Tony Ortega: From Cal State Fullerton Student to One of Scientology's Best Watchers
Tom Cruise and Xenu, just for fun!
Luke McGarry/OC Weekly
Tony Ortega wants people to attend his book signing this Sunday at the Neighborhood Community Center in Costa Mesa. It's a homecoming for the editor of progressive website the Raw Story--he's a graduate of Savanna High School in Anaheim, lived in Fullerton and Buena Park, and got his bachelor's and master's degrees in English from Cal State Fullerton. His book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology Tried to Destroy Paulette Cooper, is already receiving rave reviews for its well-written, wonderfully reported narrative about one of the first journalists to take on the controversial religion. Still riding a wave of publicity based on his insightful commentary for the HBO Scientology documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Ortega expects the local appearance (sponsored by the Center for Inquiry Orange County) to be a great one, especially since Paulette Cooper herself will join him.
But, really, Ortega is more excited about where he and Cooper are going to be Sunday morning, just before their Costa Mesa appearance: at the Steve Allen Theater in Hollywood.
"It's two blocks from Big Blue," he says with awe, referring to Scientology's West Coast headquarters. "It's where the FBI raided in 1977 and found the documents that showed Scientology had been harassing Paulette for years. And now, she's going to be there. She's really brave doing this!"
Doggedly pursuing a story is a trademark of Ortega's; he's an award-winning reporter and editor who spent most of his career working for the chain that owns this infernal rag. He exposed hate groups in Southern California and Phoenix's infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and investigated John Steinbeck's writings. But over the past five years, Ortega has emerged as one of the country's most-read writers about Scientology, frequently breaking news and driving the conversation as the religion has turned from a curiosity into a laughingstock.
"What attracts me to the story is that they're such bullies, and they get away with it all the time," Ortega says. "They have celebrities and unlimited funds. But a lot of people have left Scientology. They're really good people who join and just wanted to help the world, but they got caught up in this totalitarian organization that makes people's lives terrible if they leave. They push little people around. And that bugs me."
Ortega was fascinated by Scientology even before becoming a journalist. He remembers the hubbub surrounding the death of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard in 1986 while an undergrad at Cal State Fullerton. It was when he was preparing to leave for UC Santa Cruz that he came across an "amazing series" on Scientology by the Los Angeles Times that appeared in 1990. "The Church bought billboards around LA, cherrypicking quotes from those stories," Ortega says. "Because of that, I had a natural sort of interest about what it was all about."
He wouldn't get a chance to explore the subject until 1995, in his first year with the Phoenix New Times. Reading the Arizona Republic, Ortega came across a letter to the editor by a man attacking the daily for not disclosing his allegations that Scientology had orchestrated a civil lawsuit against him. It turned into Ortega's first cover story, "and one story led to another, one source led to another."
Even more articles got published in Ortega's next paper, the now-defunct New Times LA. It's telling about Ortega's influence that many of his New Times LA Scientology pieces still get circulated on anti-Scientology websites and in groups, even though the paper's archives have been offline for years. "I was in the belly of the beast," Ortega says with a laugh. And always in the back of his mind was Cooper, author of the groundbreaking 1971 book, The Scandal of Scientology. For her hard work, Scientology sued her in multiple countries for libel, while members crafted an elaborate plot that involved the forging of bomb-threat letters attributed to Cooper. The full scope of the scheme only emerged after the FBI raided the aforementioned Big Blue offices. Cooper and Scientology settled out of court in the 1980s.
"Whenever you're writing about Scientology, and people find out that you write about them, you always get this question: 'Have you been harassed?'" he says. "At the end, they'll always say, 'You know what they did to that woman, right? What's her name?'"
Nevertheless, Ortega continued. He dialed back on Scientology coverage while working at papers in Kansas City and Florida, but he triumphantly returned to the topic in 2007 upon assuming the editor's chair at the Village Voice. "I started writing about it again because I knew people liked them," he says. "And they got huge traffic."
But what was an occasional foray into an old beat turned into a nearly daily series in 2011, after Ortega received word that a group calling themselves the Squirrel Busters was harassing Marty Rathbun, a former high-ranking Scientologist who had dramatically broken ranks with the Church. "No one was covering it--no one," Ortega says. "So I decided to cover it every day."
Weeks later, the national media caught up to the Rathbun story, citing Ortega's work. "That was the one that really convinced me that this is something that was perfect for the Internet, for blogging," he says.
After leaving the Voice in 2012, Ortega continued blogging on Scientology at his personal blog, The Underground Bunker. By then, he had gotten the idea for writing a book about Cooper. "What she went through is amazing," Ortega says. "I'm surprised that no one had ever written about it before. I wasn't going to try to compete with Lawrence Wright [who wrote the 2013 best-selling book on which Going Clear was based]. I knew I had to take one story that was real specific. All [of Cooper's ordeals] told me that I thought it was a terrific project."
Scientology isn't exactly happy with Ortega; asked for comment by the Daily Beast about his book, a church spokesperson called him a "parasite" who used "bigotry and false allegations about the Church of Scientology to create a cottage industry of hate."
Ortega doesn't mind. People have picketed his previous lectures, and, he says, "I wouldn't be surprised if people take pictures of [him and Cooper]" at the Hollywood and Costa Mesa events. But he remains unfazed.
"I'm just a beat reporter," the Titan says. "I have a front-row seat to a great story."
Tony Ortega and Paulette Cooper will speak at the Neighborhood Community Center, 1845 Park Ave., Costa Mesa, (714) 327-7525. Sun., 4:30 p.m. $8; students, $4; Center for Skeptical Inquiry members, free.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.