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Ben Affleck, Africa Expert?

What the celebrity expert says about us.


Ben Affleck speaks during a House Armed Services Committee hearing in 2012.(Kris Connor/Getty Images)

It's a tried-and-true tactic on Capitol Hill that if you want people to pay attention to what you're doing, you trot out a celebrity to talk about it.

The push for mental-health reform has fallen off the radar, has it? Bring in Glenn Close. And what of migrant farm labor? I bet Stephen Colbert has some things to say about it.


"I certainly hope that my star power can bump this hearing all the way up to C-SPAN 1," Colbert said during a 2010 House Judiciary Committee hearing.

So it makes sense, particularly from a public-relations standpoint, that Ben Affleck would be on the Hill to talk about the recent mass killings and violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But he'll be testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday as an expert on the central African nation, alongside a former American ambassador and the U.S. special envoy to the nation.

Affleck's forthcoming testimony, first reported by Foreign Policy's The Cable and confirmed by a Senate aide, is not his first Washington foray as an expert on the region. He spoke before the House Armed Services panel in 2012, calling what was happening in the Congo "the deadliest conflict since World War II." He also testified in 2011.


Affleck founded the Eastern Congo Initiative in 2010, an advocacy and grant-making organization. There's been some debate on the Hill as to whether having Affleck testify as an expert is appropriate, given the plethora of people who have focused professionally on the region for years, The Cable reports.

But Affleck isn't alone. The African continent attracts a lot of star-power advocacy: Angelina Jolie, Madonna, George Clooney. (Mother Jones has a thorough timeline tracking how this came to be and a map showing which celeb has claimed which countries.) Some critics worry that such interest doesn't always translate into the best interests of the people actually living in these nations, and, at worst, this amounts to a sort of a "celebrity recolonization" of Africa.

But what's also troubling—and not mentioned as often—is how such star power influences American perceptions and interest in Africa. A 2007 analysis by the left-leaning Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found that African coverage by broadcast news spiked when American celebrities traveled there or sang songs or acted in movies that dealt with some sort of conflict there. Over the course of two years, nearly two-thirds of the news coverage Sierra Leone received by ABC, NBC, and CBS was with a celebrity-driven angle.

"African countries and issues are to a striking degree seen through the prism of celebrity," the report concluded.


There are practical reasons for this; maintaining news bureaus in Africa, for instance, is expensive for news outlets.

And there's this unfortunate reality: Many more consumers of media in the U.S. are interested in what a celebrity is up to these days than in tracking the latest developments in central Africa. And, really, is this Ben Affleck's fault, or our own?

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