photo by jon nicholson

feature story - Newsweek Profiles Board Member '21st Century Statesman' George Clooney, Spotlights Role of Satellites

february 23rd, 2011

A “21st century statesman” is what Newsweek is calling board member George Clooney for his long-standing efforts to push for high political engagement in Sudan—the most recent of which was detailed in the magazine’s cover story this week.

The piece chronicles Clooney and fellow board member John Prendergast’s latest trip to South Sudan during the momentous vote for secession—from the capital of Juba, to the volatile border region of Abyei, to Mejak Manyore, a returnee camp—all the while asking the question: Does having a celebrity advocate make a difference?

Here’s an excerpt in which writer John Avlon offers one answer:

South Sudan’s January referendum for independence was quickly followed by uprisings that toppled North African and Arab dictatorships, with power moving away from centralized political bureaucracies and toward broader popular engagement. In this new environment—fueled by social networking—fame is a potent commodity that can have more influence on public debate than many elected officials and even some nation-states. “It’s harder for authoritarian regimes to survive, because we can circumvent old structures with cell phones and the Internet,” says Clooney. “Celebrity can help focus news media where they have abdicated their responsibility. We can’t make policy, but we can ‘encourage’ politicians more than ever before.” Which was why, a few weeks ago, Clooney was being driven in a white pickup down a red dirt road under the watchful eyes of teenage soldiers armed with AK-47s. L.A. was half a world away, but the paparazzi were not far from his mind. “If they’re going to follow me anyway,” he was saying, “I want them to follow me here.”

Newsweek also spotlights the role that the commercial satelites of DigitalGlobe and GeoEye play in watching over Darfur, the oil-producing region of Abyei, and other hotspots along the volatile North-South border of Sudan:

Celebrity statesmen function like freelance diplomats, adopting issue experts and studying policy. More pragmatic than stars turned social activists in the past, they use the levers of power to solve problems. Clooney has Sudanese rebel leaders on speed dial. He’s had AK-47s shoved in his chest. And when he’s on movie sets, he gets daily Sudan briefings via email.

Now he’s gone one step further—George Clooney has a satellite. Privately funded and publicly accessible (SatSentinel.org), this eye in the sky monitors military movements on the north-south border—the powder keg in a region the U.S. director of national intelligence described a year ago as the place on earth where “a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur.”

There remain many detractors and admirers of Clooney’s efforts on Sudan, but Avlon makes the strong argument that a celebrity voice will significantly drive media attention. “Between October and January, the referendum was mentioned in 96 stories across the networks and cable news—with Clooney used as a hook one third of the time,” Avlon writes. How policy-makers respond to that media attention, is of course, as Clooney said himself, another matter.

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