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Dublin: 9 °C Saturday 1 November, 2014

Column: Does celebrity opinion promote or distract from the news?

Many celebrities have weighed in on the recent violence in Gaza; are they opening an important dialogue or just mouthing off about things they don’t understand?

Darren Mooney

EVERYBODY’S GOT AN opinion. Opinions are like…

Well, everybody’s got opinions on opinions. And not all opinions are created equal, with some obviously carrying more weight than others.

Some of that weight comes from real-world experience and personal circumstances; it might also be rooted in education or professional history. People might invest more faith in an opinion coming from a person elected or appointed to a particular position, trusting the selection process and the entrance requirements.

And then there are opinions that are given weight because of their source. In this age of social media and the 24 hour news cycle, celebrity is cold hard currency.

You may have discussed the situation in Gaza with friends or colleagues, in front of an audience no larger than the local pub or the office canteen, but celebrities are bantering back and forth about the issue on a much larger platform in front of thousands (if not millions) of spectators.

A lot of these are suitably generic. Selina Gomez insisted that she was “not picking any sides” and instead asked her followers to “pray for Gaza.”

Madonna decided, meanwhile, that pleas for peace are more convincing when branded across shirtless back-up dancers.

Madonna

Source: Madonna via Instagram

A wider choice of media

The people of planet Earth can rest easy knowing that Kim Kardashian was not just praying for Israel or Palestine, but also for everybody “across the world.

These are mostly harmless platitudes. The worst that can be really be said is that such comments may distract from the reports of what is actually happening in Gaza, focusing stories and discussion on celebrities and assuring the public that they do care.

Then again, one of the wonders of the internet age is that there’s a wider choice of media than ever before.

Running a story about some celebrity’s 140-character moment of insight does not prevent a similar feature on the history or context of the conflict, or the real material suffering experienced by those caught in its midst. The worst it does is bump those pieces of real journalism a little further down the page in place of cynical clickbait.

However, there are more interesting and powerful moments of commentary – sentiments that are aggressively and actively political, instead of generic Hallmark sentiments. Consider Rihanna’s “Free Palestine” tweet that garnered 7,000 retweets before being deleted eight minutes after she first posted it.

Bill Maher opted for the unconventional approach of mixing some misogyny with his political opinion, presumably to keep things fresh.

Whose opinion matters? 

Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem got to play out their own drama as they initially described Israeli action in Gaza as “genocide” before backtracking quite quickly.

With Jon Voight, Glenn Beck and even Ryan Kavanaugh all offering a response to Bardem and Cruz’s response to the crisis, one wonders how much energy and focus has been wasted on this media sideshow that might have been devoted to actually exploring the conflict and its context.

Everybody is entitled to their opinion. And, outside of professional qualification and education, it is hard to argue that anybody’s opinion is that much more valid than anybody else’s.

For example, comedian and actor Russell Brand found himself caught in a ‘feud’ with Fox News broadcaster Sean Hannity over Gaza. Brand has an endearing willingness to get political and to wrestle with big questions, but his views feel like they haven’t been properly thought through, beyond an engagingly feckless teenage “screw the system!” mentality. His somewhat vague suggestions for social revolution tend to ignore the fact that such large-scale revolutions – historically speaking – don’t tend to help the downtrodden.

But, then, is Brand’s opinion any less valid than that of Sean Hannity? After all, Hannity’s only job outside of punditry would seem to have been a brief stint as a “general contractor” and managed to secure his high-profile radio slot through rigorous self-promotion, advertising himself as “the most talked about college radio host in America.”

Hannity may have three New York Times best-selling books to his name, but is he more qualified than Brand or any other celebrities wading into the Gaza debate?

There is a pretty significant difference between a celebrity who attracts a broad audience allowing them to get on their soapbox about all manner of issues, and career pundits working at major news networks. After all, for all that Fox news likes to stir up controversy, it is facing the fact that it is not attracting new viewers. Its audience is ageing and dying.

It has been argued that this dwindling and dying audience is what led the network to radicalise, playing to the stereotype of crazy right-wing conservatives in order to court fleeting mainstream attention for their absurdity.

Still, the point remains. People interact with career pundits differently from how they react to celebrities.

People seek to affirm their existing opinions

Studies demonstrate that people seek out news to affirm – rather than inform – their opinions. People tend to approach news media with a confirmation bias, seeking to validate their own opinions.

On the other hand, celebrity politics have been demonstrated to have an impact on their fans. It has been suggested that Oprah Winfrey’s support of Obama was responsible for earning him approximately 1,000,000 votes. Celebrity endorsements are also suggested to have particular influence on younger people.

This isn’t inherently a bad thing. Encouraging people to engage with social issues should be supported. Any person inspired to learn more about Israel or Palestine as a result of Rihanna or Madonna is a good thing. Convincing somebody to give even €5 towards a charity helping refugees or the displaced is something to be lauded.

Celebrities do great work supporting worthy causes like children’s charities or disaster relief or raising awareness of problems that might slip under the radar otherwise. They can leverage their name recognition into practical and material good in the world.

Of course, it is also possible to be cynical about such things. Live Aid might have raised a phenomenal amount of awareness and money to fight famine in Africa, but surely the cost of Phil Collins’ Concorde trip between the UK and the US could have been donated to the cause? Would we really have missed that second set so much?

Similarly, one might wonder whether Bono is hypocritical in campaigning so ceaselessly about international causes while cynically exploiting various tax loopholes to avoid supporting disadvantaged members of the Irish population.

There is a catch…

And while encouraging people to question and engage while pushing these issues to the fore of public consciousness is a good thing, there is a catch. There is a difference between trying to bring an issue to somebody’s attention and using a high profile figure to put forward an opinion.

Giving people the facts to form their own opinion is one thing; expecting them to parrot your own is another entirely. There is a very real and demonstrable harm that can come with a celebrity using their fame to propose their subjective opinion as universal fact.

Model, celebrity and commentator Jenny McCarthy has been a public critic of the vaccination programme in America for years. Although she has recently tried to deny that she was “anti-vaccination”, the facts speak for themselves.

Despite a complete lack of evidence supporting her position, McCarthy was able to give a hugely harmful philosophy a platform, lending credibility and profile to a paranoid and groundless movement. McCarthy’s advocacy of a completely absurd position has very real consequences. There is a reason that the URL for the “Anti-Vaccine Body Count” points to www.jennymccarthybodycount.com.

Valuable debate v hot air

McCarthy is an extreme example, but there are plenty of others. While much of Jane Fonda’s conduct while visiting the Viet Cong in 1973 has been exaggerated or fabricated, one cannot help but wonder how her documented description of the POW’s as “hypocrites and liars” affected public perception of the veterans returning home.

Regardless of what one thought of the Vietnam War, those soldiers – who were not involved in the politics or decisions, and may even have been drafted – were treated rather shamefully by the American public in the wake of the conflict.

Ultimately, everybody is entitled to their opinion. To suggest anything else at the conclusion of an opinion piece would seem just a tad hypocritical. It is up to the person reading the opinion to decide how much weight to afford it.

At the same time, it is worth considering the exposure and relative weight given to celebrity opinions of these sorts of heated and controversial events, and whether the volume and traffic they generate serves as worthy promotion of valid causes – or distracting interference from the real issues.

Darren Mooney has a movie blog, them0vieblog.com . You can get in touch with Darren here. To read more articles by Darren for TheJournal.ie click here.

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