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Deep Dives Into Scientology, Behind the HuffPo-AOL Marriage and Talks With Shady SEO Experts

It's the Best Media Writing of the Week

By Published on . 1

If you ask this thetan, there's little better investigative fodder than the Church of Scientology's relationship with Hollywood, a link that has bestowed enormous awareness and maybe even a little credibility to a group that numbers, by one count, far fewer members than even Rastafarians. In this week's New Yorker, Lawrence Wright, known as a great chronicler of Al Qaeda, shifts his gaze to a different group of, um, true believers as he narrates Oscar-winning writer-director Paul Haggis' public split with Scientology.

Paul Haggis
Paul Haggis Credit: AP

The cause of the divide is Mr. Haggis' outrage over Scientology's antipathy towards gay rights, but, in the course of this long article, it's clear the hubbub as much to do with the failures of this expensive and demanding system of personal betterment in fixing the rather broken Mr. Haggis. The director of "Crash" might be an Operating Thetan VII, but what 35 years of Dianetics bought him is two broken marriages, alienated kids and a bad smoking habit. (What it bought us is the odious brand extension "The Scooby and Scrappy Doo Puppy Hour," episodes of "The Love Boat" and "The Facts of Life," and the concept for "Walker, Texas Ranger," but that's a different topic for a different time.) Naturally, other celebrities populate the account, including non-believer Josh Brolin:

Brolin says that he once witnessed John Travolta practicing Scientology. Brolin was at a dinner party in Los Angeles with Travolta and Marlon Brando. Brando arrived with a cut on his leg, and explained that he had injured himself while helping a stranded motorist on the Pacific Coast Highway. He was in pain. Travolta offered to help, saying that he had just reached a new level in Scientology. Travolta touched Brando's leg and Brando closed his eyes. "I watched this process going on -- it was very physical," Brolin recalls. "I was thinking, This is really fucking bizarre! Then, after 10 minutes, Brando opens his eyes and says, 'That really helped. I actually feel different!' " (Travolta, through a lawyer, called this account "pure fabrication.")

Want more? The Awl's Maria Bustillos did a great job of chronicling previous successful investigations into Scientology, looking in particular at work done by The St. Petersburg Times and the Los Angeles Times, which produced a multipart series in 1990 that helped shed light on lies about founder L. Ron Hubbard's background that were perpetuated by the church. One of its authors, Joel Sappell, was interviewed by Ms. Bustillos:

"During the course of our series," Sappell wrote in an email, "multiple private investigators rooted around in our past. I was falsely accused of aggravated assault (the alleged victim, it turned out, gave the LAPD a bogus name and address.) My dog -- like the pets of others who'd drawn the ire of church leaders -- was poisoned on the day that my partner and I wrote a front-page obituary of Hubbard that sharply contradicted the church's biography of their founder and the many claims he'd made about himself. That same morning, a blustery Boston attorney for the church had called us and shouted: 'If you want a f***ing war, you just got one!' That was a bit unnerving since we thought we already were in one."

Lloyd Grove, writing for the Daily Beast, delivered probably the best piece of reporting around AOL's $315 million purchase of the Huffington Post in his profile of Ken Lerer. Mr. Lerer, little-known outside media circles, is the wealthy PR genius who teamed up with Arianna, helping to secure the financial backing for her traffic juggernaut. His ties with AOL go way back to when he was an outside PR consultant and then in-house communications chief, before the Time Warner merger. While one suspects there's a lot more to say about Mr. Lerer, this is the fullest profile I've seen of a very important man in the media industry:

Lerer, by most accounts, was deeply skeptical of the 2001 AOL-Time Warner merger -- which ultimately vaporized more than $125 billion in stockholder equity and is still considered one of the worst catastrophes in the history of American business. While doing the job of selling the arranged marriage to the outside world, Lerer argued internally-and prophetically-that the cultures of the two companies were wildly incompatible, and that the vaunted synergies of combining forces would never occur. Lerer knew many of the Time Warner execs from his days under Steve Ross at Warner-AmEx. If AOL's Steve Case, the CEO of the new company, believed that he could run roughshod over Time Warner's clueless, toothless, old-media dinosaurs, Lerer warned, according to an insider: "You don't know these guys. These guys will chew you up and spit you out." That, eventually, is what happened.

The New York Times' David Segal has quickly established himself as the best chronicler of the not-easy-to-cover world of search-engine optimization. Last year, he gave us the story of Vitaly Borker, the online retailer who badgered and threatened customers into giving his company bad reviews that would help it rise in search results. This past week, he wrote of a recent black-hat search campaign allegedly on behalf of JCPenney that made the retailer a top result for any number of search terms. My favorite part of the piece is Mr. Segal's chat with shady SEO expert Mark Stevens, which, naturally, isn't his real name:

Mr. Stevens agreed to meet in mid-January for a dinner paid for by The Times. Asked to pick a "fine restaurant" in his neighborhood, he rather cheekily selected a modern French bistro in Palo Alto offering an eight-course prix fixe meal for $118. Liquid nitrogen and "fairy tale pumpkin" were two of the featured ingredients. Mr. Stevens turned out to be a boyish-looking 31-year-old native of Singapore. (Stevens is the name he uses for work; he says he has a Chinese last name, which he did not share.) He speaks with a slight accent and in an animated hush, like a man worried about eavesdroppers. He describes his works with the delighted, mischievous grin of a sophomore who just hid a stink bomb.

In a piece perhaps more provocative than correct, The Guardian's Will Hutton argues that we shouldn't confuse advances in online media with real innovation of the sort that creates massive amounts of jobs and wealth. The piece leans heavily on Tyler Cowen's e-book, "The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History." I've yet to read the book, but I do often wonder about what, besides more fewer impediments to obtaining and creating information, the internet age will yield:

Productivity advances are not being made in booming new industries; they are being made by laying people off or moving production to low-cost countries in Asia. One way or another, falling workforces in the West are producing broadly the same output. Nor is the internet a great job generator. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and eBay may be changing the way we read and communicate -- but in the U.S. they have created fewer than 100,000 direct jobs. This, argues Cowen, is what lies behind America's increasingly jobless recoveries and the squeeze on the incomes of its middle-class workers. Our scientists and technologists have not been able to create inventions that can be industrialised at the same pace as they once did.

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