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Celebrity Responsibility
July 6, 2002

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

Tom Cruise and George Michael have each recently made big news ­ one for some pretty outrageous statements, the other for a politically charged video.

While at the London premiere of "Minority Report," Cruise told the press that the U.S. has become a "terrifying" place. He said he worries about his kids.

"You only have to look at the state of affairs in America," Cruise whimpered. "I do worry about my children. As a parent you are always concerned. I just want them to be in a place where they are going to be strong enough to be able to make the right choices."

He didn't exactly sound like "Top Gun" material in his ramblings.

"Shoot the Dog," which was recently released in Britain, is a song by Michael that insinuates President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are gay lovers. The accompanying video has a cartoon of Bush tickling puppy dog Blair's tummy.

Michael told reporters that the U.K. shouldn't assist the U.S. in the war because it may create danger for the former mother country.

Cruise and Michael's statements have something unappealing in common. It's called fear. And fear is hardly the message the West needs to be sending its enemies.

Cruise's new movie has to fight with "Lilo and Stitch" and "Scooby Doo" for box office receipts. Now that's terrifying. And turning 40 can be legitimately scary when Tobey Maguire, Josh Hartnett and a long list of other newcomers are nipping at your heels.

And Michael may share some of the same anxiety as ex-president Bill Clinton when he ponders what people are going to remember him for the most.

The two celebs certainly have every right to express themselves. But they must know that free expression runs two directions, and people have the right to fling it back at them. The reality of celebrity life today is that it routinely creates fresh opportunities for PR professionals to reframe embarrassing statements.

One of the problems for celebrities is that they tend to live in a cocoon. When they have achieved as much as Cruise and Michael they become an enterprise, with loads of people living off their success.

Big stars are typically surrounded by an entourage of yes-people. Every opinion that comes out of their mouths is likely to be praised as ingenious. As a result, their ideas are rarely challenged. So they often have a very false sense of security when it comes to the merit or acceptance of their personal thoughts and sentiments.

As a complicating factor, celebrities become sort of roving ambassadors when they travel abroad. Cameras and microphones appear with breakneck speed as soon as they're ready to open their mouths. And what that means, whether they want to admit it or not, is that they bear responsibility for what comes out.

Tom Cruise shirked his responsibility. His statements indicate that he's oblivious to the beliefs and attitudes most Americans share after 9/11. The fact that he made the remarks on the eve of Independence Day indicates that his dentist may need to attach a different kind of wiring to his teeth.

Michael, too, failed to understand the weight of his musical and visual commentary. The video is staggering in its display of ignorance, and the message is irresponsible and potentially dangerous. Does he have to be reminded that had he been taken into custody in an Islamic country on the very same charges that he was arrested for in the U.S., he'd either be dead or singing falsetto the rest of his life?

Cruise's PR people are out in full force. They're urging re-examination of the statements in context and are assuring the press that there are no plans for Cruise's kids to be raised outside the U.S.

Michael issued a lengthy press release stating that the video "is definitely not an attempt to express anti-American sentiment, nor an attempt to condone the actions of al-Qaeda."

He retreated further when on CNN's "Talkback Live" he said, "I think it should be remembered that it was never intended to be released in America, because I simply think that would have been ­ well, apart from bad timing, it would have been disrespectful."

Celebrities should keep in mind that folks who see their films or buy their records may not live in gated mansions. They may not have entourages to assist them or bodyguards to protect them. But they know a lot about public opinion. And they know it can change on a dim-witted dime.

Reproduced with the permission of . All rights reserved

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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