Journalism, Scientology, and Manti Te'o: Finding the Leper with the Most FingersS

This has been a fantastic week for media outrage, especially on Twitter. On Monday, a pro-Scientology ad in the Atlantic that was mocked up to faintly resemble an article generated hours of castigating tweets and countless op-eds. Then, last night, Deadspin broke the story of Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te'o and the girlfriend who doesn't exist.

This sort of stuff is fun. It generates great one-liners from Twitter wags, and huffy people are unintentionally funny. But it was also instructive, pointing up great blind spots in journalism and in its own angry self-evaluation. On one hand, there was the easy pose that writers could strike, the lazy and uncritical attitude that fit conveniently into a profitable narrative that benefits themselves and their employers, netting them plaudits. Then there was the Te'o thing.

What happened with Manti Te'o is something anyone can understand. Te'o, a Mormon star linebacker at a religious college had a chaste and emotionally intimate relationship with a girl who survived a car accident, battled leukemia and eventually succumbed to it on the same day that his grandmother died. Among the girlfriend's last words to Te'o were her wishes that he not worry about her funeral and just go out and win! Win, Rocky Manti, win! His team went on to become the #1 ranked in the country, and Te'o came in second in the Heisman trophy race. The Fighting Irish's season only ended in the BCS Championship Game.

This is real storybook stuff. Everything else besides the girlfriend is still true, and it's no wonder journalists pounced on it. For all the words like "craft" and "discovery" and "journey" that emerge from a journalistic salon (read: futon near a hookah), the key word when talking about a journalistic story is story. Even the most affected hacks know this, because they've had the same experiences you've had. They've been at a party and left thinking that a guy telling interesting stories all night was an interesting person. It's easy to confuse a person's quality with the content he shared.

So you can see why Te'o was irresistible. The narrative and the quotes were so good that simply plunking them down chronologically left writers only with the burden of throwing in some noticeable stylistic prose elements before clicking "publish" on something that would do mad Facebook shares and bomb-ass retweet numbers. An average reader who loved the story—and who wouldn't?—would stand a pretty good chance of also thinking, "Hey, that's a great writer." The same goes for pro writers themselves, who are just as susceptible to self-contained feature narratives and the awards they earn.

Still, the Te'o story elicited a lot of voluntary Twitter mea culpas. Here are two, from ESPN's Kevin Van Valkenberg and Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden:

Their confessions are at once welcome, reasonable and unnecessary. For one thing, Te'o's lie (given details he volunteered about meeting the girl, it's less likely he was duped) is totally ludicrous. Eventually, someone would find out. It's natural even for skeptics like journalists to assume stories like this are true, because the consequences for making them up are so dire, so immediate and so possible. Uncovering the lie is a matter of when, not if. What kind of idiot or madman would tell that lie?

For another thing, at some point we all have to rely on something we heard. We reach a point where it becomes impractical to seek more references for any given act or statement. We surrender, eventually, to authority. When multiple journalistic outlets repeat a story enough times, re-verifying them just to add a few details for that day's edition becomes a costly waste of time. Even if a journalist has doubts, he may not be able to act on them. Editors can often influence coverage of a story like bizarro versions of youth soccer coaches: when seeing all the kids swarming around the ball, he yells at the kids strategically staying in position to go swarm with everyone else. Otherwise they might look stupid.

Given the above, the response to the Te'o story has been refreshing. Deadspin published an excellent rundown of the facts and a solid piece of investigative work, and it was almost immediately met with choruses of "Good Job!" and "We Fucked Up!"

Compare that to the immediate and lingering response to the Atlantic's Scientology ad, and what you see is an attack singling out a journalistic outlet and a specific advertiser, while essentially giving a free pass to far more dire systemic abuses.

The Scientology ad is more properly known as an "advertorial," a fake article or op-ed inserted in the overall document of a website, magazine or newspaper, to make it seem more august and incisive than "MAD DOG MIKE'S MERCURY TOWN CAR TOTAL CARMAGEDDON: UP TO $5000 GUARANTEED TRADE-IN ON HORSES, MOPEDS AND BURROS!!!!"

The advertorial itself was pretty fantastic. It conveyed all the tone-deaf self-congratulation of the worst totalitarian nightmare regimes. Then it was followed by clearly strictly moderated canned "user comments." In fact, just go read it (scroll to the bottom) and then compare it to virtually any press release from KCNA, the Central News Agency of North Korea. The Scientology copy had all the uncritical summarization of a pre-teen's book report, the fawning praise of a tween love letter and the rigidly bright forecast of a Five Year Plan.

Figuring out why journalists pounced on it requires very little effort. One, the advertorial stood merely a few inches behind the line of hilarity on its own and stepped across it a few times. Critics only needed to give it a nudge. Then we would all think, "Hey, those critics are funny."

Two, the Church of Scientology has, in the past, sued journalists, sought to intimidate and frighten them and generally evinces lockstep, cult-like hostility toward any inquiries into its practices. The Tampa Bay Times—formerly the St. Petersburg Times—has published many excellent pieces on the CoS, from the Church's own backyard. (It's headquartered in Clearwater, which is part of the greater Tampa Bay Area.) As a result, the Times has been an intimate witness to the Church's hostility and attempt to influence local government for decades. More importantly, this ad clearly meant to divert the Scientology narrative away from Lawrence Wright's new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief. Combine journalist's sticking up for their own, not wanting to be bullied and wanting to throw the narrative back toward a serious work, and their motives are pretty obvious.

