behind the news

Risky Business

June 14, 2005

Note: This post has been substantially updated in a subsequent note from CJR Daily’s editor.

They get the money. They get the glamour. They get the private dressing rooms with their names on the doors and the backstage passes to sold-out shows. It’s not that we’re bitter or anything — I mean, we like sharing one office among the five of us. But as if these celebrities weren’t powerful enough, they also can get a pretty big say in how the press covers them. And that, my friends, we are bitter about.

Okay, some of the demands are legitimate. As in when stars say they don’t want paparazzi trespassing on their property or busting into schools to get pictures illegally — that’s a fair request.

Even Angelina Jolie’s recent demand that interviewers ask her only about her movie and nothing about her personal life seems basically fair, albeit a little on the extreme side. But that’s our beloved Angelina, always pushing things to the extreme. Before the “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” junket last week, Jolie’s lawyer required all reporters to sign a contract giving her not only the right to terminate the interview if asked personal questions, but also to keep the tape of the interview, obtain a restraining order, or sue. Sounds draconian at first glance, but it’s really just a melodramatic way of saying “no comment” to personal questions.

But Tom Cruise — well, the Top Gun has crossed the line.

Last Wednesday, Radar ran with an online article alleging that Reader’s Digest sold its soul and didn’t even get a mess of pottage (though it did get Tom Cruise on the cover of its current issue). “According to well-placed sources at the magazine, to ensure Cruise’s cooperation, the Digest‘s reporter, Meg Grant, promised to give ‘Scientology issues’ equal play in her profile of the star, and agreed to enroll in a one-day Church ‘immersion course.'”

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But that wasn’t the end of the Digest‘s acquiescence. Sources said the magazine “also agreed to submit its questions for Cruise to his church handlers, who weeded out any queries they deemed inappropriate.” That step turned out to be unnecessary, since in the end “one of Cruise’s handlers asked the star the list of pre-approved questions, as Grant recorded Cruise’s responses.”

Whose article is this anyway, Cruise’s or Grant’s? If these sources are telling the truth, Cruise not only decided what questions were asked, he dictated editorial content itself by demanding that Scientology issues play prominently in the article. That leaves Grant in the demeaning position of mutely taking transcription of questions (and answers) dreamed up by church stooges, and then regurgitating this propaganda in the guise of a cover story.

Granted, Reader’s Digest isn’t exactly our guiding compass for journalistic integrity, but it always worries us when someone other than the writer is calling the shots.

Remember that zero-tolerance policy BP issued a few weeks ago? Just as publications shouldn’t let the pocketbook direct editorial content, neither should they submit to the ultimatums of a pretty face.

–Samantha Henig

Update: For the Record

Last Tuesday, we reported on an item posted on Radar magazine’s Web site alleging that Reader’s Digest cut a sweetheart deal with Tom Cruise, allowing the movie star to dictate the terms of its cover story about him. Radar also claimed that, “[a]ccording to well-placed sources at the magazine, to ensure Cruise’s cooperation, the Digest reporter, Meg Grant, promised to give ‘Scientology issues’ equal play in her profile of the star, and agreed to enroll in a one-day Church ‘immersion course.'” In addition, Radar asserted Cruise was asked only questions pre-screened by both Cruise and his Scientology advisors.

“If these sources are telling the truth,” we wrote, Reader’s Digest had effectively ceded control of its editorial content to “a pretty face.”

Since then, the editors of Reader’s Digest, in emails to Radar and CJR Daily, have emphatically denied every aspect of Radar‘s description of Reader’s Digest‘s negotiations with Cruise. On Wednesday, Reader’s Digest publicist Ellen Morgenstern wrote to Christopher Tennant, editor of Radar online, copy to us:

We like the notion of our exclusive stories getting pick-up in the press. Unfortunately, your recent Radar online item about our June interview with Tom Cruise contained error after error. Reader’s Digest pursued Cruise for the interview as we would any other major celebrity. We were not asked or required to give any special focus on Scientology. There was no discussion of past articles or interviews. Meg Grant, our West Coast editor, toured the Scientology Celebrity Center as part of her research, not as a requirement for access to Cruise. The proof is in the interview. Of 32 questions asked of Cruise, only one dealt directly with Scientology, hardly “equal play” as implied by Radar online. We did not submit questions in advance. During the interview, the only people in the room were Cruise and Grant. So by our count that’s at least five major errors — not exactly stellar on your part, given that the item was only 550 words long. We’d appreciate a correction.

Yesterday, Tennant fired back:

Dear Ms. Morgenstern:

We are in receipt of your letter about our recent story on your magazine’s interview with Tom Cruise. We stand by the story in total, and dispute your claim that there were “at least five major errors” contained within it. …

I would also point out that our story already contains Ms. Grant’s on-the-record denial that she provided questions in advance or that they were relayed to Mr. Cruise through a third party during the interview.

Reader’s Digest on Cruise Control” is a solid, well-sourced story and we see no reason to correct any part of it.

First things first: While CJR Daily did link to the Radar item containing Meg Grant’s denial, we failed to specifically refer to that denial in our own piece, and we should have.

Yesterday, Reader’s Digest executive editor Jacob Young, a former editor at People magazine, told CJR Daily that Radar‘s sources, an ex-editor and a Reader’s Digest staff member, both unnamed, “may have indeed said what they printed, but they’re still wrong. Ex-editors, as we both know, tend to have axes to grind, and, more to the point, tend not to know what the hell is going on at the shop where they no longer work.”

And Jackie Leo, editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest and former editor of Family Circle, emailed CJR Daily that “[t]he source of your report, Radar magazine’s Web site, actually invites readers to send them gossip and promises anonymity — a red flag for any journalist.” She also echoed Young’s thoughts on Radar‘s sources, writing, “[Y]ou may be naive in thinking Radar‘s so-called anonymous sources are heroic whistle blowers. More often than not, they are disgruntled former or current employees who resent the fact that the magazine is now covering movie stars.”

Some background: Reader’s Digest for five years or so has been on a long march toward more celebrity coverage and less opinion masquerading as news, in an attempt to capture a younger readership. And that has left some disenchanted readers — and employees — in it’s wake. It may well be, as Leo and Young believe, that Grant, a well-regarded veteran Hollywood reporter, is the victim of gossips and snitches in, or recently departed from, her own shop. Clearly there are current and former employees of Reader’s Digest unhappy with the magazine’s direction; and just as clearly, one or more of them whispered in Radar‘s ear. As Young says, that’s par for the course in a business notorious for its high rate of staff churn.

For our part, we’re not going to try to referee every round of this particular episode of editors at war — or, perhaps, colleagues at war. That’s not what we’re here for. But the editors at Reader’s Digest are dead right when they complain that we should have talked to someone at Reader’s Digest, or several someones, before publishing our earlier incomplete account.

And that is an omission that we regret.

–Steve Lovelady

Samantha Henig was a CJR Daily intern.