywood’s inner circle and could walk through The New Yorker editorial offices unnoticed as if he were a faceless worker toiling in a cubicle. Yet in early 2010, New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright inexplicably offers him a deal of a lifetime over lunch to “tell his story.” Later, the reasons are clear: The story isn’t really about Haggis, who is not doing anything that would be on the radar of a reader of the magazine. Wright is taking aim at the Church of Scientology.

But knowing Wright’s background, it wasn’t surprising: This was his chance to join a self-promoting apostate on a public stage to sneer at people of faith for doing what he neither understands nor respects.

From the beginning the Church made its position clear to Wright and New Yorker editor David Remnick: It would provide full and open access to The New Yorker for a profile on the Church or a Scientologist. However, there was no interest if The New Yorker wanted to take sides with someone who left and openly disparaged the Church, misrepresenting its beliefs and policies. After all, how could someone who so arbitrarily and willingly shunned his faith possibly look at, describe or even know about all that is happening in the Church? How could such an individual provide any credible viewpoint from which to tell a story?

How could someone who so arbitrarily and willingly shunned his faith possibly look at, describe or even know about all that is happening in the Church? How could such an individual provide any credible viewpoint from which to tell a story?

What followed was a 10-month odyssey that resulted in a 26-page, 24,605-word rehash of tired and disproven allegations. The New Yorker claims to conduct a “fair” process in putting together its magazine, but it’s anything but that. Here’s how it really went down:

  • On May 7, 2010, two months after Wright broached the subject to Haggis, he begins emailing a handful of prominent Scientologists, explaining, “I’m writing a profile on Paul Haggis” while asking them for an interview. It’s soon clear Haggis is anything but the “profile” subject, as those few who reluctantly agree find themselves at the spear end of religiously bigoted questions intended to ridicule or call into question their religion’s fundamental articles of faith.
  • Tuesday, May 11, Wright arrives in Los Angeles unannounced and requests to meet with a Church spokesperson. No advance notice whatsoever as a courtesy, just an email. Because of scheduling conflicts, the spokesperson is unable to meet with Wright. They formally schedule for May 30.
  • At the May 30 meeting, the Church clearly lays out its position: If the goal of the piece is to write about an apostate, a spokesperson will answer any questions in writing but will not stand for an interview.
  • Weeks go by and on June 16 an email arrives with a single question. It is duly answered. The Church attempts to establish lines of communication to answer any other questions, but Wright goes radio silent. Hearing nothing, the Church raises the matter of Wright’s stonewalling tactics when asked simple questions, such as the angle of his piece and how the Church can provide information to make it a fair article. There is no response from the magazine’s editor, David Remnick.
  • Over the course of the next month, Wright sends just three more questions, which the Church promptly answers.
  • Come July 21, Wright abruptly emails to say: “The piece is now scheduled to close on Sept. 1.” He further informs the Church that The New Yorker’s infamous “fact-checking” process is about to begin.
  • Out of nowhere Wright ominously warns, “Bear in mind that the accuracy of the article will depend in part upon your willingness to be responsive to their [fact checkers’] questions.” The Church inquires in a return email: How could the article be written and The New Yorker seeking to confirm “facts” when the Church received virtually no questions? Wright’s answer: “I’m on vacation.”
  • Yet another ponderous email about the “fact-checking process” arrives on August 6. Wright disingenuously asks how the Church wishes to respond, verbally or in writing. In other words: How do you want to answer questions I have yet to ask? The Church spokesperson reiterates, “I am willing to answer your questions, particularly to ensure that your facts are straight about Scientology.” He goes on to point out that he answered all questions received to date. Wright has already tipped his hand revealing that he has been cozying up to defrocked apostates, bitter for having been removed from any position of authority within the Church. The Church volunteers some 70 pages of statements and affidavits which authoritatively discredit this handful of anti-Scientologists.
  • Wright powers down again, going another two and a half weeks without a question, fact-checking or otherwise. So the Church spokesperson shoots off a letter to Wright and Remnick on August 24. It’s filled with facts about Church expansion, its renaissance since the restoration of its Scripture, its new state-of-the-art publication facilities, and dozens of new Churches recently opened thanks to the tireless work of the ecclesiastical leader of the Scientology religion. He points out all the above occurred since the start of Wright’s so-called “investigation.” Supplementing the letter is a box of informational videos, brochures and magazines for both writer and editor. (Watch the video: How Lawrence Wright Got It So Wrong.)
  • The very next day, August 25, two emails arrive, and combined, they contain 665 fact-checking questions. Less than 24 hours later, a third email raises the total to 971, with a deadline to answer in eight working days—signaling Wright is calling his article done and The New Yorker is warming up the presses. The math works out to an average of 121 questions per day to be fully researched, documented and answered to meet The New Yorker’s timetable. 

