Joe Childs has been writing about the Scientology religion for the St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times) since his assignment to the Clearwater Bureau in 1993. While forced into semiretirement during the paper’s continuing economic crisis, Childs is still on the masthead as an editor-at-large. His coverage of the Church of Scientology represents a graphic illustration of a reporter allowing his personal prejudice to trump his ethical duties as a journalist.
Childs’ blatant bias permeates his Scientology stories. With literally thousands of Scientologists from around the world coming to Clearwater every month, Childs consistently draws his salacious material of misinformation from the same handful of rabid anti-Scientologists willing to say anything if it denigrates the religion. In addition to blindly relying on tainted sources, Childs attends their parties, social events and staged anti-Scientology “protests.” Childs’ embedment with these hatemongers is so egregious, he has referred to them as “the folks” and “our people” in meetings with Church representatives.
In preparation for a series of articles in 2009, Childs spent more than 500 hours and 13 weeks in three states communing with anti-Scientologists developing his story. He even flew one source across the country to convince another to formally “go on record.” In contrast to these 13 weeks and 500 hours, Childs afforded Church officials barely 30 hours over three weeks to address a mountain of lies, mostly ignoring their answers while paying lip service to hearing both sides. Moreover, even while meeting with the Church, Childs continued "massaging" his “folks” for an additional three weeks, attempting to repair their falsehoods and “clarify” their stories in light of unequivocal evidence presented by the Church.
“You can’t do your job if you get too close to your sources,” said longtime Newsweek chief political correspondent and Washington Deputy Bureau Chief Howard Fineman. “We are observers. We’re not part of the process.”
Even more egregiously, when Childs’ story started to hopelessly unravel through inarguable evidence presented by the Church, Childs abandoned any pretense of fair and objective reporting. Instead, Childs rushed to press with a one-sided, maliciously false “profile” of the religion’s leader whom he had agreed to interview two weeks hence when the leader returned from a long-scheduled religious convocation that he presided over every year.
These are the tactics of a propagandist. No news peg required such urgency. Rather than fulfilling Childs’ first and foremost obligation to meet as agreed upon with the man who became the Times primary subject to hear the true story, Childs abandoned ship.
Why? Childs knew that the interview with the religion’s leader would completely destroy the false portrait Childs concocted based on the lies he had been crafting for months with bitter apostates—his “folks”—who had been expelled from the religion by the leader for malfeasance. Why let the truth get in the way of a salacious story? See www.freedommag.org/special-reports/sptimes/merchants-of-chaos.html.
Clearwater became the spiritual headquarters of the Church of Scientology in 1975, with a community of Scientologists now more than 10,000 strong and with tens of thousands of Scientologists traveling to Clearwater each year to engage in religious services and convocations at their religious retreat. According to a 2014 Economic Impact Study conducted by the Florida State University Center for Economic Forecasting and Analysis, the presence of the Church of Scientology has benefited the community to the tune of nearly $917 million and counting. Yet, no one would ever know this by reading the hate-filled stories Childs cooked up.
Childs’ bias against the Church of Scientology and its members is so notorious it has been the talk of Clearwater’s media circles. George Wayne Shelor, former Clearwater Sun staffer and Clearwater Police public information officer, is incredulous:
If there is anyone in the entire State of Florida who should not, may not, must not, cannot, for any time write about the Church of Scientology, it would be Joe Childs. For 20 years Joe has said things and done things that would automatically and without equivocation make him ineligible under any circumstances from writing anything about the Church of Scientology.
I was just flabbergasted that the St. Petersburg Times, knowing that it must know, would allow Joe Childs to have an active hand. … Joe has spewed venom for two decades in the newsroom. How can the editor write about Scientology? He says, ‘we hate ’em,’ ‘we’ve got to destroy ’em,’ ‘run ’em out of town.’ You can’t be an editor and say that and then write about it. You can’t. For 20 years Joe railed against the Church of Scientology as the managing editor of the Clearwater Bureau. And there are a hundred people who will tell you that.
For 20 years Joe has said things and done things that would automatically and without equivocation make him ineligible under any circumstances from writing anything about the Church of Scientology.
Mike Foley, professor of “Journalism Excellence” at the University of Florida, worked as executive editor at the Times through many of Childs’ years. In an article published while both were still working at the newspaper, Foley commented that “It would be foolish to admit that reporters don’t have opinions. But it would also be a violation of what we hold professionally sacred to say that real professionals and the reporters aren’t able to put those opinions aside.”
Joe Childs undeniably fails that test. Childs is nothing but a propagandist, bent on inciting discrimination against a religion through malicious misinformation presented as “truth.”