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Analysis: What price free speech?

By
PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 25 (UPI) -- With entertainers drawing so much flak for their public comments on war and peace, what accounted for the relative silence on the subject at the Grammys?

Political expression at awards shows has become commonplace in America's cultural life. It has become equally routine for social critics, editorial cartoonists and late night comics to skewer performers for exercising their freedom of speech to express a political point of view on entertainment shows.

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The Academy Awards, the Emmys, the Grammys and other awards shows attract huge TV audiences, presenting participants with a potentially difficult choice -- share their thoughts with millions of people or observe decorum and lose the chance to have an impact.

Given the anxiety that many Americans have expressed over the prospect of war in Iraq, it seemed strange on Sunday that -- of all the presenters and winners who had the microphone at the Grammys -- only a few addressed the subject.

Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst said: "I just really hope we are in agreeance that this war should go away as soon as possible." Bonnie Raitt said "let's build some peace.'"

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And that was about it.

Several theories have been suggested to explain the performers' uncharacteristic reluctance to speak up on TV.

"I think the majority of them are uninformed," said Ian Astbury, the new singer for The Doors. "It was just sad that the supposedly artistic community had nothing to say."

There have been published reports that employees of CBS and the Grammys had instructed talent on the show not to speak about war from the podium. One report quoted CBS spokesman Chris Ender denying that.

"No one has been restricted in their artistic expression for this live show," said Ender, "this is first and foremost an entertainment event."

Veteran Hollywood publicist Julian Myers said the networks have no business, in any case, telling performers to keep their opinions to themselves.

"I think that's a form of censorship," said Myers. "I believe that anyone in America should have the right to express her or his convictions, however much they may be out of sync with what the establishment or any other group might want."

Myers said, however, he would not advise clients whether to speak up or not.

"If the client asks me what's best for (his or her) career and there's a current trend running in the country ... and the client wants to differ with that, then I would have to point out the situation and leave it up to the conviction of the client," said Myers.

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Sheryl Crow let her accessories do her talking. When she took the stage for a duet with Kid Rock, Crow was wearing a peace sign and a guitar strap with the words "No War" on it.

The New York Daily News quoted Crow saying that the Recording Academy had made it clear she was to tone down her outspokenness about her opposition to an invasion of Iraq.

"The Grammy committee called up my manager (and) said they wanted to keep it all neutral," she said.

The Daily News said that Recording Academy President Neil Portnow insisted that "no one contacted any artist to talk about content."

Mike Farrell ("M*A*S*H," "Providence"), who has come in for his share of criticism as an outspoken Hollywood peace activist, said some of the Grammy show performers are "very young folks who don't fully grasp the issues."

Farrell and other Hollywood figures involved in the Win Without War campaign -- including Tony Shalhoub, Tyne Daly and James Cromwell -- were staffing a phone bank in Los Angeles Tuesday, calling people to remind them about Wednesday's "Virtual March on Washington."

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Farrell said the organizer of the phone, fax and e-mail campaign -- MoveOn.org -- indicated that 80,000 people had signed up to contact the White House and the U.S. Senate to express opposition to a pre-emptive war on Iraq. Last week's announcement of the campaign touched off another round of criticism aimed at celebrities who take public stands on controversial issues.

Farrell found it ironic that people pay so much attention to celebrities on so many other counts -- but knock them down for speaking about serious issues.

"It's great when you can talk about what (celebrities) eat or who they sleep with or what they drive," said Farrell. "But heavens, when they have an opinion and have demonstrated that they care enough to study up on the issues, then somehow they've crossed the line. Then they've stepped into the area of unacceptable speech."

Farrell said it was almost as if people have to check their citizenship at the door when they become famous.

Those who question a celebrity's authority or credibility to speak about war and peace -- or any other serious issue -- might benefit from observing the example of celebrity pitchmen.

Honda, for example, presumably pays Richard Dreyfuss a pretty good dollar to do voiceovers on its TV ads, but you don't see op-ed pieces questioning or challenging the Oscar-winning actor's qualifications as an expert on all things automotive.

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Apparently, it is perfectly OK for celebrities to take money for letting advertisers put words in their mouth -- but not for them to speak their own minds for free.

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