Hollywood and Politics: Are Feds Influenced by the Opinions of Celebrities?

Celebrities have gathered a lot of publicity for their position on the War in Iraq. Fedsmith readers speak out on the Hollywood celebrities.

War generates a lot of emotion.

One topic generating emotion is the role of celebrities in politics. Actors have been speaking out on political issues surrounding the war in Iraq using their celebrity status as a platform. Most are against the war.

To our knowledge, there have not been any attempts to officially stifle anyone’s free speech. But consumers don’t have to watch a movie or buy a recording album. Some consumers have expressed their views by boycotting the celebrity using the platform given by fame to spread his or her ideas.

One example: the Dixie Chicks. For readers who are not fans of country and western music, the Dixie Chicks group consists of three women who have had a very successful singing career. Lead singer Natalie Maines waded into the fray when she told an audience in Europe she was “ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” (Maines is also from Texas.) The singer subsequently apologized for the remark but it didn’t make much difference. Sales of the Chicks’ new album fell more than 50% and radio stations, particularly those in the South and Southwest, often stopped playing their songs. It’s too early to tell whether the remark will have a long-term impact on the Chicks popularity but one poll showed country music fans are 58% less likely to buy one of their albums as a result of the remark about President Bush.

Even former Vice-President Al Gore jumped into the debate. In a speech in Murfreesboro, TN, Gore commented on the Dixie Chicks with the statement: “They were made to feel un-American and risked economic retaliation because of what was said. Our democracy has taken a hit. Our best protection is free and open debate.”

Of course, other celebrities have also spoken out. One of the best known peace activists is Martin Sheen. His role has generated considerable comment because he plays the role of the President of the United States on the “West Wing” television series. He is also one of the more frequent critics of the War in Iraq.

With this background, what do Federal employees think about this issue?

We purposely kept the scope of the survey narrow. We asked “Does the expression of political views by a celebrity influence your political opinion?”

More than 98% of those responding said their political opinion was not influenced by what a celebrity thinks. This is not a big surprise since Federal employees are generally well-educated and presumably form their own opinions on issues. But the idea of actors or celebrities speaking out generates considerable heat. Here you go:

One Agriculture employee wrote:

“Celebs are privileged to have a right to speak their opinions on the war or any other matters. The thing that irritates me so much is the seriously inflated egos and self-importance these people feel is endowed on them by the general populace.”

A DCMA employee wrote:

“Perhaps we should be the ones “embarrassed” by their presence in our country, along with their anti-patriotic bashings of our President. His decisions, though daunting, have proven to me how brave a man he is – and how willing he is to stand by his convictions. Do they honestly think THEY could do better?”

But while most were disparaging, not all were. Here is what another Agriculture employee said:

“They have as much right to their opinion as anyone else. That is what being an American means. I don’t have to agree with what they say or think but I do have to respect and be willing to do what ever is necessary to ensure their right to think and say what they feel.”

The second question generated most of the comments from readers. We asked readers if “the political views of a celebrity influenced your decision to purchase or view a product involving that celebrity.”

It was our underlying assumption that freedom of speech cuts in different directions. That is, a person can voice an opinion. At the same time, a consumer is entitled to purchase or not purchase a product. In other words, if a movie actor says something you find offensive, you are free to boycott movies featuring that actor.

In response to this question, about 47% of respondents said that the political views of a celebrity have influenced a decision to purchase or view a product. 52% indicated that their viewing habits or purchasing decisions have not been influenced.

Our readers comments captured the intensity of the political debate. It is apparent that some readers view the celebrities with some disdain. (Martin Sheen was singled out more than others by our readers.)

One NASA reader wrote:

[T]here are two great ironies at play here. Firstly, the irony that while 70 plus percent of the US populace do not agree with his (Martin Sheen’s) views on the war, nevertheless our soldiers will fight to the death to defend his right to speak those views.

Secondly, the huge irony that the Hollywood crowd represents the very culture that the fundamentalists turned terrorists so hate about this country. Where do you suppose they get the image of the USA as morally bankrupt that they have so come to despise? I can think of lots of Hollywood produced movies that spread this image of Americans and inspire attacks against us.”

Another reader wrote:

“I can no longer watch one of my previously favorite shows — West Wing, because of the “voicing” done by Martin Sheen. Too bad. I liked it, but no more.”

An Army employee voiced a similar opinion:

“I no longer watch my favorite programs thanks to the anti-US rantings of these public figures, even in time of war.”

A Fish and Wildlife Service employee took a different approach.

“Re. celebrities and politics: I tend to ignore them whether they’re on the correct side or the Republican side. Unless, of course, we’re talking about Martin Sheen and other especially articulate and intelligent citizens. Then I nod approvingly.”

Others followed a logic closely aligned with Al Gore (noted above) and equated disagreement with what a celebrity says or boycotting a product with stifling freedom of expression.

An SBA employee said:

“I am amazed and disgusted that so many people have decided that Americans, celebrities or otherwise, no longer have the right to free speech. Perhaps folks who feel that way should have moved to Iraq….”

An Air Force employee waded in with this:

“If they should keep quiet about one subject, should they remain silent about all subjects and never use their celebrity to influence others? Is this not a free country? Freedom of speech is just one of the many rights that our young men and women have fought and died for over the years. Is freedom of speech dependent on what speech we are giving or who is giving it? I think not.”

Thanks to all of our readers for sharing their ideas and opinions.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47