Friday, January 11, 2013

The Trouble with Witty Flights: All’s not Fair in Vanity

On 6 December 2007, John Spaulding, of The Society of Mutual Autopsy Review of Religion and Culture (SoMA) made a call to a friend, who knew a priest who knew Father Frank Morales. The friend seemed somewhat baffled that the Vanity Fair article Spaulding referred to in his post that day, about the deaths of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan, carried the byline Nancy Jo Sales. “Are you sure it was a female reporter?” he asked.

This friend asked, because the priest he knew had spoken to someone else at Vanity Fair who wanted information about Fr. Morales. The interviewer was male.

The following day, Spaulding got another call from another baffled reader:
...I got a call from someone who was interviewed at length for the piece and was stunned to read at SoMA that Nancy Jo Sales had the byline. Asking not to be named, this person said that, last they knew, VF contributor John Connolly was writing the article, and that it was probably now in final edits, not already on the newsstand.

So, another Vanity Fair writer, John Connolly, worked on the same story. He interviewed a number of people whose quotes and information seem to have appeared in Sales’ article, “The Golden Suicides.”

So who is John Connolly?

Connolly was once a New York City Police officer. He then tried his hand at stockbroking, but quickly ran afoul of federal authorities, who charged him with pumping and dumping, recklessly tanking his clients money in worthless stock purchases he made without their knowledge or consent (they lost any where between $19,000 and $107,000 each), and other things. Instead of indicting him, US prosecutors turned him into an informant.
It was as a government informant that Connolly found his next career. Using the information he collected in his capacity as a prosecutorial spy, he wrote articles later published in Forbes. The feds, naturally, no longer used his services. But Connolly continued to write and contribute articles for a number of other periodicals, among them Vanity Fair. At the time of his investigation into Blake and Duncan, Connolly served as a contributing editor to the magazine.

Connolly has a reputation for decent writing. But many in the publishing industry say that his true skill lies in his ability to investigate a story, a trait he undoubtedly honed as a policeman. Among those singing his praises was former LAPD officer-turned-private-detective Gene Ingram. Among Ingram’s clients was the Church of Scientology.

“I hired Ingram,” former CoS Inspector General Marty Rathbun told reporter John Cook.* According to Rathbun, Ingram frequently promoted Connolly’s acumen to him and the church’s former official spokesperson, Mike Rinder.

Rinder corroborated Rathbun’s account, explaining:
Connolly was a resource to deal with media problems....Ingram used to tout Connolly’s virtues pretty often–‘Connolly can handle this; he’ll find out what’s going on and he’s got lines into all media.’
Rathbun primarily served as the CoS’s fixer, someone who made trouble go away. So Connolly interested him. Likewise, as someone very involved with the church’s public relations, Rinder saw the value of Connolly's services. As evidence of Connolly’s connection to the church, Rathbun posted on his blog a secret memorandum penned by Scientology’s DCO External Affairs Office of Special Affairs INT chief Linda Hamel exemplifying how the ex-cop worked with Scientology. The memo dealt with British journalist Andrew Morton, who was then writing an unauthorized biography of actor Tom Cruise. The memo read in part:
Connolly was here in LA working on the [private detective Anthony] Pellicano story and contacted Morton and met with him on the basis of gaining his cooperation to be interviewed for an article for Vanity Fair about the books Morton has done on celebrities including the one he is writing on Tom Cruise. Connolly wanted to see what Morton was like and get any information about where Morton is currently at with regard to writing the book and to see if Morton would agree to be interviewed for an article. Based on the meeting, Connolly said that Morton seems to have finished his research already and is busy writing the book.

Connolly told Morton that it would not be a puff piece and would show both sides including what would be said about Morton. (Connolly will use the article to investigate Morton’s past treatment of other celebrities, use of sleazy sources, etc. that would undermine Morton’s credibility)....

The reporter got the impression from talking with Morton that Morton has collected a lot of information about the Church and that this will be well covered in the book. Morton also mentioned that he has an assistant who is working for him.....

Connolly’s impression is that Morton is a formidable adversary who is not going to back down. He thinks that Morton has made up his mind already as to the angle of the book but did not specifically say what it was.
This memo appears to describe a modus operandi similar to the one Connolly deployed in his days as government informant. He attempted to gain information from and about Morton under the guise of writing an article about him. In this case, Rathbun is saying that instead of reporting to the feds, Connolly reported to Scientology’s intelligence office.

Because of Duncan’s stridently anti-Scientology posts on Wit of the Staircase, it is, at the least, odd that Vanity Fair would assign a CoS hiree to write an article about her. According to some sources, the magazine simply “pulled him off the story," which certainly makes sense since that would seem like a conflict of interest.  Whatever the case, someone eventually reassigned it to Sales, who knew of the couple because of her close relation to their friend, Fr. Morales. While it’s quite likely Sales interviewed and got information from Morales, it remains unclear as to how much information might have been gathered by Connolly. Moreover, one has to wonder how many of the quotes cited in the article came from interviews with Connolly, as opposed to Sales.

