Celebrities and the War... How Much Clout Do They Really Have?

This is a partial transcript from The O'Reilly Factor, February 28, 2003. Click here to order the complete transcript.

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CAL THOMAS, GUEST HOST: In the second Unresolved Problems segment tonight, a USA Today poll released today shows celebrities have little influence over opinions about a possible war with Iraq. Yet stars like Martin Sheen, Sheryl Crow, and Susan Sarandon are becoming more and more visible in the anti-war movement.

Joining us now from Boston is Professor Darrell West, who teaches political science at Brown University and is the author of the book Celebrity Politics.

Mr. West, thank you for joining us.

Why should anybody care what celebrities think? Why, why, why?

DARRELL WEST, CELEBRITY POLITICS AUTHOR: Well, Americans care what celebrities think because celebrities are famous. You know, we're all drawn to the big names, and when Martin Sheen takes a position on an issue, it attracts media attention, and people do pay attention to that, despite what that survey just reported.

THOMAS: Well, they pay attention to it, but,... don't they pay attention in derision, like "what do these guys know?"

How come reporters never go up to these film stars, who seem to only know about their current picture and what their latest plastic surgeon has said about various body parts and say, 'OK, what do you really know about the history of the region, what do you know about the throw-weights missiles, what do you know that Saddam Hussein possesses and how many people he's killed?'"

Why don't we ever get those questions? Is most of the media bowled over by the klieg lights of celebrity?

WEST: Reporters should be asking those tough questions because, of course, many celebrities don't have very much substantive knowledge, but that does not prevent them from speaking out on these issues, and, when they speak out, people pay attention.

You know, every time Martin Sheen takes a position, the TV cameras are there. He's now filmed an ad. Former Senator Fred Thompson, the star of Law & Order now, has filmed a counter ad asking people to support the administration's position.

So, basically, we have the dueling battle of West Wing vs. Law & Order.

THOMAS: I got a call the other day from Ed Ames. I don't think he'll mind me saying this. He had a -- he's had hit songs. He's been in the media for a long time. He's a conservative fellow. He's told me he's putting together a group of conservative Hollywood celebrities to respond to the liberals.

That's going to be a pretty small group from what we hear, isn't it? You've got Charlton Heston. You've got Ed Ames. And who else have you got out there?

WEST: Yes. Certainly, the Hollywood end of celebrity does lean much more in a liberal direction, and, of course, those are the very individuals who have been most opposed to going to war with Iraq. They've circulated petitions, taken out ads, and really expressed their viewpoint.

What I suspect is going to happen, though, is there's going to be a backlash and conservative celebrities are going to start coming out. We've seen some of them already do so.

And, typically, that is what happens, that, when one branch of celebrityhood starts to mobilize on an issue, it will mobilize other people as well who have different points of view.

THOMAS: Isn't this kind of media incest? I mean, cable networks, which are 24/7, and even some of the broadcast networks, they like to have these stars on because it helps them with the ratings and it helps them feel good that they can actually get to these people, so getting a chance to sit down with a Martin Sheen or Susan Sarandon is kind of an ego booster for the news person or the show host, isn't it?

WEST: Well, certainly, the media prefer to interview a well-known Hollywood star on some policy issue as opposed to an unknown academic expert who is very knowledgeable, has written and published on the area, but simply is not known to the general public.

But, of course, that's the very power of celebrities. They can attract the audience. They can get the media attention. Oftentimes, celebrities have been very adept at raising money.

Barbra Streisand, of course, has raised millions for the Democratic Party, and those funds then can be used to convey a point of view and try and persuade people of what those celebrities think should be happening.

THOMAS: I read one survey that said, when Barbra Streisand speaks on these things, she raises money not only for the Democrats, but she also raises it for the Republicans. People send out letters saying "are you going to put up with this? Send us $25."

WEST: I'm sure that's true. Every -- you know, Barbra Streisand is someone some people love, other people hate. So there always is that type of polarizing influence.

But celebrities still can be very important. They have highlighted attention to issues such as breast cancer, the need for research on AIDS. They can help set the agenda in all sorts of interesting sorts of ways.

THOMAS: All right, Professor. I'd be happy to hear them [celebrities] talk about those subjects, and I'm glad you're here talking about yours tonight. Thanks very much for joining us.

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