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Celebs with causes? How dare they

January 21, 2003|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

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."

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.

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.

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