Celebrity Activists

An aid-worker friend in Darfur has sent e-mail updates during the past year about the escalating crisis there. They often included the worried questions: “Is this on the radar in the States? Does anyone care?”

I always answered, sadly, that despite some notable exceptions (New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof for one), Sudan largely went unmentioned in the mainstream press—that is, until mid-May of this year, when the issue consistently made it into the headlines. According to the Associated Press, the three network evening newscasts had devoted less than a combined 10 minutes to the conflict in 2006—and in under a week, that airtime skyrocketed. Suddenly, everyone was talking about Darfur.

Why? Certainly years of activist work was finally paying off. But another factor was star power. Actor George Clooney traveled to a Sudanese refugee camp armed with a video camera and his celebrity, then returned to speak at a well-attended rally in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, NBC’s medical drama ER aired a special episode featuring two attractive doctors getting their hands dirty in the African nation, with the actors appearing on news magazine shows to speak about the crisis.

Clooney and the ER docs aren’t alone. Chances are that by the time you read this, several other international hot spots will have had their moment in the limelight—thanks to a phenomenon Time columnist James Poniewozik calls “charitainment.” In Hollywood, it seems, philanthropy is the new black. From Meg Ryan to Angelina Jolie to the ubiquitous Bono, A-Listers are promoting a slew of humanitarian causes, from the fight against AIDS to the alleviation of Third World debt to trade justice issues, fueled by the knowledge that, as Poniewozik notes wryly, “in this world, nothing matters that does not have a camera pointed at it.”

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Sojourners Magazine July 2006
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