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Rosie Didn’t Really Let Him Have It With Both Barrels

How dare she!

That dangerous rebel Rosie O’Donnell paid the price last week--a teed-off Tom Selleck--for breaking the First and Second Commandments of hosting a celebrity-driven talk show:

Thou shalt not digress from the plug.

Thou shalt not ask a serious question that may evoke a serious response.

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What was she thinking Wednesday when asking Selleck about positions taken by the National Rifle Assn., on whose behalf he has made a TV commercial and starred in a print ad that concludes with him saying, “I am the NRA”?

Didn’t she realize that just isn’t done with a guest who wants only to promote a personal project, in Selleck’s case his new movie, “The Love Letter?”

Why can’t Rosie be more like “Regis & Kathie Lee,” which, after having Selleck briefly address the O’Donnell matter Thursday, zoomed right to the plug. Or more like the women of ABC’s “View,” who grilled him about such issues as his wife’s feelings about him kissing co-star Kate Capshaw on the screen. Now, that’s the spirit.

From O’Donnell’s wisecracking chat to the late-night schmoozings of Jay Leno and David Letterman, plugging guests’ projects--movies, TV, books and so on--is the mother’s milk that sustains such talk shows. It’s their mission, their divine mandate--the very sinew of their existence--to be a plugmeister’s paradise.

Just as journalists generally tolerate being used when a story is worth it, a similar symbiosis links celebrities and talk shows, which encourage these guests to come on and plug their wares in exchange for having their faces and fame used to attract viewers. Building box office is the game, and meaningful communication is incidental.

In the case of a movie, the star is introduced, answers a few soft questions, comments on the obligatory clip, beams as the host lauds the movie, then departs for another talk show, making room for the next star with a project to sell.

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But Selleck didn’t leave after O’Donnell gave him four minutes of movie plug, followed by a 90-second analysis of his new beard. By previous arrangement, she has said, he stayed around at her behest to hash over the NRA, knowing of her frequent criticism of it for opposing gun-control legislation brought forth in the wake of last month’s Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo.

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As O’Donnell’s milder-than-reported tiff with Selleck demonstrated, however, when there’s even a slight diversion from the usual canned plan, the entire system breaks down.

“I didn’t come on your show to have a debate,” Selleck protested softly halfway through their discussion. “I came on your show to plug a movie. That’s what I’m doing here.”

Of course, that’s why he was there.

Selleck hadn’t appeared stunned or miffed, however, when O’Donnell announced that after the plug she and “Mr. NRA” would have a “calm, peaceful discussion” about gun issues.

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“Although he did know we were going to discuss the NRA, I do not believe he knew the passion with which I would discuss it,” she told her viewers the next day while apologizing to Selleck for his discomfort but not for her beliefs or public expression of them.

Talk about an overcooked controversy.

At one point Wednesday, O’Donnell questioned Selleck’s denial that he was an NRA spokesman: “You can’t say you will not take responsibility for anything the NRA represents . . . if you’re saying you’re gonna do an ad for the NRA. You can’t say that. Do you think you can?”

And Selleck accused her of “stupid political rhetoric” and “an act of moral vanity” in assuming “that someone who disagrees with your political agenda to solve our problems cares any less or is any less shocked” by gun violence.

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Although O’Donnell speaks fast and Selleck slowly, and she is animated and he isn’t, this wasn’t one-sided. No one shouted or had a snit, and the dispute was more or less one two friends might have over coffee or a drink. In fact, despite Selleck’s adverse reaction, it was so benign that CNN’s “Crossfire"--one of many political discussion programs that encourage mutual mugging--would have labeled both pacifists and never asked them to return.

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Yet so rarely does an unscripted disagreement of any kind occur on these talk shows that when it does happen it’s played by many in the media as a violent upheaval, with selective sound bites deployed in ways that makes it appear that each side came away with big welts and deep bruises.

That’s why O’Donnell and Selleck were all over the celebrity news magazines last week, as well as being a hot topic on talk radio.

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On KABC Wednesday, for example, radio host Al Rantel at once appeared to ridicule shows like O’Donnell’s for being a “shill” for movies and criticize her for breaking precedent by pressing Selleck on the NRA, something you’d think he’d be prepared to address given his public endorsement of the group.

Rantel assured his listeners that if he felt stronger gun-control measures would increase safety, he’d support them, but said he just didn’t. It’s America, it’s his right.

But then he used the “H” word--"hysterical” on O’Donnell, called her views “simple-minded"--because they weren’t his views, presumably, and slammed her for using her show to weigh in on gun issues.

Follow this tortured logic if you can: Rantel can speak his opinion on his show because, well, he’s big Al. But she hasn’t the same right.

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Keeping the discussion on a high plane, meanwhile, Rantel, who apparently is a flawless physical specimen, supported his case against Selleck’s tormentor by several times making fun of the chunky O’Donnell’s eating habits and girth. Although many words apply to Rantel, one immediately comes to mind.

Hysterical.


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