Mr. Colbert goes to Washington

Television personality Stephen Colbert testified in front of the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Border Security and International law last week. Seeing his five-minute speech, it made me wonder — does it help or hurt when celebrities testify to Congress on behalf of a cause they believe in? Surely, celebrities have the power to introduce a little-known issue into the national discussion. The video of Colbert’s testimony has nearly a million hits on YouTube. My guess is that’s about 999,000 more than actually watched the original broadcast on C-SPAN3. Colbert himself acknowledged this, noting in his testimony, “I am happy to use my celebrity to bring attention to this issue.” But the man who testified last week was not Stephen Colbert the man, but Stephen Colbert the character, the faux-conservative pundit that bemoans big government nightly on “The Colbert Report”. The jokes that normally generate guffaws from his studio audience fell flat on the Hill, to a panel that looked bored at best, noting the congresswoman who can be seen checking her Blackberry during Colbert’s speech. Colbert brought up well-articulated points about farm labor reform in the United States, yet his message would have been more effective if he had not been in character, which is inherently non-genuine. Dozens of celebrities have gone before Congress, from Bob Barker to Elmo — yes, that Elmo. I think it’s great when celebrities shed light on little-known issues, like when Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox spoke to the Senate in 2002 urging that more money be devoted to finding a cure for Parkinson’s Disease. Yet it seems odd when celebrities give their two cents to Congress on issues that have already captivated the nation, like when Kevin Costner testified last month about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Other times, obscure celebrities speak to even more obscure issues that they are not qualified to talk about. Ex-Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson testified about mountaintop mining. While Colbert isn’t an expert on immigration reform, he does deal with political issues on his show. How informative can Nick Jonas be about juvenile diabetes, other than sharing his personal experience with the disease? I don’t suggest that public figures should ignore issues they care about. But celebrities have the unique power in that they don’t need a congressional hearing to get their voices heard. Mr. Colbert could have just as easily spent a segment on his show devoted to farm labor reform – which he actually did in July – to get the issue out to millions of viewers. What congressional hearings are good for, presupposing that they are indeed good for something, is giving average Americans the access to a pulpit that is ordinarily inaccessible — like when Morse’s Line resident Brian Rainville testified to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee back in May about the proposed border patrol station that threatened his family farm. Stripped of their stardom, the prose of celebrities doesn’t carry nearly the same weight as the heartfelt stories of regular citizens or the expertise supplied by professionals. While the famous among us can shed light on a little-known issue, it is up to regular folks to show why it’s important.