We learned yesterday that next week, Gawker will shut down. For some of us who toiled in the trenches of New York journalism of a certain era, the news is hard to believe. Gawker had a big effect on the way online journalism is done (not all of it positive, some will tell you), and it certainly changed the way we think about writing and reporting.
You will no doubt be seeing a lot of obituaries written about Gawker over the next week now that Univision is shutting it down after buying all of Gawker Media’s websites in a fire sale. You can read plenty more about how Gawker’s fate was sealed when a billionaire, Peter Thiel, took revenge for being outed by the site by funding Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea’s lawsuit against Gawker over a sex tape. You probably already know the tale, and we won’t go into it except to say, as someone who has been targeted by a couple of different billionaires we’ve written about, it’s a really fucked up hazard of the occupation. Anyway, relevant to our interests here at the Underground Bunker we wanted to commemorate one Gawker achievement in particular that forever changed the way Scientology is perceived by the public.
We’re talking about the shock to the system when a 9-minute interview of Tom Cruise appeared online early in 2008, and Gawker, more than any other website, made sure that the interview remained public for all to see.
You probably know what interview we’re talking about. It was actually a small part of a larger celebration of Tom Cruise that occurred at the 20th anniversary celebration of the International Association of Scientologists in October 2004. The quick backstory, which even Gawker didn’t know at the time, is that Scientology leader David Miscavige wanted to make a big deal of the fact that he’d managed to lure Tom Cruise back into the fold after Cruise had all but dropped out of Scientology for several years.
Cruise had gotten involved in Scientology through actress Mimi Rogers in 1986, just a few months after founder L. Ron Hubbard had died. Tom and Mimi were then married on Dianetics Day, May 9, 1987, and, as we explained in our lengthy story revealing for the first time what really happened to bust up that marriage, Miscavige managed to use Tom’s growing interest in Nicole Kidman to lure him away from Rogers. But then, after Tom married Nicole and she initially got involved in Scientology, by 1992 she had grown disaffected and the two of them pulled away from Scientology for the next nine years, when they broke up. And that’s when Miscavige made it job one to get Tom back into the fold. With the help of his top lieutenant at the time, Marty Rathbun, they were very successful, and by 2004 Cruise was the most enthusiastic L. Ron Hubbard fanatic ever. So that’s why Miscavige, at the 2004 IAS celebration, decided to reward Cruise not with a Freedom Medal, which had been the usual high award given at those events, but to bestow on Cruise a special Freedom Medal of Valor.
And before he handed the tchotchke to Cruise, Miscavige amped up the crowd in East Grinstead, England with a 35-minute recorded tribute to Cruise, which was interspersed with a 9-minute interview of the actor, in a black turtleneck, talking about how much he loved being a Scientologist.
But here’s what Miscavige may not have been counting on: The video and the medal ceremony actually backfired. Scientologists who had dedicated their lives to the “Sea Org,” and had signed billion-year contracts and worked for pennies an hour around the clock, considered it a slap in the face to hear from Miscavige that Cruise, a friggin’ actor, was “the most dedicated Scientologist I know.”
We’ve talked to numerous former Scientologists who were in the audience that night, and they all tell us they carried resentment over it for years. And that’s probably why, in 2007, an anonymous Scientologist decided to smuggle out a recording of that night’s event to a woman in Connecticut named Patty Moher.
Patty has told, at length, what subsequently happened with the DVD, and we’ll just pull out a few highlights. She had actually been in attendance at the 2004 event, and in 2007 when she received the DVD recording, she remembered it as an event she had personally experienced. She’s admitted that she didn’t really have any idea what a pile of dynamite she had in her hands as she began forwarding copies of the event to some of her close friends. She even showed it at a party at her house, swearing everyone to secrecy. (By 2007, Patty was out of Scientology but not publicly, and she was still considered in good standing by the organization itself.)
One of the people she shared the DVD with, Patricia Greenway, was working with writer Andrew Morton on his unauthorized biography of Cruise, which was scheduled to be released on January 15, 2008, and NBC was going to be promoting the book. Greenway told Patty it would help Morton if NBC had the footage of Cruise, which would help prove what Morton was saying about him. But NBC said it didn’t want anything to do with a DVD that had been smuggled out of the church. That was a lawsuit waiting to happen. What it could use, however, was video that had already been posted online.
Patty had no idea how to do that, but she knew that Mark Bunker, a longtime critic in Los Angeles who ran “Xenu TV,” was well aware of how to upload video to the Internet. She sent him the DVD and asked him to post it as a downloadable file so the people at NBC could grab it. On January 14, 2008, Bunker posted the nine-minute interview segment to a YouTube channel he created for it, believing it was set for private.
Bunker has said he was away from his computer for some time, and when he looked at it again, to his horror he saw that the video was proliferating like crazy. Tens of thousands of views in only a short time. Panicked by the thought of what legal action might come from the church, he yanked it down.
Going to Plan B, they turned to journalist Mark Ebner, who was well known for his 1996 expose of Scientology in Spy Magazine, and who had also worked on the epic 2005 South Park episode that poked fun at Scientology’s “Xenu” story. Bunker gave Ebner access to the Cruise segment on the private YouTube channel.
