"What does Jon Stewart have to lose by asking real questions?": Scientology watchdog explains Tom Cruise's media blackout

Veteran Scientology watcher tells us about the way the "church" manipulates its image

Published July 31, 2015 7:40PM (EDT)

Tom Cruise, in a still from "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief"         (HBO)
Tom Cruise, in a still from "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief" (HBO)

The long, strange dance between the Church of Scientology and the media just took another awkward step. The Wrap recently broke the news that actor Tom Cruise had “forbidden news outlets from asking questions about his personal life and Scientology during his worldwide promotional tour for ‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’… The ban included any mention of HBO’s explosive Scientology documentary ‘Going Clear,’ as well as tabloid reports that Cruise was dating his assistant.”

For a while, Cruise was open about his commitment to Scientology, but he -- or his team – seem to be clamping down again.

We spoke to journalist Tony Ortega, a longtime Scientology watcher and author of the book “The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology Tried to Destroy Paulette Cooper.” Ortega is now executive editor of TheLip.TV. The interview had bee edited slightly for clarity.

You’ve been following Scientology and Cruise for a long time – were you surprised by the way Cruise’s team tried to muzzle the media here?

They always have – and Cruise is one of those who’s been the most restrictive.

The real surprise is that he took those restrictions off for a while. He used to have this publicist – Pat Kingsley – who was gung-ho about keeping reporters away from Scientology. But he fired her.

The surprise is to see that even people like Jon Stewart are following these rules. Stewart’s show closes in about a week? What does he have to lose by asking real questions?

The issue here is access – the Cruise team cuts off access to him and other celebrities if they’re not obeyed…?

It’s always about access. That’s why reporters tow the line. But why would Jon Stewart play that game? It’s disappointing.

Is this the way the church operates with all of its stars?

Cruise has the power to make people listen. A smaller-time Scientology star might want to set ground rules…. But Cruise has so much muscle.

And I’m sure he’s not allowing questions about Katie [Holmes] and [daughter] Suri, and they’re legitimate questions. He just saw Suri for the first time in about a year – is the church the reason he’s not seeing her more?

I wrote a story about a guy named Bryan Seymour, a very aggressive TV journalist in Australia. Paramount, unbidden, contacted [his network] and said, ‘Don’t even think about sending Bryan Seymour.’ They knew he wasn’t going to play by those rules.

Who’s behind this – the church?

I don’t think it’s Scientology’s people calling the shots. Tom Cruise is an industry – he provides jobs for a lot of people. His entertainment-side people are feeding the media these stories – that he’s leaving Scientology, that’s he’s marrying his assistant… They’re just stories put out there to distract the press. To distract from “Going Clear.”

What’s the responsible or ethnical way for the press and media to respond to these attempts at manipulation?

I don’t expect the entertainment press to do anything differently. I mean the silly side of it.

But let’s give credit to the Tampa Bay Times movie reviewer who asked John Travolta about “Going Clear.” Travolta’s response was completely scripted, but at least [the journalist] asked the question.

Will anyone ask them about being part of an organization that splits families up?

How has the church’s relationship the press and media changed over the years? And how has the Internet changed things?

Way back in the ‘90s, Scientology’s spokesman predicted that the Internet would be Scientology’s Vietnam. But [church leader David] Miscavige has taken different approaches to the press…. He had a guy named Heber Jentzsch, who was known for being very approachable, would go on TV shows and debate people. He would take reporter’s calls, and do his best to spin them.

I was talking to a “60 Minutes” producer recently who asked, “What happened to Heber?” He’s been in an executive prison since 2004; as far as we know, Heber’s still in it. And he’s about 80.

Between the documentary and the work of people like you, the general public seems to be waking up.

There’s no question that [“Going Clear” director] Alex Gibneyis reaching a whole audience. “Going Clear” has raised awareness about this bizarre group, and that they’re in trouble. I think their biggest problems are internal – they’re going through troubles of their own. And the stuff coming out is just amazing.

With all this happening, are there any credible hopes that the church will lose its nonprofit status?

I think it’s possible that the government would re-open that. But it takes a lot of political will to make that happen. If you’re a government official, you basically have to decide that that’s the rest of your career. They have a mountain of cash – they’ll just litigate you to death.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

MORE FROM Scott Timberg

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Church Of Scientology Tom Cruise