Ben Affleck, Africa Expert?

What the celebrity expert says about us.

Ben Affleck speaks during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Evolving Security Situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Implications for U.S. National Security at Rayburn House Office Building on Dec. 19, 2012.
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
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Elahe Izadi
Feb. 20, 2014, 7:21 a.m.

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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