By this point, it’s no secret that the Church of Scientology doesn’t take too well to criticism. They respond to any suggestion that their practices seem a bit shady with litigation, accusations of religious bigotry and PR statements claiming that its most fervent detractors are merely vengeful ex-members. So it wasn’t too surprising that the Church mounted a strong campaign against Alex Gibney’s new documentary "Going Clear," launching a Twitter account and taking out full-page advertisements in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times to denounce the film. But Scientology’s reps aren’t just knocking the film on social media and via the press: they’re contacting the people reviewing the film.
Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey writes that mere hours after he published his Sundance review of the film on January 27, Flavorwire’s editorial director Elizabeth Spiers received an email from Scientology Director of Public Affairs Karin Pouw:
The above article concerning "Going Clear," Alex Gibney’s film, was posted without contacting the Church for comment. As a result, your article reflects the film which is filled with bald faced lies. I ask that you include a statement from the Church in your article. There is another side to the story which has to be told. Do not be the mouthpiece for Alex Gibney’s propaganda.
Bailey goes on to describe the email’s comparison of critics’ "Going Clear" coverage to the Rolling Stone/UVA debacle (something the CoS has done on Twitter and in print). He also notes that "pretty much every critic who wrote about ‘Going Clear’ got" the email (Indiewire included), and that the Church of Scientology doesn’t seem to realize that critics don’t usually try to interview people for reviews.
But what’s interesting about this tactic — aside from the fact that it somehow doesn’t include the phrase, “Actually, it’s about ethics in Scientology journalism” — is how neatly it comports with the film’s portrayal of the Church as a hive of shady, paranoid control freaks. The assumption is that they merely have to email film writers, chastise them for not doing something that’s never been done in the history of film criticism, and get them to run their “Rolling Stone, though!” response with the unblinking acceptance of an OT I — or, perhaps more accurately, of an outlet terrified of the notoriously litigious organization. (HBO announced they’d lawyered up all the way back in November.)
Bailey contacted Alex Gibney, who responded that “Anytime someone writes something — film criticism or social criticism — about Scientology, the CoS counter-attacks by smearing critics." They’ve also made sure that their new anti-"Going Clear" webpage is the top result for any search about the film, from "Alex Gibney" to "Alex Gibney Flavorwire" to "Alex Gibney Indiewire."
Needless to say, this is pretty creepy stuff, and another example of how the Church of Scientology views every bit of criticism directed their way as a threat to their whole organization and religion. I imagine this practice is going to continue at least up to the HBO premiere of "Going Clear," if not well past. It’s hard to say whether or not they realize that their campaign against the film is going to be the best publicity that Alex Gibney and company could ever hope for, if also a hassle for critics and filmmakers and (this is no small thing) a nightmare for the ex-CoS members who dared to speak out against the Church’s practices. But then, they don’t seem terribly aware that attacking everyone who criticizes you doesn’t do a lot of good for your image.