Do Celebrities Help or Hinder When They Hijack Serious Issues?

Celebs caught up in serious international issues: from left, Lindsay Lohan, Wyclef Jean, and Naomi Campbell. Al Seib / AP-pool (left); Lynn Sladky / AP; AFP-Getty Images

This week former Fugees musician Wyclef Jean declared he would run for the presidency in Haiti, and supermodel Naomi Campbell testified at a war-crimes trial in The Hague. Last month Lindsay Lohan found herself in the middle of a story about the imminent stoning of an Iranian woman. So is it a good thing when celebrities wander into the middle of serious issues, or do they merely help twist news into triviality?

The stories these three have stumbled into couldn't be more grave. Haiti, devastated by an earthquake that struck outside the capital Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, has lost as many as 300,000 lives this year. It is the poorest nation in this hemisphere, with an annual per capita income of just $730. Campbell testified, however reluctantly, at the war-crimes trial of former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. He's accused of supplying weapons to rebels in Sierra Leone in exchange for diamonds, thereby enabling that country's gruesome civil war.

The British model admitted being given a pouch of rough stones at a party that she presumed were from Taylor. That testimony may prove he is lying when he says he never handled gemstones. Lohan, meanwhile, tweeted a NEWSWEEK story about Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old mother of two who faced imminent stoning in Iran on dubious adultery charges. The starlet, who was facing jail time for violating parole on a DUI charge, was criticized because many thought she was comparing her situation to Ashtiani's.

And that's just this summer. These are by no means the only A-listers to warp death and destruction into tabloid fodder. George Clooney, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, and others threw their wattage into highlighting the violence in Darfur in 2006.

Sean Penn is as ubiquitious in disaster zones as foil blankets. He sees it, he has said, as his duty as a human being to wield his star power to scythe through injustice and misery the world over. He's been almost everywhere, from post-Katrina New Orleans to Tehran and, yes, Haiti.

That unfortunate country has had more celebrity visits than Larry King. John Travolta caused a stir in the weeks after the quake struck when he allegedly was allowed to land a plane full of Scientologists in Port-au-Prince, ahead of more orthodox charities, to try and heal the wounded with special massages and vitamin pills. Many locals reportedly were less than pleased that yellow-T-shirt-wearing "volunteer ministers" were attempting to treat serious injuries with "touch therapy" and L. Ron Hubbard literature.

But Wyclef Jean has beaten them all. Born just outside Port-au-Prince, he left as a child and was raised and groomed into a full-fledged Fugee in Brooklyn. Jean, who has always called Haiti his homeland, visited the island after the earthquake, and organized events to raise a reported $9 million for earthquake relief through his charity, Yele Haiti. And then it emerged, via the  Smoking Gun Web site, that funds had allegedly been misspent on performance fees for Jean and on buying airtime on a TV station the star had a stake in. And then he announced that he would seek to take over from term-limited President René Preval by running in November's election. And then The Smoking Gun revealed that he owes $2 million in back taxes. And then questions were raised as to whether Jean, who has an American passport, even qualifies as a candidate. And finally (for today), Sean Penn called aspects of Jean's run for office obscene, completing some kind of celebrity intervention circle.

It is easy to mock celebrities with a conscience (South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone did just that in their satire Team America: World Police back in 2004), not to mention those like Campbell who don't appear to have one. But however they get involved in important news, it seems most are neither the knights in shining armor they hope they are, nor the vapid resource-and-media hogs their detractors paint them as.

Lohan may have compared herself to a woman convicted of adultery in a flawed trial who faced being buried in the ground and slowly pummeled to death with rocks. But she has almost a million Twitter followers, who encouraged their friends in turn to get behind Ashtiani's cause. The Iranian woman was granted a reprieve largely, it is believed, because of international pressure. Wyclef may be underqualified to run a struggling nation. But it seems unlikely we'd be talking about that island's woes, which sadly now count as old news, were it not for his getting into a suit and tie and filing papers for November's election.

But despite the best efforts of George Clooney, a recent spate of violence in Darfur has gone mostly unreported. Why? Because, it seems, we're bored with that conflict. Even the sheen of star power can't help anymore. If and when Wyclef, Naomi, and Lindsay go back to their day jobs, the same will probably happen to Haiti, African war crimes, and Iranian human-rights abuses.