Robin Bronk, Executive Director of The Creative Coalition.

Better Know Your Celebrity Politics, Says Robin Bronk

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

May 22, 2008

Stephen Colbert, the irreverent host of his satirical show on Comedy Central, has a segment on his program entitled "Better Know A Congressional District", where politicians are invited to get acquainted with their constituents, with Mr. Colbert talking to the politician in the district to inspect their knowledge of the district that they serve.  And where celebrities are concerned, another organization with the initials C.C., The Creative Coalition, is shaping celebrity entertainers as they articulate positions on some of the political issues and situations of the day.

In this highly political year 2008 in the U.S., everyone has an opinion -- and for a number of decades so have celebrities in America.  Celebrities have for years been intertwined with politics in America.  Since before and after what some celebrities in Hollywood termed filmmaker Elia Kazan's "unforgivable" act of giving up the names of filmmakers and actors supposedly involved in Communist activity before Wisconsin senator Eugene McCarthy in the 1950's, actors Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger have both been governors of the state of California, with Mr. Reagan going on to become president of the United States.  Sonny Bono was a congressman in southern California.  Former wrestler and actor Jesse Ventura was once governor of Minnesota.  Clint Eastwood was the former mayor of Carmel in northern California and "Law And Order" actor Fred Dalton Thompson remains a senator from Tennessee following his unsuccessful recent run for president. 

On the activism front since the 1960s Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte and Martin Sheen are celebrities that have been tied to political causes consistently over several decades.  Though he probably did not see himself as a celebrity in the post-Beatles era, John Lennon had defended numerous political causes and was an ardent activist in the 1960s and '70s.  In the 1970s among other causes actress Ellen Burstyn protested in favor of releasing the boxer Ruben "Hurricane" Carter from prison, who was wrongly imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit.  To a lesser extent so too have actors like Sean Penn and Meryl Streep as has musician Bono, whose organization DATA focuses on eradicating HIV/AIDS and poverty on the African continent. 

In the wake of all the above historical intersections (some might say infiltrations) between celebrities, political office and prominent political causes, it would be no surprise that The Creative Coalition, a non-profit charity organization based in New York City, has given birth to a number of significant and important causes for many in the American entertainment industry to sink their proverbial teeth into.  Just last week the Creative Coalition co-hosted the documentary "Love Evolution", a film that attempts to access and quantify love and its meaning.  Mr. Penn, this year's jury president at Cannes and fashion designer Donna Karan appear in the film, which was produced by philanthropist, author, humanitarian and supermodel Petra Nemcova, who was in attendance at the event on Nikki Beach on the Croissette at Cannes in France.

Robin Bronk is the executive director of The Creative Coalition and in a telephone conversation back in March with The Popcorn Reel she explained the organization's beginnings.  "The Creative Coalition was formed about 22 years ago when Chris Reeve, Ron Silver, Alec Baldwin and Susan Sarandon specifically to give the entertainment industry a platform in social and public policy issues."  (A look on the Creative Coalition website shows that the organization was founded in 1989.)  "All these actors noticed that more and more they were being asked (by the media) to comment on social issues and they thought it would be helpful to have a homeroom to learn about social issues, to learn about public policy and to really do the best that they can do in using their platform to shine a light on issues of social importance," said Ms. Bronk.

Some celebrities have a tighter, more rigorous standard for which celebrities should speak.  Back in 2006 during an interview with The Popcorn Reel comedian, political satirist and policy wonk Al Franken mentioned what he called "The Tim Robbins Rule", a rule he used on his then-radio show on Air America.  The so-called Tim Robbins Rule declared that any celebrity outside of Mr. Robbins, an actor known for his activism and breadth of knowledge of global and domestic politics and political issues in general, should not be giving voice to political opinions on his show.  Mr. Franken, who is now running for U.S. senate in Minnesota as a Democrat for the seat occupied by Republican senator Norm Coleman, said he was uncomfortable with such actors as Ben Affleck articulating positions on politics, despite his talents and smarts as an opinion-maker. 

In fact more than a few Americans, as fascinated as they are with celebrities also have a deep aversion to them pontificating about the serious issues of the day.  Many times the cry of "celebrities should stick to entertaining" has been heard.  A lot of this discomfort and displeasure was shown most recently in early 2003 before, during and just after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, where segments of the American public turned on musicians like Eddie Vedder and The Dixie Chicks after their onstage condemnations of the current president for the rush to invade Iraq.  Filmmaker Michael Moore also won his fair share of admirers and detractors during his acceptance speech at the Academy Awards for "Bowling For Columbine" five days into the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. 

