'48 Hours' Questions Role Of Scientology In Murder, Scientologists Question CBS Ethics
On Saturday, "48 Hours" ran a story about the 2003 murder of Elli Perkins, a murder that her 28-year-old son Jeremy confessed to committing. Jeremy had been hallucinating and behaving erratically before his mother's death, but his parents, devout Scientologists, resisted giving him psychiatric treatment. As "48 Hours" notes, "[s]ome pro-Scientology materials declare that psychiatrists are not only useless, but evil – their medications nothing but poisons." The Perkins' opted to medicate their son primarily with vitamins.
The Scientology community was not happy with the story, which raised the possibility that Elli Perkins might not have been murdered had her son been given psychiatric treatment. The group refused to provide "48 Hours" with an official spokesman and began taking action to influence the broadcast. "They hit us with numerous e-mails and there were some people at CBS or at '48 Hours' who they knew personally, and so there were some personal requests made as well," says CBS News Senior Vice President, Standards and Special Projects Linda Mason.
One of the primary complaints from Scientologists was that CBS News has a conflict of interest in covering the story, since the network counts pharmaceutical companies among its advertisers. The argument was that since these companies make anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drugs, CBS News wanted to promote them – and that this story was one way to do that. Mason disputes this argument. "Nothing could be further from the truth," she says. "At CBS the sales department and the news department – there is a Chinese wall between them. And we just don't cross. And we've done numerous stories on the ill effects of drugs of various sponsors that are on CBS." After the broadcast aired, Mason estimates that CBS News received "more than 500 letters from scientologists saying that we had been unfair."
Normally, "48 Hours" posts a long narrative of each week's story on its Web site on Saturday, towards the end of the broadcast. The narrative of the Perkins story did not go online until late afternoon Wednesday. According to Mason, this is because the story "was being edited at the last minute, and the broadcast wanted to make sure that they had an accurate transcript before they put it on the web." "48 Hours" was not able to interview the two defenders of Scientology featured in the piece until shortly before the broadcast, because no one from Scientology was made available until that time. "Usually it isn't that tough to get the other side of the story, or more participants in the story," says Mason.
Mason allows that Scientologists are "known as a litigious group, and they are known to resist the telling of stories about Scientology." I asked if this affected the story in any way, or if it discourages news outlets from doing stories that discuss Scientology. She says that it does not. "CBS has done several and '60 Minutes' has done several stories on Scientology, and I believe NBC did something," she says. "I think all of them do when they find a story they want to do and think is worthwhile in telling."
What about the possibility of litigation? "We do stories that we feel stand on their own grounds in the court of law," says Mason.