USA Today, June 28, 2006

    Hear them out  
    Celebrity activists are an easy target: When Hollywood stars stoop down
    to help the underprivileged, their efforts often appear pious or self-serving.
    The results, though, tell a different story.

    By Bruce Kluger

    Celebrity gossip has gotten to be a drag. While it used
    to be a kick indulging in the guilty pleasure of showbiz
    dish—marital infidelities, movie set tantrums, the
    randomly tossed telephonenowadays Hollywood
    headlines seem more suited to page one than
    Page Six.

    In the past few months alone, say the papers, Nicole
    Kidman was appointed goodwill ambassador for the
    United Nations Development Fund for Women, Naomi
    Watts and Matt Damon were in Zambia, sounding an
    alarm about HIV/AIDS, and George Clooney was
    kicking up sand in Darfur, hoping to shine a spotlight
    on that war-torn region. Oh, yeahand Los Angeles
    cops plucked a protesting Daryl Hannah from a
    walnut tree.

    When did everything get so darn serious? The truth is, celebrity activism has been
    around since Charlie Chaplin first kicked that beach ball-globe as The Great
    Dictator, and War Bonds saleslady Hedy Lamarr sold kisses for $25,000 each in
    support of our GIs overseas.

    But as the news and entertainment industries continue to morph into one another,
    do-goodism of the rich and famous has become just another front in the culture
    wars. As a result, the TV, movie and music stars who pipe up on behalf of pet
    causes often earn more bile than bravos among grumpy pundits.

    "The problem with the humanitarianism of the entertainers is that it perpetuates a
    confusion of politics with culture," argues New Republic columnist Leon Wieseltier,
    who calls Angelina Jolie "the African queen" and deems longtime rabble-rouser
    Michael Douglas unworthy of discussing international peace. "(This) teaches
    Americans to live slavish imitation of people luckier than themselves."

    Then there's the hypocrisy factor. Peter Schweizer, author of the celeb-cause wrist-
    slapper Do As I Say (Not As I Do): Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy, reports that Barbra
    Streisand spends $22,000 a year watering her lawn and gardens, while she
    lectures Americans on the need to cut back on water and gas consumption by
    hanging out their wash and junking their SUVs.

    Oh, Babs.

    On one hand, the critics make a good point. Those more accustomed to signing
    autographs than to penning policy papers often raise eyebrows, not awareness, as
    they move from the sound stage to the sound bite. (Bo Derek's vacant-eyed
    endorsement of President Bush, for example, continues to amuse me.) And even
    when a star knows of what he preaches, the delivery tends to teeter between the
    riotously pious and hopelessly hammy.

    Who can forget Richard Gere's infamous attempt to mind-meld with Chinese
    leaders over the thorny issue of Tibet from the stage of the Academy Awards? Not
    exactly a Bono moment.

    But to write off all celebrity activists as windy, whiny and woefully out of touch is to
    ignore the unique advantage celebrities have in getting their message out.

    For starters, entertainment idols are notoriously image-conscious, so when they put
    their careers on the line for a cause, you've got to figure they're drop-dead serious
    about their positions. (See the Dixie Chicks as exhibits A through C.)

    But more important, tarring all stars as know-nothing opportunists unfairly
    undermines those who rise above garden-variety activism and actually conduct the
    research required for good advocacy.

    Take Martin Sheen. Because of the veteran actor's famous outspokennessnot to
    mention the fact that he played the president on TVconservatives have
    practically called for an all-out jihad on the guy, depicting him as the worst thing to
    happen to America since the invention of the Chia Pet.

    But why not give Sheen his soapbox, especially considering his street creds?
    Arrested for protests more than 60 times, he has engaged in the kind of
    investigative legwork expected of journalists and scholars, not empty-headed
    leading men. He has stood with impoverished migrant workers, provided hands-on
    aid to the "scavengers" of the Payatas garbage dump in the Philippines, and
    continues to speak with authority about the hazards of nuclear waste.

    If this kind of substantive homework doesn't earn a fellow the right to spout off, what

    Meanwhile, Leno and Letterman can make all the cracks they want about Angelina
    Jolie, but when the actress sat down last week with CNN's Anderson Cooper for her
    first post-Baby Shiloh interview, I learned more about child starvation in Namibia
    than I've ever gotten from the nightly news.

    For my money, I have come to appreciate what celebrity activism brings, not to the
    rancorous roundtables but to where it's needed most: the coffers.

    Last summer, Primetime Live's Diane Sawyer followed Brad Pitt to Africa, where the
    actor was doing work on behalf of the ONE campaign to fight global AIDS and
    poverty. Sawyer wanted Pitt to spill about his breakup with Jennifer Aniston, and he
    agreedprovided the show would devote equal coverage to ONE's battle.

    While the dashing actor's romantic confessional made headlinesthen
    evaporatedwithin a single news cycle, the wrenching images of hungry and
    impoverished African children clearly had a lasting impact. Within two days of the
    broadcast, ONE had recorded a 560% leap in Web donations and a sevenfold
    increase in the sponsoring of needy kids. That's activism.

    What's amusing about all of this is that conservatives are the ones who most often
    sneer at Hollywood cause-peddlersand yet they seem to have short memories.

    After all, 26 years ago this November, didn't they take a particular shine to a movie
    star-activist themselves? And if I remember correctly, the guy wasn't even that good
    an actor.

    (Illustration by Web Bryant, USA TODAY)