When Tony Ortega was an intern at New Times, his editor approached him and said, “You need to put some meat on the table.”
It was 1995, and Ortega was a rookie reporter. He had written a couple of warm-up articles, but in his search for more ambitious stories, Ortega ended up writing a profile on Rick Alan Ross, an intervention specialist. Ross interested Ortega because he specialized in deprogramming former cult members. Ross was a controversial figure, partly because he had butted heads with the Church of Scientology.
Twenty years later, Ortega has become one of the foremost reporters on the Scientology beat, writing extensively about the church’s operations and former members. His 2015 book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely, chronicles the 16-year battle between author Paulette Cooper and Scientology’s then-militant defenders. Ortega appears in the acclaimed HBO documentary Going Clear. Ortega created a blog, The Underground Bunker, where he writes daily posts about Scientology news and controversies.
On September 15, Ortega will deliver a lecture at Arizona State University's Cronkite School of Journalism about his career, his investigations into Scientology, and his new book.
“Audiences love Scientology stories,” Ortega says. “It will always have an audience. I’m a reporter with a front-row seat to an amazing story, and I don’t want to quit.”
Over the past two decades, Ortega's fascination with the story of Scientology has only deepened. After working as a staff writer for New Times, he worked for its sister paper in Los Angeles, the city where he was born and raised.
“Then one thing led to another,” he recalls. “It was actually kind of rare at that time. Writers didn’t really move from paper to paper back then. But [in L.A.] I was in the belly of the beast, as far as Scientology was concerned. It was a lot of fun.”
After bouncing between papers for a few years, Ortega became editor-in-chief of the Village Voice in 2007, and everything came to a head: Just as Ortega was attempting to build the 50-year-old newspaper’s online presence, an anti-Scientology campaign called “Project Chanology” was gaining global attention.
“I thought, ‘The world is going crazy for Scientology right now,’” Ortega remembers. “My job at that time was to take a legendary newspaper and make it more web-centric. The big Scientology story of the last 20 years is that, in the mid-2000s, this whole slate of top Scientology executives all defected within a few years of each other.”
The persistent Village Voice coverage garnered a diehard readership and cemented Ortega’s authority on the subject.
In conversation, Ortega loves to tell war stories about his 20 years as a journalist. He is the consummate investigative reporter – terse and confident, a vault of provocative facts and anecdotes. While Ortega misses the old days of 200-page newspapers and 10,000-word cover stories, he has become a devoted student of the changing media scene. He spent three years as executive of The Raw Story, the political news site, and he currently works as executive editor of TheLipTV. His interest in blogging far predates the creation of The Underground Bunker.
“I was an early champion of blogs,” Ortega says. “I felt that the alt-weeklies had developed the same voice you use for blogs and the Internet. When I saw what was happening online, I was like, ‘We should be dominating this. This is how we have always written.’
“Not everyone in our industry was thrilled by blogging at first. But I remember thinking, ‘You guys don’t understand.’ What’s really cool is that some people who write blogs are complete experts in one little niche, in a way that a reporter at a paper can never hope to be. Here is a guy who is doing nothing but keeping an eye on, say, wildlife in Arizona. That’s all he writes about. That’s every story he posts. I started realizing, I’d rather have that guy on my side. We should be building connections with these people.”
Ortega hasn’t visited Phoenix in several years, and his arrival is a kind of homecoming. Aside from his lecture as ASU, Ortega will also reconnect with the Arizona Latino Media Association (ALMA), an organization he helped establish. While Ortega grew up in Southern California and now lives in New York City, he fondly remembers his formative years in the Valley of the Sun.
“I loved living in Phoenix,” he says. “It was a different time then. I worked with some big names, some amazing reporters. I was so fortunate to go there when I did.”
Ortega presents "Scientology’s Dirty Tricks – Then and Now” at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, September 15, at ASU's Cronkite Theater, 555 North Central Avenue. RSVP and find more information on the free lecture at Eventbrite.