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Looking to the stars for our political wisdom

Names make news. It’s the first aphorism I learned in journalism. Not all names are created equal. That’s the second. But I don’t understand why the media give space and time -- and credibility -- to celebrities just because their names are attached to controversial political issues.

Celebrities have every right to speak out and to use the media to get their message out. If anyone -- celebrity or not -- feels strongly about something important, he should do all he can to give his message the broadest possible dissemination.

As William Baldwin, the actor, said in an online forum, celebrities should “use the voice you’re given ... use the tools you have ... use the resources you have, the power you have, the influence.”

But why should the media, television in particular, serve as a megaphone for celebrity activists?

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Why should the media tell readers and viewers that George Clooney, Susan Sarandon, Sheryl Crow, Anjelica Huston and a celebrity cast of thousands are opposed to war in Iraq?

Why should Fox News invite Janeane Garofalo to debate Mideast policy with Tony Snow?

Why should Mike Farrell be interviewed about Iraq on “Meet the Press”?

The answer, of course, is that Garofalo and Farrell have taken a public position on Iraq -- and their names draw viewers.

But by providing a forum for celebrities on this issue, by spotlighting the messenger, I think the media trivialize the antiwar message.

Many protesters disagree. They welcome celebrities to their camp precisely because it will bring more attention, especially media attention, to their cause.

Indeed, The Times published a letter early this month making just that point: “Thank God for Martin Sheen,” it began. “Without famous voices like his, I doubt the opposition to the war would receive any coverage from our cheerleading media.”

I don’t think the media have been cheerleaders for the war, or that the media ignored the antiwar movement. But we have underplayed the movement -- especially in the weeks leading up to the massive, worldwide protests in mid-February. On the other hand, even though I share the view that the Bush administration hasn’t made a solid case for attacking Iraq now, I think we’ve paid too much attention to celebrity opposition to the war.

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From actor to pundit?

A recent Associated Press story began, “Egyptian actor Omar Sharif says a war on Iraq would encourage terrorism and could lead to a clash between the Muslim and Christian worlds.”

Yes. But so what? What makes Sharif’s comments worth reporting? Is he some kind of Mideast expert just because he’s Egyptian? Is he presumed to be privy to the thoughts of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family just because -- as the story points out -- he was “nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for 1962’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ ”? Or because, as the story also notes, “He plays an Arab prince opposite Viggo Mortensen in ‘Hidalgo,’ scheduled for release later this year”?

Leo Braudy, a USC professor whose book “The Frenzy of Renown” examines the cult of celebrity, says the media pay attention to the political opinions of celebrities because “they’re outsized versions of regular human beings. It puts things in boldface and ups the ante.”

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“The manufacture of aura is part of what the media do,” Braudy says.

True. But one wouldn’t think the imminence of war -- in a time of terrorism, amid serious talk about weapons of mass destruction and preemptive strikes -- requires the additional “aura” of celebrity.

Phil Bronstein, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and, as the husband of actress Sharon Stone, no stranger to celebrity himself, says the answer is even simpler:

“We live in a celebrity culture. Just look at all the magazine covers. What we have here is a convergence of celebrities, politics and going to war. That amplifies everything.

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“That doesn’t speak to our responsibility as journalists to filter that, to use our judgment on what’s really newsworthy,” Bronstein says, “and I’m not happy about that. But we are part of our culture, and we reflect it and respond to readers’ interests.”

The public, though, may not be all that interested in what the stars think about the looming war. According to a recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll, 87% of Americans say the opinions of celebrities do not influence their own views.

There is no question that we live in a celebrity culture. But there’s a difference between putting celebrities on magazine covers and publishing and broadcasting their opinions on subjects that have nothing to do with their specific talents -- especially since we don’t always distinguish in our coverage between the well-informed and the simply well-intentioned (or the publicity-seeking) celebrity.

Stars speaking out

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The possibility of war with Iraq is not, of course, the first international crisis that has elicited celebrity involvement and media coverage. Charles Lindbergh visited Germany in 1939 and was so impressed with the military might of the Nazis that he helped create America First and argued that the United States should not get involved in the war in Europe. Several celebrities, Jane Fonda most notably, took strong and well-publicized stands against the war in Vietnam.

More recently, Vanessa Redgrave attracted worldwide media attention when she urged the United States to intervene in Chechnya. And Barbra Streisand, it sometimes seems, is in the news more often for her political stands than for her singing or acting.

On occasion, celebrities who take a political stand do warrant media attention. If stars speak out on the war (or any other issue) when they accept Oscars next week, the cameras can’t -- shouldn’t -- turn away. Similarly, when Martin Sheen helped lead a “Virtual March on Washington” that flooded the White House with thousands of antiwar e-mails, and NBC executives asked Sheen to go on national talk shows to explain his views because they were afraid his controversial statements would hurt their popular, award-winning show “The West Wing,” it was legitimate news.

But why should the media report that Bruce Willis so strongly supports the war effort that he’s supposedly considered joining the U.S. armed forces? Why should major newspapers report that Dustin Hoffman used an appearance at a Berlin film festival to complain about the Bush administration’s Iraq policy? Or that Sean Penn spent three days in Baghdad, educating himself about the possible impact of war?

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On second thought, maybe Penn was really there to research a sequel to “Dead Man Walking,” the film for which he received an Oscar nomination.

I guess this one might be called “Dead Man Talking.”

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David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com.

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