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“We have temporarily suspended this advertising campaign pending a review of our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads.”

ALSO, The Atlantic took down all 25 comments on its Scientology advertorial, but we nabbed them before they disappeared. We’re reproducing them for posterity below.

AND NOW, the Atlantic has apologized. See the latest update, below.

There’s been a stunned reaction on Twitter as readers express their astonishment at the paid article written by the Church of Scientology that The Atlantic agreed to post on its website today.


The Atlantic is a venerated magazine (founded in 1857!) which has been celebrated for the way it has made use of the Internet probably better than any highbrow publication, its AtlanticWire getting high marks for originality and innovation.

But taking paid puff pieces from Scientology? This innovation is resulting in a big backlash.

If you’re unfamiliar with how magazines and newspapers work, we can tell you that AtlanticWire editor Gabriel Snyder may not have known that this piece — which at first glance appears to be a normal article on the website — was coming. As “sponsored content,” the publication of this Scientology-written article would have been worked out with The Atlantic’s sales side, without editorial input. (Mother Jones co-editor Clara Jeffery points out that this advertorial showed up on the main site, not AtlanticWire. Atlantic editor in chief James Bennett is being pelted on Twitter for the ad being published at all.)

In these economic times, print publications and their websites are pretty desperate for any form of revenue. But even if this sponsored advertorial was held at arm’s length from the magazine’s editorial purview, the Atlantic still risks harming its hard-won reputation by getting into bed with such a controversial group as Scientology.

It’s also clear that comments at the story are being strictly controlled. Only a few comments which express only the vaguest criticism have been allowed through at this time (9:20 pm), and the rest are glowing shills that are obviously coming from the church. (Our old friend B.B. Broeker appears to have been too subtle for the Atlantic‘s moderators with his hilarious troll about Shelly Miscavige.)

But the public appears to be able to vote on the comments, and the mildly critical statement “I don’t think this article presents the whole story about Scientology,” is accumulating upvotes at a rapid rate.

We’ve e-mailed Snyder for a comment, but he may end up writing something on his own. In 2009, when Snyder was editing Gawker, he spoke out critically about a similar promotion at that website — a paid story about the show True Blood that looked too much like regular editorial content. Snyder was clearly not happy, and he apologized to readers.

The Scientology article at The Atlantic is its standard hokum about how it has opened numerous new “Ideal Orgs” around the world in the past year, unneeded new buildings that David Miscavige is forcing his members to pay for to give the false impression that the church is growing.

In fact, several different solid lines of evidence suggest that Scientology is rapidly shrinking — Lawrence Wright, in his book about Scientology being published this week, estimates church membership at about 25,000. Just two years ago we estimated it at 40,000.

Scientology claims the farcical number of 10 million.

The Ideal Org caper is not just a gimmick intended to give a false impression about the size of membership. As Luis Garcia — a former high-level member of the church — explained last year in regards to the Orange County “Ideal Org” project, these schemes put intense pressure on local church members to raise millions of dollars to purchase a building that is then owned by the international church. The locals are then hit up for millions more to renovate and improve the building to create an “Ideal” church. That produces a fine building that church leader David Miscavige then flies in to pose in front of along with hundreds of bussed-in church members to create the photos you see in the Atlantic story. But these buildings are replacing smaller facilities that weren’t full to begin with, and they are left as empty husks — and the locals then have to raise even more money to keep the lights on.

But the photos make for a pretty article that claims Scientology is expanding. No legitimate news organization should fall for that kind of blatant shilling.

But apparently, for The Atlantic, the price was right.

We’ll update this story if we hear from Snyder.

UPDATE at 10:30 PM: The Atlantic‘s moderators seem to have held the number of comments at 25.

But at 8:32 PM, Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg posted a brief note about Lawrence Wright’s book coming out, titling it “A Wonderful New Book About Scientology, By a Wonderful Writer.” Comments at that piece appear to be open.

That’s a clever way to give Atlantic readers an outlet. But is Snyder going to give them one of his own?

UPDATE at 11:15 PM: As Synthia Fagen just pointed out, all comments at the Atlantic article have now been erased entirely.

Can you spell “media disaster”?

UPDATE at 11:20 PM: We just asked for some thoughts from Mike Rinder, who used to run Scientology’s PR efforts. Here’s what he sent us…

It REALLY shows desperation and fear about the upcoming media nightmare surrounding Larry Wright’s book. That ad cost some cash.

Interestingly, it is ONLY trying to make Miscavige look good to his existing income base. It isn’t written for the general public (i.e., readers of Atlantic). They don’t give a damn about “Ideal Orgs” and could care less how many of them he “opened” (Funny they are now including re-“opening” old “Ideal Orgs” like Buffalo, DC, Los Gatos and San Jose). And it’s all about Miscavige. This would be like the Mormons trying to promote their religion by talking about Thomas Monson and showing pictures of LDS temples. Weird. And it would turn off anyone they were trying to convert. When they pitch new people (like ANY other religion) they pitch their beliefs and the good work they do for people and how joining their church is going to help you.

Miscavige wants to be able to show this to the suckers at his next “international event” (March 13) and pretend it’s “massive media coverage.” And for those that ask, it will be “this is what your donations to the IAS pay for.”

UPDATE 11:45 PM: Before the Atlantic could take down the comments on its Scientology advertorial, we managed to nab them. Here they are…



UPDATE at 1:25 PM on Tuesday: As Erik Wemple of the Washington Post reports, the Atlantic has now admitted that it made “mistakes,” but it doesn’t really explain what those mistakes were…

We screwed up. It shouldn’t have taken a wave of constructive criticism — but it has — to alert us that we’ve made a mistake, possibly several mistakes. We now realize that as we explored new forms of digital advertising, we failed to update the policies that must govern the decisions we make along the way. It’s safe to say that we are thinking a lot more about these policies after running this ad than we did beforehand. In the meantime, we have decided to withdraw the ad until we figure all of this out. We remain committed to and enthusiastic about innovation in digital advertising, but acknowledge — sheepishly — that we got ahead of ourselves. We are sorry, and we’re working very hard to put things right.

We’d love to know what Scientology thinks of the Atlantic now saying publicly that its advertorial was a colossal fuckup. We may never know the real answer to that, but a comical response from church spokeswoman Karin Pouw in the meantime would be really entertaining. Let’s hope one shows up soon.

Erik got ahold of us today and we talked about this mess. We explained that we don’t begrudge Scientology the right to get its message out by purchasing ads, even in the form of advertorials. But the Atlantic had to know that the church was buying the magazine’s good name as much as anything else, and that there might be a serious reader backlash. But it only compounded the problem when it then censored those comments and turned the minor embarrassment of taking Scientology’s money into the major media meltdown it became.


Posted by Tony Ortega on January 14, 2013 at 21:30

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