Wednesday, August 14, 2002

L ights. Camera. Action. Legislation. Julia Roberts tearfully testified about a disease that strikes young girls. Denise Austin warned about the dangers of childhood obesity. Meryl Streep was upset about Alar on apples. Even Kermit the Frog lobbied for a bill regulating the breeding and sale of exotic animals.
Is this any way to write the laws of the world’s most powerful nation?
Well, yes. Congress often plays the fame game in conducting its business. Celebrities are used almost daily to push causes on Capitol Hill. Stars, not experts, testify before committees that write bills and allocate federal funding.
“We’re living in an age of optics. Expertise does not photograph well. Julia Roberts does,” explains Eric Denzenhall, a partner in a crisis-management firm and author of several books on the media and celebrities. “Celebrity pays bigger dividends than knowledge” in creating the buzz needed to push a cause.
“Basically, we live in a culture where celebrities are opinion leaders,” says Robin Bronk, who manages media relations for the Creative Coalition.
The Creative Coalition is headed by actor Billy Baldwin. Its mission, Ms. Bronk says, is to provide guidance and education to ensure that “when celebrities do speak out, they do it responsibly” and knowledgeably.
When Congress is in session, stars roam its marble corridors, stopping to pose for pictures with eager lawmakers and, not accidentally, to lobby for their favorite causes.
Several years ago, Garth Brooks roped former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to push for funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Promoting debt relief for Third World countries, Bono, the lead singer of U2, accompanied Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill on a trip to Africa. Tom Cruise led an Earth Day rally on Capitol Hill. The late Audrey Hepburn would be followed by fans as she visited congressional offices to seek aid for Third World children.
The stars most often appear as witnesses before congressional committees.
Because C-SPAN, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News all have 24 hours of airtime to fill each day, congressional hearings have become a mainstay of cable TV. Increasingly, video crews from “Entertainment Tonight,” “Access Hollywood” and even MTV set up alongside the major networks in the ornate committee rooms.
“A celebrity in Washington attracts a lot of attention,” Rafe Greenlee, a spokesman for the Screen Actors Guild, told the Hill, a weekly newspaper that focuses on Congress. “It typically raises the profile of an issue. There’s a very complex and interesting connection between Washington and Hollywood.”
“Celebrities looked to politicians to validate them as part of the company of serious men and women. Politicians looked to celebrities to validate them as part of the company of the famous,” Ronald Brownstein observed in his book “The Power and the Glitter.”
The phenomenon is sometimes surreal.
During a rural recession in 1985, the House Agriculture Committee dramatized the plight of farm families at a hearing. Rather than summoning actual suffering farmers, however, the panel brought in several millionaire actresses who had portrayed farm wives in movies or on TV.
Testimony on the problem was provided by Jessica Lange, from the movie “Country;” Sissy Spacek, who starred in “The River;” and Jane Fonda, from “The Dollmaker.” Sally Field, who starred in “Places of the Heart,” couldn’t make it, but her statement was read to the committee.
“The reason we are here is to underscore the gravity of the crisis that is leading to the bankruptcy, humiliation and banishment of farmers from their lands at a rate not seen since my father made “‘The Grapes of Wrath’,” Miss Fonda said, describing the issue by referring to the movie about the Dust Bowl that stars Henry Fonda.
After several movie stars lobbied for a bill protesting Germany’s treatment of Scientologists, one congressman went on the House floor to complain.
“It is important that we not have Tom Cruise or John Travolta setting foreign policy in this country,” said Rep. Doug Bereuter, Nebraska Republican. “I think that’s a driving force behind this legislation. It is very unfortunate.”
The simple reason stars are called to testify at hearings is that the ones where they appear are the hearings that news crews cover. Most days when Congress is in session, dozens of committees are competing for attention.
“Expertise or content has no currency” attracting coverage, says Mr. Denzenhall, whose latest book, “Money Wanders,” deals with media manipulation.
“But it is too easy to blame just media,” he says. “The fact is, we as a culture are interested in celebrities. Then we lash out at the media for reminding us of our true nature.”
Among the most effective witnesses are celebrities who personify their causes: Mary Tyler Moore testifying about the need to fund diabetes research; Michael J. Fox on Parkinson’s disease; Christopher Reeve arriving in his wheelchair to speak for the American Paralysis Association; Naomi Judd lobbying for funding to fight hepatitis C.
“Entertainment media movies, TV, music play such a part of people’s lives that they feel connected to their celebrities. So seeing an issue affect someone you’re so familiar with can have a profound effect,” says Vicky Rideout, director of entertainment media and health issues for the Kaiser Family Foundation.
She cites the dramatic impact Magic Johnson had on attitudes toward people who are HIV-positive.
Sometimes celebrities become
impassioned about causes that are, well, out of the mainstream. Kim Basinger and Bob Barker, host of “The Price Is Right,” asked Congress to enact a law against mistreatment of circus elephants. Woody Allen sought protection against colorization for classic films. Richard Gere wanted China to stop mistreating Tibet.
Creative Coalition’s Ms. Bronk says stars usually are sincere in their concerns and rarely are seeking publicity for themselves.
“The only way it works is when the celebrity has personal and direct interest in an issue,” she explains. If this isn’t the case, the resulting publicity can backfire on both the celebrity and the cause.
“Celebrities who speak out do have a responsibility,” she says, “and those who do speak out usually take it seriously.”

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