“I was blogging for ‘fratire’ progenitor Tucker Max’s ill-advised (and ill-fated) Rudius Media,” Ebner tells us. “When Tucker Max idiotically forbade me from posting the video on HollywoodInterrupted.com, I hit up Nick Denton at Gawker in the wee hours, and he was all over it. I gleefully gave it to him for fun and for free, and the rest is viral history. In hindsight, I probably should have charged him for it, and tossed Mark Bunker some cash for the tip. Oh well. Between the Tom Cruise tape and the South Park ‘Trapped in the Closet’ episode I consulted on, I feel great about my part in taking down Scientology’s number two guy. Twice!”
Denton posted the video to Gawker at 10:18 am on January 15, 2008. He pointed out that the video had been uploaded the day before, briefly, to YouTube (by Bunker), and had been picked up by Radar and Defamer — but that each of those copies had been taken down as Scientology’s legal team jumped into action. “Gawker is now hosting a copy of the video; it’s newsworthy; and we will not be removing it,” Denton wrote.
The video was a disaster for Cruise. After the actor had been recovered to the church by 2004, the next year he made a catastrophic attempt to become a more open ambassador for it in 2005, with his bizarre antics on Oprah Winfrey’s couch, for example, and his combative interview on the Today show with Matt Lauer. But soon after it became obvious that the new strategy was blowing up on him, he went silent again. Now, three years later, with the release of the black turtleneck interview that had been taped in 2004, the public for the first time got to see Tom in full Scientology mode — in a video that was never meant for outsiders to see.
Scientologists consider themselves to be superhuman, and better than the rest of us, and it was on full display as Cruise made bizarre comments about, for example, a Scientologist being the only person who could help at the scene of a car accident, or that Scientology would so completely take over the planet, its enemies — known as “SPs” — would only be read about in history books.
Cruise looked absolutely insane.
Within days, Gawker’s story had been viewed more than 2 million times, a record for Gawker, and that fact became a news story in itself. The New York Times wrote that when Scientology sent a threat letter demanding that the video be pulled down, Denton posted the letter as well.
The Times noted that the windfall of traffic came at what turned out to be a crucial moment for Gawker.
The timing of the imbroglio has been fortunate for Gawker Media. A Gawker editor, Choire Sicha, and two other bloggers resigned last month, and several articles in print publications, including The New York Times, have examined whether Gawker’s relevance and popularity were waning.
But according to the Internet tracker Site Meter, unique visitors to the six-year-old site more than doubled, to more than 13.6 million so far this month, from 6.7 million last January, because of popularity of the posts related to Mr. Cruise and to the actor Heath Ledger.
The huge traffic not only bolstered the site, but former employees have said it gave Gawker a greater awareness that it could break big news stories, separating it from a past as more of a media gossip site.
And it had another huge effect whose influence we’re still living with: It inspired Anonymous to direct its energies at the Church of Scientology. The loose Internet collective had previously found causes to support — specifically a talk radio clown who needed bruising — but when it took on Scientology over its attempt to take down the Tom Cruise video, Anonymous and its Chanology Project hit the church’s websites hard as it got a sense of itself as a force that could not only wreak online havoc, but make social change. (Mark Bunker again entered the story by posting a video in which he counseled Anonymous to avoid outright vandalism and embrace nonviolent demonstration as an ethos. He was dubbed “Wise Beard Man,” and the next month, Anonymous began pickets worldwide as, famously, the Internet grew legs.)
McGill University professor Gabriella Coleman has documented the further adventures of Anonymous as it turned its attention to many other causes in her book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, which we highly recommend.
In 2011, at The Village Voice, we posted the larger, 35-minute version of the tribute to Cruise and awarding of his medal from the original full event DVD. In 2015, Alex Gibney used large parts of it for his documentary, Going Clear. You can see the full thing we posted in 2011 on Vimeo.
And now, eight years after Nick Denton posted the Cruise video and fought to keep it available to the public, Gawker itself is going dark. (Will its archives still exist somewhere? We don’t know.)
In the history of Scientology’s controversies, this one has to be among the most disastrous public calamities for the church, along with the South Park episode, the 1991 TIME magazine cover story by Richard Behar, the 1977 FBI raid, the death of Lisa McPherson, and Gibney’s Going Clear (and, yes, we’re biased about that last one because we’re in it).
Anyway, whatever you ultimately think of Gawker, the effects of its 2008 stand against Scientology will continue to reverberate, long after the site is gone.
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Our book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information about the book, and our 2015 book tour, can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.
Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…
BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of L.A. attorney and former church member Vance Woodward
UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists
GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts
Other links: Shelly Miscavige, ten years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | Scientology boasts about assistance from Google | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ
Our Guide to Alex Gibney’s film ‘Going Clear,’ and our pages about its principal figures…
Jason Beghe | Tom DeVocht | Sara Goldberg | Paul Haggis | Mark “Marty” Rathbun | Mike Rinder | Spanky Taylor | Hana Whitfield