THE BLOG

When Celebrities Replace Journalists as Sources of Vital News

02/18/2015 04:33 pm ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015

George Clooney, who helped jump-start the modern era of the civically leveraged celebrity, said in 2011, "Celebrity can help focus news media where they have abdicated their responsibility." And, he added, from a dirt road in one of Africa's most political unstable regions, "If they're (the paparazzi) going to follow me anyway, I want them to follow me here (South Sudan)."

Many celebrities, to varying degrees of earnestness, effect and authenticity, share Clooney's vision and use their renown to push change and to focus eyeballs on issues underreported or ignored by the mainstream press. Leonardo DiCaprio and environmental causes, Demi Lovato and mental health, Miley Cyrus and youth homelessness, Katy Perry and domestic violence. And so on.

But the gold standard remains Angelina Jolie, the one-time wild child who reinvented herself as crusader for the imperiled and suffering. With no political office to lose, no reputation to be squandered and enough personal wealth to fund her pet projects, she's free to be a blunt media disruptor on world issues frequently glossed over by the popular press.

The special envoy for the United Nations Refugee Agency stood in Iraq on January 25th, a panoply of camera crews trained on her, and implored more decisive action on behalf of refugees displaced by ISIS's reign of terror. Angelina was direct: "We are being tested here as an international community and so far, the international community is failing."

That same night, NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams, with Lester Holt sitting in, led with a report on a snowstorm blanketing the Northeast. John Stewart has since succinctly referred to Brian Williams' problem as, "infotainment confusion syndrome." You don't say.

With celebrity commodified to such a degree as to render the archetype of the swashbuckling TV news journalist anachronistic and redundant, Williams probably felt immense pressure to make his brand--that is, his professional identity--stand out. Thus, the adjunct, cringe-inducing TV appearances, late night slow jamming, career-destroying conflating and use of his perch to shill for his actress daughter.

All of this gets to the very heart of news and media--our access to it, how we consume it and how we respond to it.

Christina M. Russo wrote a harrowing call to action on Huffington Post in September 2014, "News Media, There's a War on Elephants. Act Like It," detailing the continued massacre of African elephants and the desperate and timely need for mainstream news to cover the genocide. Yet African elephants, which experts predict could become extinct within 10 years, are still waiting for mainstream media to give them their prime time moment.

As it so happens, Angelina Jolie's next big Hollywood directing project is Africa, with her real-life husband Brad Pitt set to play real-life elephant conservationist, Richard Leakey.

Leakey was recently in Hong Kong, ground zero for the illicit ivory trade. The 70 year-old anti-poaching icon was unequivocal about the power of celebrity in getting hot-button issues into the minds of the masses. "The average Chinese young person doesn't know who Richard Leakey is," he explained. "But if a superstar like Brad Pitt plays the part and says these things, many people will believe what he says."

Leakey added that producers would be actively marketing the film to Chinese audiences, and that the film would include a "certain amount of what Hollywood movies need ...fire fights, car chases and pretty women getting in and out of beds." So be it, if that's what it takes to move the public conversation forward.

Now, I'm not suggesting that that we leave it to celebrities to dictate what's news. But it's time we acknowledge and accept the loose amalgam of media elements that collide and compete for our cognitive space. Very little of it fits neatly into the common perception of what constitutes traditional or even respected journalism. Tabloids, however clumsily, are advancing public discourse on transgender issues. Twitter feeds are our source for breaking local events. Jon Stewart, as a satirist, has frequently been the voice of measured reason. Slickly produced food documentaries, such as Forks Over Knives, engage citizens in the politics and science of their food production and distribution.

Tina Brown, an expert on threading the needle between serious and sober and pop culture indulgence, put the Williams debacle in perspective on Twitter: "Time to debunk the myth that anchors are journalists."

Let me take it one step further: time to debunk the myth that journalists--those in a professional field, unlike law or medicine, where advanced degrees or adherence to established codes of conduct are not uniformly demanded--have a monopoly on deciding what's news and who is worthy of delivering it.

But take heart, Brian, there's still time for a second act. With Africa to begin production soon, Angelina will be casting the role of lantern-jawed relic of the old journalism world, too busy burnishing his own ego to notice urgent and important news as it's swirling around him.