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Mixing Celebrities And Politics

C-SPAN is looking more like "Entertainment Tonight" these days.

Check out the glitterati who have shown up at congressional hearings recently: Julia Roberts. Christie Brinkley. Michael J. Fox. Kevin Richardson of the Backstreet Boys.

At least one senator says enough is enough. Political analysts agree there's a fine line between celebrities with legitimate expertise and those who have been invited to appear before Congress just to draw media attention.

Fox and former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali told members of Congress last month that more money is needed to turn scientific findings into a cure for Parkinson's disease, which they both have.

It's the Backstreet Boy that has Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, fuming. Richardson appeared Thursday before a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee. He testified on mountaintop removal mining, a controversial practice in which the top of a ridge or mountain is sheared off to expose a coal seam, pushing dirt and rock into nearby valleys and waterways.

"It's just a joke to think that this witness can provide members of the United States Senate with information on important geological and water quality issues," said Voinovich who boycotted the session. "We're either serious about the issues or we're running a sideshow."

"I object to those that are brought in for show business," he said. "This witness was put in as an afterthought because someone thought it would add to the glamour of the hearing and attract media attention."

Richardson said it was unfortunate Voinovich didn't show up because he could have taught the senator something. The singer said drawing media attention was his intention.

"That's entirely what I am here for. I am going to help mountaintop mining to be stopped," he said. "But to say that I am not educated on the issues and that I don't have anything to add to the issue is wrong. I have every right to be here."

Last year, pop singers Alanis Morissette and Don Henley told a congressional panel that artists' concerns have been ignored during legal battles between recording labels and Internet companies like Napster.

"Certainly, members of the entertainment community have expertise on many issues that are important for Congress to consider," Voinovich said. "This isn't a case like that."

A spokesman for Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who invited Richardson to testify, said the pop star's environmental group, Just Within Reach, has been active on the issue of mountaintop removal mining, which is used in Richardson's home state of Kentucky.

"He has his own environmental advocacy group," said Adam Kovacevich, a Lieberman spokesman. "He has credibility on this issue. We believe that his voice is one that the committee should hear."

Earlier this year, the Environment committee heard from Brinkley on nuclear energy. The model has been active on nuclear issues since she learned about radioactive leaks at the Shoreham and Brookhaven nuclear reactors near her home in Long Island, N.Y.

"A model talking about a nuclear power plant is going to capture a different audience then a nuclear scientist will," she told reporters at the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

Roberts, who spoke about Rett Syndrome during a tearful speech last month before the House Appropriations Committee, has filmed a one-hour documentary on the illness.

"We should be glad that there are celebrities out there who care enough to use their fame to shine the spotlight for a day on an obscure disease and the children that it afflicts," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who invited Roberts.

Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said, "If they get a celebrity in there, the cameras will follow and what might have been a hidden or invisible issue will suddenly become a matter of public discussion."

Other celebrities who have appeared on Capitol Hill in the past few years have included Christopher Reeve, Katie Couric, Tony Bennett and Mary Tyler Moore.

"When journalists cover celebrities, what they are doing is they are relying on a crutch," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "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."

Baker pointed out that it's a 180-degree change from the 1950s, when Hollywood stars were summoned to Capitol Hill to testify in the anti-communist hearings.

"Now, they come as honored guests and are sought out eagerly," he said.