WHO WOULD you rather sit next to at your next Council on Foreign Relations roundtable: Henry Kissinger or Angelina Jolie? This is a question that citizens of the white-collared foreign-policy establishment thought they'd never be asked. The massive attention paid to Paris Hilton's prison ordeal, Lindsay Lohan's shame spiral and anything Britney Spears has done, said or exposed has distracted pop-culture mavens from celebrities that were making nobler headlines.
Increasingly, celebrities are taking an active interest in world politics. When media maven Tina Brown attends a Council on Foreign Relations session, you know something fundamental has changed in the relationship between the world of celebrity and world politics. What's even stranger is that these efforts to glamorize foreign policy are actually affecting what governments do and say. The power of soft news has given star entertainers additional leverage to advance their causes. Their ability to raise issues to the top of the global agenda is growing. This does not mean that celebrities can solve the problems that bedevil the world. And not all celebrity activists are equal in their effectiveness. Nevertheless, politically-engaged stars cannot be dismissed as merely an amusing curiosity in foreign policy.
Consider the most notable example of a celebrity attempting to move the global agenda: Angelina Jolie. Her image has come a long way since her marriage to Billy Bob Thornton. In February of this year she published an op-ed in The Washington Post about the crisis in Darfur, referencing her work as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. During the summer, her press junket to promote A Mighty Heart included interviews with Foreign Policy's website and a glowing profile in Newsweek, modestly titled "Angelina Jolie Wants to Save the World." In that story, former Secretary of State Colin Powell describes Jolie as "absolutely serious, absolutely informed. . . .She studies the issues." Esquire's July 2007 cover featured a sultry picture of Jolie-but the attached story suggested something even more provocative: "In post-9/11 America, Angelina Jolie is the best woman in the world because she is the most famous woman in the world-because she is not like you or me."
What in the name of Walter Scott's Personality Parade is going on? Why has international relations gone glam? Have stars like Jolie, Madonna, Bono, Sean Penn, Steven Spielberg, George Clooney and Sheryl Crow carved out a new way to become foreign-policy heavyweights? Policy cognoscenti might laugh off this question as absurd, but the career arc of Al Gore should give them pause. As a conventional politician, Gore made little headway in addressing the problem of global warming beyond negotiating a treaty that the United States never ratified. As a post-White House celebrity, Gore starred in An Inconvenient Truth, won an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize, promoted this past summer's Live Earth concert and reframed the American debate about global warming. Gore has been far more successful as a celebrity activist than he ever was as vice president. This is the kind of parable that could lead aspiring policy wonks to wonder if the best way to command policy influence is to attend Julliard instead of the Fletcher School.
Joking aside, celebrity involvement in politics and policy is hardly new: Shirley Temple and Jane Fonda became known as much for their politics as their films. The template for Live Earth was the 1985 Live Aid concert, which in turn echoed the 1974 all-star concert for Bangladesh. Actors ranging from Ronald Reagan to Fred Thompson have taken the more traditional star route to power: running for political office.
Not everything old is new again, however. There is something different about the recent batch of celebrity activists. Current entertainers have greater incentives to adopt global causes than their precursors. Furthermore, they are more likely to be successful in pushing their policy agenda to the front of the queue. These facts have less to do with the celebrities themselves than with how citizens in the developed world consume information. Whether the rise of the celebrity activist will lead to policy improvements, however, is a more debatable proposition. Promoting a policy agenda is one thing; implementing it is another thing entirely. Regardless of what Vanity Fair or Vogue might want you to believe, celebrities really are just like everyone else. Some are competent in their activism, and some are…something else.
The Supply of Celebrity Activism
ONE REASON for the newfound global agendas of celebrities is simply that today's stars have more autonomy than previous generations, and many of them recognize the benefits of being a popular saint. Stars may have always cared about politics, but they have not always been able to act on these impulses. Entertainers likely feared speaking out in the past, but the entertainment industry is not as authoritarian as it once was. The studio systems of yesteryear exerted much greater control over their movie stars. Mostly, the studios used this leverage to hush up scandals before the press found out about them. In the decades since, celebrities have acquired more leverage in Hollywood. In some cases-see Winfrey, Oprah-they have become moguls themselves. This gives them the autonomy to adopt pet causes, policy initiatives and make their own publicity missteps. It also affords them the opportunity to manage their own "brand", as it were. Just as Nike or Pepsi recognize the benefits of developing a positive brand image, so do George Clooney and Sheryl Crow.
This leads to another, somewhat more selfish reason for celebrities to embrace policy activism: It distinguishes them from their tawdrier brethren. We now live in a world where the path to fame can be as fast as a 15-second YouTube clip. Paris Hilton became one of the world's most well-known faces on the strength of a famous name and a poorly lit home video. In such a world, marquee celebrities need to take steps to differentiate themselves from the lesser stars of stage and screen-or distance themselves from past scandals.1 So when Angelina Jolie attends the Davos Economic Forum or sponsors a Millennium Village in Cambodia, she's not only trying to do good, she's trying to create a brand image that lets Americans forget about her role in breaking up Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.
The final reason more celebrities are interested in making the world a better place is that it is simply easier for anyone to become a policy activist today. An effective policy entrepreneur requires a few simple commodities: expertise, money and the ability to command the media's attention. Celebrities already have the latter two; the Internet has enabled them to catch up on information-gathering. Several celebrities even have "philanthropic advisors" to facilitate their activism. This does not mean that celebrities will become authentic experts on a country or issue. They can, however, acquire enough knowledge to pen an op-ed or sound competent on a talk show. And when they look sexy doing it, all bets are off.
The Power of Soft News
EVEN AS star activists aspire to appear on hard-news outlets, they dominate soft-news programs-a different but no less influential media format. Celebrity activism matters more now because Americans get their information about the world in different ways from a generation ago. Way back in the twentieth century, the available news outlets were well-defined: the major television networks, the weekly news magazines, The New York Times and the local newspaper. By relying on the same "general interest intermediaries", the best and the brightest editorial gatekeepers forced most Americans to consume the same information. Clearly, the gates have been crashed. Cable television, talk radio and weblogs have radically diversified the sources of news available to ordinary Americans. The market for news and entertainment has shifted from an oligopoly to a more competitive environment.
This shift in the information ecosystem profoundly affects how public opinion on foreign policy is formed. Matthew Baum has argued in Soft News Goes to War that a large share of Americans get their information about world politics from "soft-news" outlets like Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, SportsCenter, The View, People, US Weekly, Vanity Fair, Vogue, The Daily Show, The Tonight Show, or Gawker, TMZ and PerezHilton. Although viewers might not watch these shows or read these magazines to learn about the world, any reporting of current events aired on these programs reaches an audience unattainable to The New York Times or Nightline.
In the current media environment, a symbiotic relationship between celebrities and cause célèbres has developed. Celebrities have a comparative advantage over policy wonks because they have access to a wider array of media outlets, which translates into a wider audience of citizens. Superstars can go on The Today Show or The Late Show to plug their latest movie and their latest global cause. Because of their celebrity cachet, even hard-news programs will cover them-stories about celebrities can goose Nielsen ratings. With a few exceptions, like Barack Obama or John McCain, most politicians cannot make the reverse leap to soft-news outlets. Non-celebrity policy activists are virtually guaranteed to be shut out of these programs.Essay Types: Essay