New Stars Come in Less Glam Packages

Two months ago, the choice guests to have on talk shows were glamorous, beautiful people like movie star Nicole Kidman, boy band 'N Sync and crossover superstar Jennifer Lopez.

Now, the airwaves are full of people with less interesting hair but more interesting things to say, like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, New York Times reporter and bioterror expert Judith Miller and former UN nuclear-weapons inspector Scott Ritter.

Meet the post-Sept. 11 celebrities: the politician and the pundit.

"This may turn out to be a new celebrity aristocracy," said Robert Thompson, pop culture professor at Syracuse University. "By the time we reach Christmas or summertime, there may be a whole new body of people who are common household names."

When the World Trade Center towers fell, so did much of the TV networks' entertainment programming, which suddenly seemed irrelevant. The public wanted hard news, and celebs were generally loath to try to earn publicity from the worst tragedy in American memory.

And as the war on terror continues, there's less concrete information available for the 24-hour media to talk about, which leaves the door open for talking heads of all sorts on TV.

"This is not a television war," Thompson said. "We're not getting a lot of images from the battlefield, there isn't much to show when it comes to anthrax, and press releases can only go on for so long."

The politicians and pundits have come to fill that void, a cast of characters who are ready to talk about the topic of the moment, whether it be cruise-missile strikes on Kandahar, Usama bin Laden's childhood or the possibility of smallpox in Seattle's drinking water.

"There's so much airtime to fill and there isn't enough hard information to fill it, so that's when the so-called experts take over," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow in politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Instead of chatting about Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan's fling by blow-dried heads like Mary Hart, America is tuning into heady discussions about the chemical makeup of anthrax and the financial structure of Al Qaeda by people whose love lives have never made the tabloids, like Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

But without a doubt, the king of the politician-turned-celebrity is New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who became a worldwide hero in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"When you said 'Rudy Giuliani' on Sept. 10, it meant a lot of things that were not necessarily good," Thompson said. "I think now, he's clearly going to go down in political history in a much more sacred position."

Giuliani's celebrity went hand-in-hand with his duties as mayor of a devastated city. He got more airtime than any Hollywood star, going from talk show to televised event to reassure the globe that the Big Apple was still up and running.

"We use celebrities to put a face to our psychic dreams and fantasies and needs," Thompson said. "[Giuliani] became the voice of an attacked city, and he did it with such energy and aplomb."

And the queen of the news celebs is Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter who co-wrote the best-selling, Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War, and has now found herself in demand as the anthrax crisis spreads.

But though it might seem like the U.S. is entering a new age where brains are valued more than beauty, there's a downside to the News Age celebrity. When there are 24 hours of airtime to fill, some less qualified pundits end up on air.

"There's a danger of people dispensing a lot of misinformation, and it's worrisome," Hess, who himself has been doing guest spots on foreign news shows, said. "No one likes to say, 'I don't know.' Instead of saying, 'I can't tell you,' some say, 'Well, I think,' or they speculate."

And, he added, not all the pundits are motivated by a call to public service. "There are plenty of people who want to use the crises as a calling card for whatever they're selling."

But there is an end to how far the new politician-as-celeb will go. Thompson said he wouldn't count on a spin-off edition of Entertainment Weekly about the lifestyles of people like Vice President Dick Cheney or National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

"The appetite and desire to see celebrities has been put on hold, but it's going to come back," he said.