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."
Today's shoe-shining entertainment journalism is not the ideal profession for a serious investigation of the product that Hollywood promotes -- a "religion" that sounds more like psychotherapy, which hates nothing more than … psychotherapy. According to its own 1998 book on "Theology and Practice," the Scientologists see counseling (or "auditing") as "the core part of Scientological religious practice." Instead of church-going or God-worshipping, the counseling is "essential for all who would experience the saving benefits of the faith." That's a strange claim, since they also say, "in Scientology no one is asked to accept anything on faith."
You can see why Hollywood elites would grasp this creed. It claims belief in a Supreme Being, but it doesn't ask followers to figure out how to know Him or please Him: "Scientology differs from other religions in that it makes no effort to describe the exact nature or character of God." Heaven? It's not a place, but a higher state of consciousness, where the individual "thetan" is reincarnated, or "assumes many bodies through its repeated contacts with the physical universe." Sin? Auditing helps "eliminate both the sense of sin and the effects of past suffering and wrongdoing."
As part of appealing through Hollywood to potential "church" members, Scientology advocates insist that their creed is compatible with other religions. Cruise tells TV interviewers that you can be a Catholic or a Jew and a Scientologist, too. But a quick peek at their "theology" shows that this is a sales pitch, and a sleazy one at that. It's like saying you can both believe in salvation through Jesus and salvation through therapy, in both one life/one body and in serial reincarnation. It makes about as much sense as believing in Scientology and psychiatric drugs.
Many people believe, as I do, that Scientology is a cult, an oppressive organization that splits families and milks believers for every cent they can muster. But to entertainment journalists, Scientology is about as harmless as scuba diving. As Us Weekly's Katrina Szish explained on CBS last month, Katie Holmes "has embraced Tom's religion, and she really declared that she's becoming a Scientologist. So now they have that in common. So check that off. They also say that they love scuba diving, so that's a fun thing they have in common."
Celebrity "journalism" really isn't journalism at all. It's more a form of hero worship. Celebrity journalism is to real journalism what Scientology is to religion.