This becomes even more of a sticky point when discussing the quotes attributed to Beck Hansen.  Sales reported that Beck e-mailed Vanity Fair to deny his involvement with Alice Underground. Moreover, he characterized his relationship to Blake and Duncan as “a passing social acquaintance.” Yet, four years earlier in a 5 August 2003 interview with Corrière della Sera reporter Sandra Cesarale, he discussed an upcoming movie he would film in the near future:**
It will be full of energy and full of characters: some kind of Alice in Wonderland set in the 70s. It still doesn’t have a title. The director is a friend of mine and it will be her directorial debut. But I trust her. We will begin shooting in the Fall.***

Here, it’s highly unlikely that Beck was referring to anything other than Alice Underground, and Theresa Duncan. It would therefore appear that he and Duncan mutually saw their relationship as not just a “passing social acquaintance,” but as an actual friendship. He also described his enthusiasm for the project, and his willingness to participate in it.

Back in December 2007, some commenting on this earlier interview accused Beck of lying to Sales.  But did he?

Sales wrote that (1) the statement was in fact an e-mail, and (2) he sent it to Vanity Fair, not specifically to her. As to the first point, we have to concede that we normally don’t watch people e-mail us. We can assume the person who clicked the “send” button is the same one whose name is incorporated into the address. But commonsense tells us that anyone can set up an account and incorporate aspects of the person’s identity, and actually type their name after the closing.

As to the second point, we don’t know exactly who received the e-mail, although one can infer it was either Sales, Connolly or both.  Here, we would have to wonder if someone connected to the church wrote it on his behalf--with or without his knowledge.  Even if Beck wrote it himself, hi might have realized that it would go to a writer with a connection with Scientology.  Or, he could have written it under duress.  Whatever the case, we cannot definitively prove that he either composed, sent, or even endorsed the content of that e-mail.

When New York Post reporters Bill Hoffman and David Li tried to verify or clarify the statements attributed to Beck in Vanity Fair, they could not gain access to the rock star. Instead they spoke to a spokesperson who made it clear that neither he nor Beck would offer anything further:
A spokesman for the rocker told The Post last night that Vanity Fair's quotes from Beck were accurate.

But the mouthpiece said Beck didn't want to add any additional comments: ‘That's about as on-the-record as you're going to get from him.’

Beck aside, “The Golden Suicides” depicts Blake and Duncan’s concerns about Scientology as nothing more than psychotic paranoia, also evident in other conspiracy conjectures the couple had expressed to friends:
Blake wrote of how he and Duncan had been ‘harassed here to the point of absurdity’ by people who were so ‘paranoid’ that it made him ‘laugh.’ He said that they had been ‘defamed by crazy Scientologists,’ threatened and followed by ‘their thugs.’ (The Church of Scientology has denied any knowledge of the couple.) He wrote of how New York was starting to seem like the place for them to be, a place where they could speak ‘freely’ to ‘exceptional people’ and get their projects started.

Meanwhile, Hollywood, Blake said, was ‘under a pathetic right-wing invasion’ by the Bush administration and ‘extremist religious groups.’ He mentioned a couple of media companies with obvious Republican leanings. And then he said, ‘They are even running ads on the Cartoon Network recruiting people to be in the CIA!’

It’s interesting to note that while “The Golden Suicides” takes a rather mocking tone on Blake’s assertions, a simple Google search shows that he was hardly alone in thinking that right-wingers are trying to exercise some influence in Tinseltown  Moreover, the Agency actually produced TV advertisements that aired on broadcast and cable networks. The below, for example, could have very well appeared on Cartoon Network or similar venues, since it would fit the demographics of its late-night audiences, and would match the style of that station’s content.

Figure 1. CIA Recruitment Ad

As for the church’s professed ignorance of Blake and Duncan’s existence until after their deaths, one has to recall that it denied spying on and harassing BBC journalist John Sweeney. Sweeney, of course, had the wherewithal to document the snooping and button pushing on camera. He also had confirmation from Mike Rinder and written documentation from Rinder’s files.

The point here is that “The Golden Suicides” contains some of the same pitfalls as Kate Coe’s “The Theresa Duncan Tragedy.” Neither article shows any serious research to verify or debunk the validity of the strange activities reported by Blake and Duncan, or any views the two expressed. Instead, each presents the claims of detractors, in Sales' case Scientology and Scientologists, at face value, and offer these statements as evidence of the couple’s detachment from reality--despite the fact that one can show various aspects of their assertions are true. “The Golden Suicides” averred that the couple weren’t as close to Beck as they claimed, despite evidence to the contrary; and that evidence came from Beck himself. The article depicted their fear of Scientologists as pathologically delusional.  Yet, others have managed to prove far wilder persecution by the church than anything discussed on Wit of the Staircase.****

Indeed, the ugliest and most one-sided depictions of Blake and Duncan in “The Golden Suicides” center on their claims against the Church of Scientology. It's therefore particularly distressing that someone who had worked for the church also worked on the article for any length of time, in any capacity, especially since such actions are consistent with the church's Fair Game policy of smearing critics.

