The only positive thing I would say is that it raised $50 million for the poor and starving that wouldn't have been raised otherwise. We gave, and it won't mean we don't continue giving what we can to other charities, it was a new give.
American Idol is pure sugary schlock, which this year is in big trouble because it has no decent singers. I think the LEAST they can do is use their popularity to raise awareness amongst a whole generation of teens and preteens that have no idea what the word "Ethiopia" stirs in the minds of their parents. And, it's better than watching another Sally Struthers commercial....
I've struggled to crystallize my thoughts about why the Idol Gives Back effort left me feeling so hollow. I feel that they are creating fast-food philanthropy. When you are hungry, sometimes a Big Mac hits the spot, but what they were doing with Idol Gives Back feels to me like an attempt to create a diet based on vitamin-fortified french fries.
I was bothered by the shameless commercial promotion, the sterotypical emotional appeals, the awkward and inappropriate intermingling of pop culture, celebrity extravaganza, and momentous suffering.
I also believe that philanthropy should involve knowledge and due diligence. While I am sure that there are a number of worthy charitable organizations involved, how do I know that the $50 million they raised will be put to good use? The fact that Coca-Cola, Fox News, and snack food manufactuers are endorsing the effort does not inspire my confidence. In my opinion many of these corporations are doing tremendous disservices to society in the course of their normal business. If a junk food manufacturer funds nutrition programs, is that really a net positive? If the owners of Fox News create a few hours of charitable and potentially inspiring programming, must I cheer?
Participating in fast-food philanthropy makes us feel better for a moment, but what if we feel like we've done our part and yet neglect the true core issues? I am reminded of the post 9-11 celebrity telethon. That emerged from a heartfelt and genuine outpouring of national grief and good will, but how many of us know how the money was spent? Was our energy mobilized wisely? While we were crying and listening to 9/11 benefit CDs, our government was ramping up for an ill-conceived war, suspending civil liberties, and gutting the legal foundations of our country (cf, habeas corpus). We can't just "phone in" our civic obligations. It takes a lot more work to look beyond our narrow self-interest and become educated about what is going on.
In the end, I actually hope that I am wrong to be so skeptical about this event. Nothing would please me more than to learn that suffering was alleviated in a sustainable way, that a child had her eyes opened to activism by this effort, or that a great leader emerges from a community that was served by the charitable effort. But until that happens, I am left with the cynical feeling that the girl whose favorite book was Captain Underpants seems like the perfect metaphor for the whole endeavor. It is progress that she can read at all when previous generations were illiterate, but if we are content with merely that accomplishment, we are ultimately letting her down.