You might remember Justin Bateman, who co-stared in the 80's TV sitcom Family Ties. The show ended 19 years ago, the same year that the first Internet Service Providers started business. Now Bateman is 46 and a partner in an amateur-looking Internet start-up called FM78.tv, which has a home page "currently brought to you by drunken college students." She's also appeared on Desperate Housewives.
All of which apparently are credentials for Bateman to testify before a Senate Commerce Committee on the need for so-called "net neutrality" legislation. Here's how she argued her position:
"In entertainment, I believe we are on the verge of a creative renaissance and the Internet is the new grid upon which this renaissance can rest, because unfortunately the business grid of TV and film today cannot support that. Traditional media is now like a pool over which a pool cover has been placed causing those wild ducks that used to swim around in your pool to go elsewhere."
Yep, the ol' ducks-in-the-pool argument. Considering that kind of blabber, the most obvious question is not whether or not the nation needs more Internet regulation. It's why Hollywood personalities like Bateman are given an audience in the first place.
Because it's just good PR, that's why. Adam Thierer of the anti-regulation Technology Liberation Front blog summarizes a 2006 research report by Harry Strine titled "Your Testimony Was Splendid: The Treatment of Celebrities and Non-Celebrities in Congressional Hearings." Reviewing several decades, Strine found that members of Congress use celebrity hearings primarily as publicity stunts to get positive media coverage that constituents back home are more likely to notice. This is underscored by Strine's findings that almost a quarter of all the questions and comments made to celebrities during their testimony are compliments, expressions of sympathy or other sucking-up gestures. Only eight percent of non-celebrities -- people called to testify because they're actually experts -- get the same treatment.
News media play along for similar reasons, headlining movie stars and super models to spice up otherwise boring public policy stories. "When journalists cover celebrities, what they are doing is they are relying on a crutch," said media advocate Tom Rosenstiel in a 2002 AP story about the increased numbers of celebrities appearing on Capital Hill. "They are hitchhiking on the celebrity of a person to get their story noticed rather than figure out a way to make mountaintop mining, or whatever the issue is, interesting in its own right."
Certainly, there are articulate celebrities who well-represent their causes. But from a legislative perspective it probably doesn't matter. Politicians who have already decided an issue are exploiting the good looks and star-power of celebrities as public relations tools. And the rest have no intention of seriously considering their testimony in whatever position they take.
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A sampling of celebrity experts who have appeared before Congress:
|PERSONALITY||THERE TO ARGUE...|
|Sheri Lewis, actress and Lampchop, sock puppet||For regulation of children's TV|
|Kevin Richardson, The Backstreet Boys||For coal-mining and water regulation|
|Meryl Street, actress||For banning Alar|
|Kim Basinger, actress||For banning animal research|
|Christie Brinkley, model||For banning nuclear energy|
|Clint Eastwood, actor||For limiting ADA lawsuits|
|Mary Tyler Moore, actress||For stem cell research|
|Katie Couric, news anchor||For colon cancer initiatives|
|George Clooney, actor||For intervention in Darfur|
|Kerry Washington, actress||For arts and cultural funding|
|David Crosby, musician||For banning commercial development|
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