A number of other problems have since surfaced about the accuracy and fairness of this particular piece, many of them involving Sales’ relationship to Fr. Morales, her heroic depiction of him, his relationship to two other women, his role in conspiracy culture, and his true actions on the night of 10 July 2007. And that’s highly unfortunate since this piece has come to define Blake and Duncan to many consumers of hardcopy print media, and could become even more influential within the next year. Sales optioned the movie rights to the story.  Noted director Gus van Sant plans to produce the film, with a screenplay written by Bret Easton Ellis (of American Psycho fame).

In his research for the screenplay, Ellis noted that the article had numerous problems. As he told Kyle Buchanon of Movieline, “I know that there was some concern among family and friends that this was going to be a script that was very much in line with the Vanity Fair piece, which really isn't true.“

One could guess that family and friends might also fear that the movie might be just as one-sided.

I guess the proof will be in the screening–if it ever makes it that far.

* decided not to publish the article, titled “Was a Vanity Fair Editor Secretly Working for the Church of Scientology?” The New York Observer subsequently picked it up and published it on 1 March 2011.

**The article is no longer on the web, or available through Washington-based journalist Emanuelle Richard brought it to public attention in December of 2007, shortly after the publication of “The Golden Suicides.” A number of websites linked to the original Corrière della Sera story, including FishbowlLA, so it would appear to have been pulled sometime after 2007. Click here, and you can see that Richard's original article reporting this is also not extant.

***When originally reported in Variety, Alice Underground did not yet have a title. It’s possible that Duncan had still not completely settled on the title by August 2003, or that she did some time after Beck last spoke to her about the project/

****In a comment to the previous post, Ray mentioned the plight of Paulette Cooper, a reporter who wound up “fair game” after criticizing the church in her 1971 book The Scandal of Scientology. For years, Cooper faced relentless harassment, which culminated in the church attempt to frame her for bomb threats. Because of the lack of corroborating evidence, prosecutors eventually dropped the charges. But it wasn’t until years later, during the FBI’s investigation of the church’s Operation SNOW WHITE, a conspiracy to steal and destroy documents compiled by 130 government agencies, that the Feds came across memos detailing Scientology’s harassment of Cooper, including a self-congratulatory memo on the successful frame job.  The actions targeting Cooper, dubbed Operation FREAKOUT by the church. were designed to harass Cooper to the point where she would become so unstable that authorities would find it necessary to place her in a mental institution, or prison.

In a 24 November 2011 article for the Village Voice, Tony Ortega asked her about her ordeal.  This passage could have just as easily apply to Blake and Duncan:
One of the hardest things she went through, she says today, was just getting people to believe that all of the harassment was going on. ‘If you tell people you're being followed, they think you're paranoid,’ she says. The experience left her angry and depressed. ‘I was really very, very bitter.’

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  • At 11:13 AM, Blogger Charles Gramlich said…

    Folks seem divided into those who can buy conspiracies and those who totally reject them. I generally reject them but I know that means I'll occassionally make an error when one really exists.

  • At 7:01 PM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    Well, Charles, nothing like playing the odds, eh?

  • At 12:27 AM, Blogger Ray Palm (Ray X) said…

    I was unaware of "theremy" and the connection to Scientology until you started this series. I had heard about Paulette Cooper before and recalled that she said some man who pretended to be her friend was really a Scientology agent. I Googled to verify that point and that's how I found the Village Voice article which mentions "Jerry Levin." Another example of how far some Scientology members would go to take care of a critic. As the VV article mentions, Cooper was so severely harassed that she became suicidal, weighing only 83 pounds.

  • At 10:50 AM, Blogger ELFIS said…

    Hola Xdell.

    Well done. Another good installment to the series. So, is this one of your longest series so far?

    I'm not sure if I recall having heard about Connolly's involvement in the VF hit-piece. Going back through my notes I've not found reference to that so am glad to learn (or re-learn) about that angle.

    Hope the new year is treating you and yours well.

    - SMiles

  • At 8:06 AM, Blogger foam said…

    Hey there X..
    Just dropping in to say hi. What with being sick during much of December and then swamped with work I lost track of what's going on for the most part. Obviously you are in the midst of all the Scientology stuff. Hope you are well.

  • At 7:19 PM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    Es tut mir leid du bist krank, freundin. Gesund jetz?

    Take care.

  • At 2:45 PM, Blogger foam said…

    Ja, jetzt bin Ich ziemlich gesund, mein Freund :)

    Ok on 3rdmattempt with word veri

  • At 3:35 PM, Blogger Ray Palm (Ray X) said…

    Speaking of word verification, I've also had problems with it. The other way to deal with spam is turn off the CAPTCHA and use comment moderation with email notification. Comments aren't published until they're approved. Have you tried that system?


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