Meanwhile, like a script fresh from a rewrite, The New Yorker “profile on Paul Haggis” seems to have shifted in plot. In an August 27 letter to Church counsel, The New Yorker General Counsel Lynn Oberlander now recasts it: “We are working on our article about Paul Haggis and the Church of Scientology.” The “and” is curious, considering Wright previously represented his piece was just about Haggis and he “wasn’t doing a story on Scientology.”

Like a script fresh from a rewrite, The New Yorker “profile on Paul Haggis” seems to have shifted in plot.

The fact-checking questions are equally revealing, given Haggis’s name isn’t mentioned until question 412. As a final point, virtually none of the questions posed reference anything positive about the Church, reinforcing the Church’s suspicions that Wright planned a premeditated “hit” piece to fit his preconceived bias against people of faith. Church lawyers press for an extension on the fact checking due to the volume and scope of the questions—some of which require researching through six decades of Church archives.

  • On September 27, a team of Church representatives arrive at The New Yorker editorial offices in Manhattan. They bring with them 48 binders containing responses to fact-checking questions. Present are Wright, Remnick, Oberlander, features editor Daniel Zalewsky, and fact checkers Peter Canby, Tim Farrington and Jennifer Stahl. The litany of inaccuracies exposed by the Church reveal a number of Wright’s “facts” were lifted directly from decades-old ramblings of anti-Scientologists, long since disproved. Others were cut and pasted from discredited fringe websites—including one that presents a mix of pornography and morbid death scenes. Still more came from unsubstantiated Wikipedia postings. Then again others fall into the category of “made up out of whole cloth.” In the final analysis, of the 971 statements, assertions and questions that were sent for “fact checking,” 572 are utterly false. Meaning Wright’s writing, researching and investigatory skills are so negligent, that he turned in a purportedly “finished” article of which 59 percent of the “facts” contained therein were dead wrong. 

In truth, over the course of the daylong meeting Wright was taken outside by editor David Remnick and presumably reprimanded for his shoddy work as the fact checking proves a sham. Document after document debunks Wright’s premise and assumptions about the Church, reveals Haggis to be a liar and eviscerates the apostates he relied on for his “investigation.” Looking none too pleased, Oberlander sternly orders the now shamed fact checkers to take the Church-produced binders. She tells a Church staffer, “I want to get these downstairs so I can show these guys how to fact check.” Given the debacle of their sacrosanct “fact checking,” The New Yorker takes Wright’s article off the publication calendar.

  • Rather than engage in any form of journalistic soul-searching about the reliability of his sources, Wright seems preoccupied with something else. On October 6 he sends an email to the Church, “Although the checkers are digesting the material you left us, I’ve been tied up and haven’t had a chance to go through much of it yet.” He goes on to toss a curveball: “You’ve given me so much to work on, I do think I will turn it into a book. …I did want to give you a heads up.”
  • October 7, a day later, Wright is quoted telling an Associated Press reporter the same thing: that he is “thinking about” doing a book. The date also happens to coincide with the Frankfurt Book Fair, where Wright’s reps from the Wylie Agency are more than “thinking” about a book by Wright. They are apparently actively looking for buyers. Yes, there in a catalog is the book pitch Wright was only “thinking” about hours earlier. It clearly reveals not only was Wright deep into working on a book for an extended period of time, his sources were those same discredited apostates who sank The New Yorker fact-checking ship. (As it turns out, Wright’s publisher would later blow the lid off his “just thinking about it” cover story by admitting Wright had already signed a book contract when he misled the Church spokesperson and the Associated Press reporter.) The New Yorker, of course, tries to look the other way in a futile attempt to sweep Wright’s conflict of interest mess under the rug and pretend it didn’t matter. (See Between the Covers.)

The Church responds on January 19 with 11 pointed fact-based questions asking The New Yorker, among other things, how can Wright’s article be objective now that a once-prestigious magazine has effectively been transformed into a marketing brochure for a book in which Wright has a financial interest?