Ms. Bronk agreed with Mr. Franken's "Robbins Rule" perspective.  "What we try and teach people in the public eye, celebrities, is that you should only get involved in an issue if you're personally vested in that issue, if you're personally vested in that issue, if it makes sense for you to do it," said the executive director.

Freedom of speech advocates might feel it necessary to decry the conditions that Robin Bronk sets where celebrities are concerned, but the Creative Coalition's philosophy of informed and intelligent celebrities can certainly be viewed as understandable.  Why, after all, should one be invested in making their own organization's members look foolish or ill-informed?  "We don't believe in what we call 'Love Boat' casting -- to walk in and out of an issue," said Ms. Bronk.  "You really need to be well-informed.  You need to be an activist first and an actor second."  To that end, Ms. Bronk is well aware of those First Amendment alarm bells going off in some people's heads where the right for anyone in the entertainment public to speak out is concerned.  "While you shouldn't check your citizenship at the stage door, you also need to make sure that it makes sense for you to be involved in that issue, because otherwise not only does it not help the issue it can hurt the issue," Ms. Bronk added.  "You cannot fool John Q. Public."

If one cannot fool a sophisticated public when it comes to celebrities and their political opinions then how does one distinguish the following categories in determining whom sounds more learned and distinguished when speaking out on political affairs?  For example, there are those celebrities who engage in what might be called sound bite politicking -- perhaps those who give face time in videos pledging the need to Rock The Vote or Save Darfur.  Then there are those celebrities who have perennial causes and charities tied to their name (i.e. AMFAR for Sharon Stone, Farm Aid for Willie Nelson, Comic Relief for Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, etc.)  Then there are those actors and other celebrities like Don Cheadle and George Clooney whom were awarded special Nobel Awards a few months ago for their work in fact-finding and active roles in getting legislation passed regarding Darfur and the ongoing genocide being committed there.  Then there are those who are well-acquainted with causes and also express a depth of knowledge and experience and have a broad comprehension of the political landscape to the point where some of their more politically motivated fans would invite them to run for office (Tim Robbins, Martin Sheen, Sean Penn, Danny Glover, Susan Sarandon, Michael Moore, etc. )  And in a recent "60 Minutes" interview on CBS television, Creative Coalition co-founder Alec Baldwin, an outspoken actor on various political issues and causes, said that he may explore running for elective office as a politician after he chooses to end his acting career.

Almost three months ago in domestic politics, the two leading Democratic presidential politicians had been engaged in a close, hard-fought race, with U.S. senators Clinton and Obama participating in a friendly debate at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles at the end of January, with some Coalition members in attendance.  While the Coalition occasionally holds meetings and discussions (at the time of the telephone conversation with Ms. Bronk, an event with Ms. Goldberg was soon to occur), no notable political events are being held until the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in the late summer.  The Coalition promises a "huge presence" at both conventions, "working with folks on issues by candidate," along with "25 high profile members of the entertainment industry to be observers at each convention," said Ms. Bronk.  The Creative Coalition's board members include Kerry Washington, Daniel Stern, Richard Belzer, Hector Elizondo, Giancarlo Espositio, Marcia Gay Harden, Rob Lowe, Matthew Modine, Tim Blake Nelson, Wendie Malick and Peggy Noonan.  The Coalition's advisory board includes such members as Armand Assante, Blair Brown, Chuck D, Stockard Channing, Kenneth Cole, Antwone Fisher, Michael J. Fox, Harvey Keitel, Sharon Lawrence, Lawrence O'Donnell, Jr., Ron Reagan, Marlo Thomas and Stanley Tucci.

Additionally Ms. Bronk said that the Coalition is doing a documentary called "Polliwood" (or "Pollywood"), which she described as "all about the intersection between Hollywood and politics in this election year."  The documentary will track the conventions and go right through to the inauguration of the new president in late January of next year.  "Screen Media Films is an independent film distribution company.  And we're partnering with them to look at films that have a cause or can be cause-related to then take that film and bring in brands that care about the cause and sponsorship that cares about the cause and really blow out some major DVD and theatrical release so that you're not just getting a great film, you're helping to support whatever cause is involved with it."

The Creative Coalition website

Screen Media Films website

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