The Cases of Tom Cruise, Matt Lauer, Brooke Shields, and Jim Carrey: Hypocrisies as To When Celebrity Speech Is Welcomed and Shunned
By JULIE HILDEN
Wednesday, Jul. 06, 2005
The veneer has cracked: Finally, in recent weeks, we've seen and heard a bit of what Tom Cruise is really like, and what he truly believes in. One major reason seems to be Cruise's change of publicist: He now relies on his sister, Lee Anne Devette, whereas once previously, he was under the care of the formidable Patricia Kingsley. Kingsley carefully controlled access to Cruise, and assiduously made sure his public image shone.
Many don't like what they're seeing and hearing from Cruise now. But it's hardly a surprise that that would be so: Rather than being presented to the public via an expertly calibrated publicity machine, Cruise is now speaking his mind, and voicing his passions. And he's dared to speak about religion and mental illness, two hot-button subjects celebrities are not "supposed" to talk about - at least in the broad, confident way Cruise speaks about them. He's also dared to speak about what some consider a "woman's issue": Postpartum depression.
As a result, the hostile public response has not only disagreed with Cruise, but questioned his "qualifications" to speak on these topics. Acting New Jersey governor Richard Codey's response is typical: "Tom Cruise knows as much about postpartum depression as I do about acting." (It seems Codey took up this cause because his wife has suffered from postpartum depression. Ironically, though, by his own logic, she - not he -is really the one who is qualified to speak.)
In this column, I will argue that Cruise's speaking out should be applauded, and that more celebrities should be as candid and vocal as Cruise. I'll also point out some hypocrisies relating to when the public and the media consider celebrity speech acceptable, and when they consider it reproachable.
Celebrities Are Unusually Independent Speakers
In an earlier column, focusing on Sean Penn, I pointed out that celebrities are in an unusual and potentially beneficial position in our society: Their wealth and independence means they are not beholden to anyone. The candor that can result from their independence can be a bracing corrective to all the speech out there that is hemmed in by a would-be speaker's fear of financial setbacks or job loss - or speech that is made with a boss looking over the speaker's shoulder.
Celebrities' unusually free position, in other words, is the reason they should heavily use their right to free speech.
My earlier column was prompted by the large negative response to Penn's Iraq War comments, and his trip there - which drew both ire and satire. Now Cruise is facing the same derisive, contemptuous mix of anger and laughter. (A recent Chicago Sun-Times article headlined "Tom Cruise: Movie Star or Pod Person?" is par for the course.)
Penn's stances are brave, but he arguably has a bit less to lose than Cruise, for his movies often play to smaller audiences who are more likely to be like-minded. (It's unlikely that those who attended "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" - or even the U.N. thriller "The Interpreter" - were overly upset by Penn's Iraq views.)
In contrast, as a result of his recent remarks Cruise may actually lose some viewers - and some part of his box office clout, which is based on mega-movies that are supposed to appeal to everyone. Granted, "War of the Worlds" is doing well, but it carries the Steven Spielberg brand, and is a strong, exciting movie in a weak year for movies. And naysayers will always claim it would have done even better, had it not been for Cruise's comments on psychiatric medication (and even on his relationship with Katie Holmes).
Yet, even knowing this, Cruise still spoke out. The media, in its deep cynicism, has somehow managed to interpret this decision as not courageous, but rather, somehow unbalanced.
Apparently, sane people are supposed to look only to the financial bottom line, and have as their only objective the single-minded promotion of their own careers.
Why Haven't Jim Carrey and Brooke Shields Suffered the Same Kind of Criticism?
The public response to Cruise's comments has not only been unfair and destructive, it has also drawn arbitrary lines to try to police when celebrities can, and cannot, speak out.
It turns out, for example, that celebrities' commentary on psychiatric drugs is accepted as long they focus on their personal experiences - rather than speaking more generally, as Cruise tried to do.
In a recent interview with 60 Minutes, Jim Carrey revealed that he'd been on Prozac "for a long time," but had stopped taking it. His take on the drug was far more critical than complimentary: He said, "I'm not sure, it may have helped me out for a little bit…..It felt like a low level of despair….You're not getting any answers, but you're living okay and you can smile at the office." He adds, "I had to get off at a certain point, because I realized that everything's just okay."
Carrey's point of view is quite plain: Don't take Prozac if you can avoid it. But unlike Cruise, he suffered no backlash, because he confined his comments to his own experience with the drug.
Brooke Shields, too, has only been applauded for focusing on her own experience with postpartum depression, in a memoir and now, in an Op Ed for the New York Times responding to Cruise.
For instance, she doubtless scored points with readers with the line, in her Op Ed, "I'm going to take a wild guess and say that Mr. Cruise has never suffered from postpartum depression." Her conclusion, too, suggests that her arguments are superior because they are drawn from personal experience: "It's not the history of psychiatry, but it is my history, personal and real."
