In the world of celebrity journalism, A-list celebrities are usually in total control with reporters going along for the ride. The desperate need for access to big movie stars to score big ratings leads celebrity-obsessed media outlets to go soft if the alternative -- hard, tough journalism -- will poison the cocktail.
Start with the case of Tom Cruise, who has spent the last few weeks not just selling his new movie "War of the Worlds," but acting as the world's leading evangelist for Scientology, the strange science-fiction cult that's captured the imagination of a number of Hollywood stars, from Cruise to John Travolta to Kirstie Alley.
The biggest attention-getter on this media boomlet was Cruise's feisty battle with "Today" interviewer Matt Lauer. Some might think Lauer was a tough interviewer, since Cruise seemed so disgusted with him, constantly interrupting with "Matt, Matt, Matt" and insulting Lauer's knowledge of the "history of psychiatry," on which Tom Cruise sees himself as one of the world's leading experts.
But Lauer did not try to argue not that Cruise or his "religious" views were wacky or wrong. He was arguing that Cruise's attacks on actress Brooke Shields for her use of anti-depressant drugs were mean. He was arguing from the squishy center of tolerance: Brooke needed medication to get through her problems. Can't we all get along?
In fact, Lauer repeatedly complimented Cruise on his "knowledge," even as Cruise battered him with insults: "it's very impressive to listen to you. Because clearly, you've done the homework. And you know the subject." Later, he added: "you're so passionate about it."
NBC's done this before. During publicity for "The Last Samurai" in 2003, Katie Couric promoted Cruise's good works in a "Dateline" interview: "Cruise has even funded a Scientology-based treatment center for firefighters who developed physical and emotional problems responding to the World Trade Center disaster. Some of them say it's a program that has significantly improved their health."
Even more common is the "Access Hollywood" interview with Cruise, in which host Billy Bush helps Cruise explain all the wonderful things Scientology has done for him. Bush is not just a shill for "War of the Worlds." He's a shill for Scientology. And when it came time to press Cruise's fiancee, actress Katie Holmes, on her new passion for Cruise's "religion," she replied, “I feel like I'm bettering myself,” to which "journalist" Bush responded: "Cool."