Tom Cruise's Defamation Lawsuit: What Really Matters (Analysis)

Tom Cruise Oblivion Horizontal - H 2013
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Tom Cruise Oblivion Horizontal - H 2013

Tom Cruise's $50 million lawsuit against Bauer Publishing over Life & Style magazine's story that he had "abandoned" his 6-year-old daughter, Suri, has been in the headlines of late -- prompted by disclosures of the actor's deposition. The legal brawl was bound to get ugly ever since the discovery process began with demands for Suri's health records, the terms of the actor's divorce from Katie Holmes and the media defendant's alleged history of bigotry. Of late, there's been plenty of stories -- and confusion -- about what Cruise said in the course of being interviewed by Bauer's attorneys.

One thing absent from most of the recent news coverage is any explanation of how this all fits into the $50 million lawsuit itself. What's the relevancy of whether or not Tom Cruise thinks acting is like fighting overseas to his legal claims that his reputation has been damaged? Does that matter?

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It's not too hard to write a salacious headline. Here's a possible headline for example from the court documents filed on Tuesday -- Publisher: Tom Cruise 'Trivializes the Holocaust'

Here's the context.

Cruise is a public figure. As such, he has a high burden in proving defamation. One possibility is that he ably demonstrates Bauer Publishing had "actual malice" when publishing some false assertion about child abandonment. In the lawsuit, Cruise's attorneys have pointed to Bauer's history of "bigotry" as one potential motive for defaming the world's most famous Scientologist.

The plaintiff has pushed for as much information as he can get on this subject before discovery ends on Dec. 9 and in advance of a trial next June.

Predictably, with the clock ticking, Bauer has responded by saying the actor's requests have no relevancy and are only designed to harass, oppress and annoy the publisher. Thus, Bauer's lawyers say in Tuesday's legal papers: 

"This libel action is about Tom Cruise’s repeated and extended absences from his daughter following his divorce from Katie Holmes. Recognizing that he has admitted as true the critical facts that informed the conclusions actually at issue in this action, Cruise attempts to divert attention to an irrelevant sideshow about a supposed 'corporate-wide [Bauer] culture of bigotry' driven by pro-Nazi/antisemitic/ anti-Scientology biases. By doing so Cruise trivializes the Holocaust as he attempts to draw entirely unfounded analogies between the most serious of historical events and current entertainment news coverage about his divorce that only briefly touches on his Scientology religion. It is an offensive conspiratorial endeavor that has nothing to do with this action or the Articles at issue." 

Cruise might have another outlet to show actual malice to win the lawsuit. It might be enough for him to show the tabloid magazine acted with "reckless disregard" to the truth. And so, the actor has pushed for information on another subject -- Bauer's foundation for asserting he abandoned Suri.

In more legal papers filed on Tuesday, Cruise's lawyers are explaining why they have submitted a motion to compel the defendants into admitting they had no sources for their magazine cover headlines.

STORY: Tom Cruise's Defamation Lawsuit: 8 Bombshells From His Deposition, Evidence

In a defamation lawsuit, only assertions of facts are liable for defamation. Opinions can't be defamatory as a matter of law. In response to requests for source information, the media defendants have supposedly limited their responses to how they believe Suri was feeling abandoned, but Cruise's lawyers say that is not enough. From the actor's own legal papers filed on Tuesday:

"Defendants are certainly free to argue that their cover headlines are mere 'opinions' of how Suri was feeling in the wake of her parents’ divorce. Plaintiff is likewise entitled to demonstrate that any reasonable reader would interpret Defendants’ headlines as conveying a verifiable statement of fact about Plaintiff’s conduct. Indeed, Plaintiff has already submitted survey evidence to Defendants showing that a majority of readers in fact interpreted the headlines 'Abandoned By Daddy' and 'Abandoned By Her Dad' as conveying the message that Plaintiff cut Suri out of his life altogether and on a permanent basis – i.e., that he had severed his relationship with her and they no longer had any contact whatsoever. Conversely, less than 4% of readers understood the covers to communicate anything about Suri’s feelings."

Perhaps the fact that Cruise has done his own survey of tabloid magazine readers is a headline unto itself. Maybe the lesson is that nuance gets lost in the midst of reporting gossip. Somewhere here in all of this is the way that reporters traffic in celebrity tidbits and the way that readers digest the information. In a case now making headlines, a court will soon look at the responsibilities of the headline writers. That fact shouldn't be lost in the reporting of this case.

Twitter: @eriqgardner