I think it is terrific that Shields is speaking out, and I agree with her on the merits. But I also find this part of her Op Ed deeply unpersuasive. It tries to draw a line about who is - and is not - "qualified" to speak on a given topic - and it implies that personal experience is the ultimate qualification, whereas reading and knowledge mean nothing unless one is an "expert" in a given field. That's simply not true.
Yet the belief persists that accounts of personal experience are the only valid kind of celebrity speech. For instance, in his interview with Cruise, Matt Lauer seemed desperate to focus on his own friends' positive personal experiences - rather than to talk generally about psychiatric drugs, as Cruise wanted to do.
In the following exchange, for instance, Lauer and Cruise are simply missing each other, because Lauer refuses to engage Cruise on the general level on which Cruise wants to pitch the discussion:
Lauer: [Y]ou're now telling me that your experiences with the people I know, which are zero, are more important than my experiences.
Cruise: What do you mean by that?
Lauer: You're telling me what's worked for people I know or hasn't worked for people I know. I'm telling you, I've lived with these people and they're better.
Cruise: So, you're advocating it.
Lauer: I am not. I'm telling you in their case, in their individual case, it worked.
If Lauer had been inclined to do so, he could have talked more generally about the issues Cruise wanted to discuss. He probably would have had the better of the argument. But instead, Lauer declined to confront Cruise with any contrary scientific evidence at all.
Instead, Lauer claimed - with no basis at all - that Cruise was somehow trying to invalidate Lauer's friends' experiences, when Cruise was doing nothing of the sort. Cruise's primary point is that psychiatric drugs are dangerous, overused, insufficiently tested, and unnecessary -- not that they are ineffective for those who take them.
Why did Lauer shy away from any knowledge that isn't anecdotal? Probably because Lauer - also a celebrity - knows that celebrity speech is far more welcome when it is personal, than when it is general and targeted to the issues.
Celebrities can talk about themselves and their friends - and their "issues" - all day, but woe betide them if they venture into more political, less personal territory.
Lauer's interview with Cruise, then, was a clash between a celebrity who caters when he speaks, and a celebrity who calls things exactly as he sees them. How can it be, then, that Cruise has attracted more flak than Lauer?
Condescending To Cruise: Failing to Prepare, and to Call Him on His Errors
Lauer wasn't just resistant to talking at any level more general than that of his friends and acquaintances, he was conspicuously unprepared for the kind of discussion it was evident - from other recent Cruise comments - that Cruise would want to have.
How can a morning show host get away with lack of preparation? Answer: By playing into public anger at, and contempt for, the interviewee. Lauer took the low road, perhaps thinking that was the road the public wanted him to take.
Entertainment Weekly's interviewer was not well prepared on the relevant subjects either. During his interview with the magazine, Cruise made two inaccurate statements about psychiatric drugs. But rather than confronting Cruise, EW had to incorporate corrections into the interview text in brackets instead. (For instance, EW identified as an "urban myth" Cruise's claim that drugs prescribed today were once called "Adolphine," after Adolph Hitler.)
The result of this lack of preparation - and subsequent editorializing -- was to make Cruise look like a fool repeating falsities, rather than allowing Cruise, confronted with contrary evidence during the interview, to potentially admit that he might be wrong (or else to barrel ahead, and lose credibility).
A more prepared interviewer would have confronted Cruise with specific evidence that what he was saying was false, and allowed him to respond. Instead, EW simply corrected Cruise's statements from on high in the printed text.
First Amendment Principles Are Disserved When Speech Is Punished by the Public
In the end, Tom Cruise and Brooke Shields have brought us an unusually serious debate, and a valuable one. And let's remember, in this debate, it was Cruise who was the moving force and who took the risk: Shields even admits in her Op Ed that Cruise dragged her into a debate she didn't want to have, commenting, "I was hoping it wouldn't come to this, but after [the Lauer interview], I feel compelled to speak not just for myself but also for the hundreds of thousands of women who have suffered from postpartum depression." Without Cruise, then, Shields' valuable comments might have been left to readers of her book, rather than being aired on a national stage.
So let's not vilify Cruise, and deify Shields: It's unfair.
As Justice William Brennan noted, the First Amendment serves to reflect our "profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open." Note that he didn't say that such debate should also be infallible and error-free, or that the only participants should be those who are "qualified" by expertise or professional status to join.
The reason we have the First Amendment is that government has an ugly propensity to clamp down on those who speak their minds, and call for change. Recent treatment of Tom Cruise illustrates that the public - and private media companies - have the very same tendency. They can't jail Cruise, but they can try to undermine him. When they do, they shouldn't do so with your support.