But there's another important explanation: making the discussion about Scientology and a Scientology advertorial—and, in particular, this Scientology advertorial in this magazine, the Atlantic—keeps the discussion from broadly engaging who and what funds current journalism.

Structurally speaking, an advertorial should provoke no shock or disgust. This website—and the suite of Gawker websites—posts sponsored articles clearly marked as sponsored. (Full disclosure: I played the Old Spice video game where Dikembe Mutumbo shot space aliens.) Many news websites you read feature them as well. There are sponsored links in your Facebook feed. If you open almost any newspaper or magazine, you will eventually find an advertisement that's just a tweaked font style or size away from looking identical to a regular article. The New Yorker devotes pages to faux articles about its New York symposia. You know what all these are. Ads appear next to original creative content everywhere. You show up 15 minutes late for movies in the theater. You don't click on the Youtube for AWOLNATION's "Sail" and think, "Huh, I guess when I listened to it on the radio I missed the first 30 seconds that were about how skateboarders need Powerade."

A Scientology advertorial provides a specific non-systemic target. It's easier to rail at it than the ugly funding of a magazine when your magazine might have ugly funding of its own. It also provokes less hand-wringing about whether writers are themselves mouthpieces for specific lobby agendas.

Take the Atlantic. As Alex Pareene notes in his annual Hack List, the Atlantic is run by the brother of a senator and the son of a former CIA spook to produce mainstream beltway bilge for a magazine that is much less lucrative than the "Work Summit" symposia it sponsors. Here's one such "Work Summit," focusing on future jobs and how to train the workforce for them (i.e. how to gut and modify education). Guests included Obama's chief school-privatization pimp Arne Duncan, as well as school reform celebrity Michelle Rhee—the subject of a recent PBS expose about how the revolutionary gains her schools made on the sorts of paid-for standardized tests sold by wealthy private companies might have been the result of cheating.

Also on the guest list was Atlantic's then-columnist Megan McArdle. You might remember her from her recent Daily Beast column in which she said that mass school shootings couldn't be reduced by banning firearms—"slippery slope!" "liberty!"—so it would be best to train kids under ten to just gang-rush the school shooter.

While at the Atlantic, she hand-waved away the value of universal health care and dismissed the factual existence of broad swathes of reality in arguably the worst argument against public health care ever written. Her Atlantic career exhibited the kind of Koch Brothers-trained journalistic insight that leads to independent thoughts supporting whatever the Koch Brothers' opinion might be on any given issue. The S.H.A.M.E. Project profile of her has more.

Needless to say, writers and investment like that are probably not predisposed to big issues devoted to deriding market structures in schooling and shifting the defense budget to the Department of Education. They have powerful incentives to produce analysis concomitant with those who've invested in their careers or their employers. You can find fundamental conflicts like these anywhere.

Slate and the Washington Post are owned by the same same media group that owns Kaplan, Inc., which provides standardized testing materials and college-level diploma mill service. The Huffington Post has an entire sponsored-article section, but they needn't have bothered, because their anti-scientific homeopathic quackery in medical articles has been going on for years and is so religiously stupid that it seems insulting to believe there isn't a profit motive involved. MSNBC, for all the right's derision as a "radical" "liberal" entity is owned by a massive arms contractor, General Electric, and NBC used on-air military analysts who were also being paid by contractors. CNN ran its "hard-hitting" Piers Morgan interview with a BP executive amid a giant BP commercial blitz. Politico openly aims to be read primarily by the Beltway, which is why you will never find an idea there more than radiantly beige.

In this environment, something so stupendously bad as that Scientology advertorial must have been a godsend. Scientology abuses journalists and terrorizes apostates. People who control major revenue streams for newspapers or magazines would never do those things—at least not openly. But that's the thing: journalistic organs don't publish performance reviews or minutes from exit interviews. Scientology stupidly insists on being in-your-face about its strong-arm attitude.

Better still, target-wise, Scientology is a cult! Of course, the substantive difference between a religion and a cult is that the former just has older documentation. It's creepy when Scientology tries to use mass media to tell people do and believe certain things, but it's fine when Ross Douthat uses Catholic dogma in the pages of the New York Times to argue for government's restricting birth control. And Scientology might be a criminal and tax-evading entity, whereas—Crusades, Inquisitions and anti-Semitism aside—the Catholic Church wouldn't dream of any such action or untaxed purpose. Apart from a 30-year international conspiracy to obstruct justice, silence victims, protect rapists and preserve revenue streams from criminal and civil liability.

The point here is not that the Catholic Church and the Church of Scientology are equivalent. Nor is it that private moneyed interests in journalistic organs necessarily have the same predatory interests in message control as Scientology. Those are red herrings. But the Church of Scientology is a bigger one, and by God did it get slapped against a wall as loudly as possible.

Looking at the two crises of journalism that erupted within days of each other, an easy, instant and honest reaction arises from one, while a self-interested and obfuscatory reaction arises from another. Manti Te'o's story duped everyone, and everyone responded accordingly. He got us. We messed up.

Meanwhile, the Atlantic's Scientology advertorial elicited finger-pointing, blame and evasiveness. Media members pointed to a single media and single non-media entity and depicted them as the problem. The Atlantic—and not a systemic dependence on private funding and behind-the-scenes investors—displayed the risks of blurring the boundaries between advertisers and reporting. In a journalistic environment where funding increasingly comes under the umbrella of mass media companies or where individual entities are beholden to the largesse of a few corporations or individuals—or a sponsored article in the sidebar—crying out that everyone else is more diseased or impure than you are just makes you the leper with the most fingers.