Celebs with causes? How dare they

When it comes to love-hate relationships, nothing tops the mysterious oscillation of envy and adulation that occurs between Hollywood and the media. How's this for Exhibit A: A tiny band of show-biz environmental activists known as the Detroit Group launched a controversial TV ad campaign earlier this month suggesting that people who buy gas-guzzling SUVs are supporting terrorism, a sly spoof of the Bush administration's long-running ad campaign that links drug use to terrorism.

"These are the countries that made the gas that George bought for his SUV," one ad says. "And these are the terrorists who get money from those countries every time George fills up his SUV. What kind of mileage does your SUV get?"

The media-savvy show-biz insiders, led by Laurie David, wife of writer-comedian Larry David, columnist Arianna Huffington, producer Lawrence Bender and talent agent Ari Emanuel, got a tidal wave of free media exposure, with excerpts from the ads appearing as parts of news stories in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the NBC Nightly News, as well as "The View" and "Inside Edition." But they also got a lot of snarky media hostility.

When Bender appeared on Fox News last week, host Tony Snow gave him a raised eyebrow, wondering why his group wasn't going after real pollution machines, like Hollywood limousines. NPR's report on the campaign concluded with the sarcastic rejoinder that since celebrities must all live in huge mansions, "maybe they'll consider another campaign pointing out a possible link between Al Qaeda and the mansions in Beverly Hills."

When I visited them last week, the Detroit Group was debating how to respond to a particularly hostile broadside from the New York Post. The paper's gossip columnist Richard Johnson had labeled them "hypocrites" for campaigning against SUVs when they "consume huge quantities of fossil fuels in their stretch limos, Gulfstream jets and oversized Beverly Hills mansions." His objects of ridicule included Norman Lear (who he said has a 21-car garage), Gwyneth Paltrow (a tipster says she drives a Mercedes SUV) as well as SUV owners Barbra Streisand and Chevy Chase. The Post didn't cite any of the actual Detroit Group leaders, since none drive SUVs and, in fact, all but Bender drive hybrid cars and he says he has one on order.

The group fired off a demand for a retraction, noting that the celebs cited had nothing to do with the group except for Lear, who was one of 1,800 contributors. But they worried that other media outlets would run the Post item without checking its facts. "Maybe we should put out a media wire story responding to the piece," said Huffington, whose Oct. 21 column lampooning the administration's "drug use supports terrorism" campaign served as a rough draft for the ad blitz. Instead, she phoned the Washington Post's Lloyd Grove and scored a lead item in his column, which quoted liberally from the group's correction.

Hearing them discuss strategy was a bracing reminder of how much celebrity matters in today's oversaturated media world. When David revealed that environmental leader Robert F. Kennedy Jr. had volunteered to make TV appearances supporting the campaign, a debate ensued over what would be the most valuable piece of media real estate for a Kennedy guest shot, with the consensus favoring "The O'Reilly Factor" ("Bill's with us on this issue," said Bender). They even brainstormed about approaching a friendly member of the White House press corps who, at a post-State of the Union press briefing, might plug the ads in a query to Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer about the issue of American oil independence.

So far, most TV stations have refused to air any of the group's paid ads, including Los Angeles network affiliates KCBS, KNBC and KABC. But the free exposure they received on news shows was worth millions. Huffington even got a call Thursday from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) who said the ads inspired her to write a new bill attempting to kill a federal tax code loophole giving special deductions for the biggest (and least fuel-efficient) SUVs.

Pursuing and snubbing

On the other hand, the media's reaction to the Detroit Group campaign highlights our bizarre double standard toward show-biz involvement in political causes. The media ardently woo celebs to appear on TV, then question their right to speak out on an issue, comparing them unfavorably with the "real" experts -- none of whom, of course, have the star power ever to get on the air.

Never was this more evident than when celebrity antiwar activists made the media rounds last month opposing the prospect of a U.S.-sponsored war with Iraq. When actress Janeane Garofalo appeared on CNN, news anchor Leon Harris wondered if people wouldn't think this was "another case of these famous actors and musicians with a lot of time and money on their hands." Garofalo's response: "I really wish I wasn't here ... but you know, people just tend to book actors and actresses. I would rather that someone like [ex-U.N. weapons inspector] Scott Ritter was here. You know, I wish you'd book [linguist-turned-activist] Noam Chomsky."

Harris responded: "Well, we get them all from time to time." Yeah, sure. I'd love to see the TV talent booker who says, "Geez, we lost Matt Damon, but don't worry, we've got Noam Chomsky!"

Filmmaker Robert Greenwald, one of the organizers of the antiwar group, told me that when his group held its first press conference, dozens of reporters and TV news crews showed up. "If we had 100 Nobel Peace Prize winners, we would never have gotten that much attention," he says. "The press would rather have the fifth lead from a soap opera than an admiral or a weapons inspector. They won't turn on the camera unless you have celebrities."

Oliver Stone and Kevin Costner have taken tons of hits for their forays into political filmmaking, yet when the two directors showed up at the White House correspondents' dinner a few years ago, they were mobbed by star-struck reporters who wanted to have their photos taken with them. "Everyone has a love-hate relationship with Hollywood," says publicist Stephen Rivers, who's worked with scores of Hollywood activists. "If you're a hard-working journalist who takes your profession seriously, and you look at people who are celebrated and getting paid 10 to 100 times more than you, there's going to be a lot of jealousy at work."

Don't get me wrong -- show-biz hypocrisy runs rampant. I can remember being at a "Save the Rainforest" benefit where there were two city blocks of stretch limos idling outside, sending up a noxious cloud of carbon monoxide. When MTV launched its "Rock the Vote" program, Madonna was one of its most vocal supporters, even though it turned out that she hadn't voted in years. But too many of us live in glass houses. It seems laughably unfair to beg show-biz types to boost our magazine sales or TV ratings, and then belittle them for showing an interest in the world outside their 21-car garages.

It's an only-in-America attitude. I had lunch this past week with Fernando Meirelles, director of the brilliant new Brazilian film "City of God," which offers a searing portrait of the baby-faced gangstas who inhabit the favelas of Rio. As proud as he was of the movie's good reviews, he was even more delighted that after seeing it, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was inspired to push for new social education legislation. Meirelles was mystified by our contemptuous attitude toward show-biz activism.

But then again, he lives in a country where politics matter; in the past, Brazilian artists have been imprisoned and exiled for speaking out against the government.

When I last spoke to David, she was bloodied but unbowed. "Do you really think people in Hollywood are the only ones who run the water too long when they brush their teeth?" she said. "You know, when Bobby Kennedy started talking about poverty in this country, he was attacked for being a rich guy who didn't know anything about poverty. But would it really have been better if he'd done nothing?"

If celebrities want to take the trouble to get involved with politics at a time when less than half the people in our country vote for president, I say the more the merrier. . If they can lure a few of us into a voting booth, they've earned their paydays. After all, think of the trickle-down effect trend-setting celebs have had on our culture. Ten years ago, only pampered show-biz types were getting implants or ordering off the menu in restaurants -- now everyone is doing it. Can driving a Toyota Prius be far behind?


"The Big Picture" runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 22, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 299 words Type of Material: Correction SUV protest -- The group of Hollywood activists mounting an ad campaign against SUVs is the Detroit Project. Patrick Goldstein's "Big Picture" column in Tuesday's Calendar incorrectly identified them as the Detroit Group.
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