  • Three months pass, and on January 5 to be precise, blogs on prominent websites report alternately that Wright and Haggis are “collaborating” or “cooperating” on a book. Whatever the truth, as if it matters, it’s not as significant as the implied relationship between the two. The resulting press irreversibly taints The New Yorker article-in-progress for its violation of generally accepted journalistic standards. The Church responds on January 19 with 11 pointed fact-based questions asking The New Yorker, among other things, how can Wright’s article be objective now that a once-prestigious magazine has effectively been transformed into a marketing brochure for a book in which Wright has a financial interest?

The Church further presses for an answer to the question: Are Wright and Haggis “collaborating,” “cooperating” or “cowriting” a book? The answer on collaboration appears to be a moving target, depending on which news article one reads or what side of bed Haggis woke up on, which seems to determine his ever-changing response. Church attorneys seek a meeting to discuss these ethical issues, but The New Yorker refuses.

  • On January 20, more questions arrive from The New Yorker, bringing the total to nearly 1,100. This time they cite an entirely new round of apostate allegations. How The New Yorker could continue the same routine after being so resoundingly burned on the first fact-checking expedition baffles Church officials. The New Yorker demands the Church respond in seven days.
  • January 27, the Church spokesperson lists for The New Yorker’s Remnick a rundown of Wright’s “prestigious,” New Yorker-quality sources along with their criminal rap sheets: Two are under criminal investigation by local law enforcement, another recently pleaded guilty to assault in an incident related to litigation against the Church, while a fourth was hauled into jail for drunk and disorderly conduct the same day he signed a false declaration about the Church as part of a case since thrown out by a federal court judge. None of this was mentioned in The New Yorker article. Obviously, the standards of disclosure, let alone what it takes to qualify to be a New Yorker source, have slipped. But apparently none of this registers with Remnick or Oberlander because on January 27, The New Yorker sends yet another set of questions.
  • While the Church works through the weekend to answer the latest batch of questions, on January 29—before the final fact check is complete—Wright appears on PBS touting his upcoming article. Wright is introduced by the show’s host as having written an article “about Scientology.” So much for the “profile” of Haggis. 

Finally, after more than 10 months, on February 7 Wright’s piece appears in print. It raises more questions about the journalistic ethics of Wright and The New Yorker than it answers. Among them:

  • How could an article that was allegedly the subject of extensive “fact checking” get so much wrong?
  • How could a writer with Wright’s reputation turn in a “finished” article to the magazine with over 59 percent of its “facts” provably wrong?
  • How could an article that clocks in at a mind-numbing 24,605 words long be devoid of any mention of the Church’s current activities?
  • How could a magazine that spent the better part of a year on the piece fail to tour a single one of the many Scientology Churches around the world—including one that stands just off Times Square, a five-minute walk from The New Yorker office’s front door?
  • How could they fail to speak to those who benefit from the Church’s globally recognized humanitarian programs? Does The New Yorker’s definition of “fact checking” not include actually looking at the facts?
  • How could a magazine with the reputation of The New Yorker write such a bigoted article? Especially when they pride themselves (and thumb their nose at the entirety of the publishing world) on apparently having the time, resources and patience to do full and proper reports on their subjects—not just blog the latest gossip.

How could a magazine with the reputation of The New Yorker write such a bigoted article? Especially when they pride themselves (and thumb their nose at the entirety of the publishing world) on apparently having the time, resources and patience to do full and proper reports on their subjects—not just blog the latest gossip.

  • How could The New Yorker choose to listen to the babble of a crew of desperate apostates when they were fully apprised of the fact that many of these vaunted sources were either convicted or under investigation for go-to-jail criminal conduct? Why would The New Yorker conveniently omit from the article such relevant information regarding their sources?
  • How could a magazine ignore that the three primary individuals corroborating each other for this story were involved in a conspiracy to obstruct justice and suborn perjury in a past legal case—actions they have admitted to the media and all of it provided to The New Yorker before it went to press?
  • How could this once-esteemed magazine reprint the sensationalistic false claims disaffected former members dish out about the very individual who removed them from any position of authority?

What cannot be denied is that Wright and The New Yorker used the guise of a “profile,” repackaging the same old allegations by the same old failed apostates, to go after the only new religion to emerge from the 20th century. It’s an obvious case of institutional bias, and a desperate effort to prop up circulation.

No doubt, the apostates Lawrence Wright fell in love with can now use their New Yorker-approved status to apply to editor David Remnick for jobs as New Yorker fact checkers. 

Given none of these apostates are willing to separate fact from fiction, they should fit right in.

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