A backdrop for celebrities

Hurricane disaster in the Deep South is safe, surefire publicity

Katrina's Wake

September 09, 2005|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

John Travolta and his wife, Kelly Preston, flew their private jet into Baton Rouge with food and tetanus shots for Hurricane Katrina victims, then toured New Orleans evacuee shelters.

Sean Penn took a leaky boat out into New Orleans' mucky waters to carry out people stranded in their flooded homes. He dropped into chest-deep water to help people into his boat.

NBC's Katie Couric broadcast from Baton Rouge. Oprah Winfrey took her show to the Gulf Coast, and Geraldo Rivera reported from the New Orleans convention center. Michael Jackson has written a song: "From the Bottom of My Heart."

For better and sometimes worse, in the wake of hurricanes and other tragedies comes a rush of celebrities and TV personalities. While their glamour and star power can help gain attention and raise millions of dollars for relief efforts, their actions also, at times, can raise eyebrows.

"Disasters are loved by the media and they're loved by the celebrities, because it's very safe and it makes them look like such good people," says Elayne Rapping, a professor of American Studies at the University at Buffalo the State University of New York.

"It's much likelier that celebrities are going to speak out and be associated with a disaster than taking a strong political view on Iraq," Rapping says. "It's a plus for celebrities to be seen as helping out a charity of any kind.

"What's going on now is so horrible that celebrities popping up and doing this is just to be expected," she says, "which is in contrast to the silence that [there] has been around the [Iraq] war. In the '60s, all these musicians were singing protest songs. You don't hear that anymore with this war. Something like this hurricane relief, everybody is coming out for. It's good publicity for them."

Rapping says it's like doing a concert for stricken places like Bangladesh or Sun City.

"People may not have known or cared much about those areas," she says. "But this [disaster] is the United States!"

Singer Harry Connick Jr., a New Orleans native with deep roots in the city, arrived back at the start of the week, visited his parents' home and the convention center, helped some people wandering the streets and reported on it all on the Today show on Tuesday.

He and Wynton Marsalis, another New Orleans native whose father and mother escaped to Baton Rouge, had already played a benefit show last weekend.

Soap opera stars even stepped out of their roles on their shows and asked for aid for hurricane relief.

"I haven't seen it [happen] on prime time," Rapping says. "But I bet it will."

It's obvious, she says, that the media and celebrities in general want to be associated with doing good deeds, she says, "and are much more reluctant to be associated with divisive political issues than they used to be. I think we're living in a very conservative time. It's very safe.

"I'm not saying it's a bad thing," she says. "I'm just saying it's very good for their PR."

And it is perfectly politically correct.

"I mean, who's against helping people in disasters?" Rapping says.

She says television focuses on melodrama.

"They go on and on and on about a baby that fell in a well," she says. "And then they make a TV movie out of it. Human suffering is something that does very well in the visual media.

"That's why the Weather Channel is so popular," she says. "It's a safe subject. You don't have to worry about politics or religion."

Fox News personality Rivera seemed to illustrate her point perfectly last week in New Orleans, when he held a 10-month-old baby up to the cameras.

"Look in the face of the baby," Rivera said, weeping. "This is it. This is it. No sugar coating, no political spin, no Republicans or Democrats. People suffering."

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