Weinstein, Trump, and the nature of power

During a Twitter back-and-forth with CNN’s Chris Cillizza, singer John Legend made a point about the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal in the context of President Donald Trump’s own checkered past with women.

In that second tweet, Legend appears to suggest we ought to expect more from elected leaders; at face value that’s not particularly controversial. A completely acceptable and probably right thing to say.

Setting aside the particulars of Weinstein’s sins and Trumps unacceptable language for now, think about the nature of the Presidency. In most cases have eight years to promote and enact their philosophy before someone of the opposing party jumps in and undoes all the hard work. They toil in the world of politics – a world of little interest to most Americans.

Weinstein? He boasts a much longer shelf life. His film production career stretches back about four decades. His hands have touched a range of work as a producer or executive producer, from the boundary-pushing Pulp Fiction to the family-friendly Air Bud; he has been connected to some of the most influential independent/art house films but had plenty of commercial successes in between. He has been influential, and think how influential television and movies are in shaping culture.

Trump will be gone in either three or seven years, depending on how 2020 goes. Some will surely blame him for lowering American political discourse or making discussions crass, but only those who haven’t been watching for the past 20 years or so. Outside of launching a nuclear war (stay tuned?) what lasting legacy will Trump have in politics?

Obviously, Trump is a public figure and role model, so how he treats or talks about women naturally reflects something about our society. Weinstein has been on the cutting edge of Hollywood for four decades. John Legend had a point: We should aspire to elect leaders who represent the best of what we imagine our society can be. But people like Weinstein are the ones shaping our imaginations. As Andrew Breitbart is so often quoted as saying, “Politics is downstream from culture.”

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American League East teams explained as members of Genesis

Are you new to the American League East? You picked a great time to start paying attention: Over the past two seasons, each of the five teams has been in contention for the division lead.

But learning the historical context for each of these franchises within the division can be daunting. To make it easier, you can think of the AL East teams in terms that every American schoolchild knows: the members of the British rock band Genesis.

Yankees: Phil Collins (vocals, drums) – The Yankees have been consistently successful over the years, to the point where they inspire hatred. Some criticize them as overly corporate and formulaic. Many hate to admit it, but the entire division is most successful (and really most interesting) when the Yankees are performing at a high level. October nights are made for Yankee Stadium.

Red Sox: Peter Gabriel (vocals, flute, fox-with-a-dress costume) – The Sox used to be the face of the division in the decades before selling off Babe Ruth. Since then, they have their moments of greatness. They are content (and quite successful) doing their own thing.

Orioles: Tony Banks (keyboards, backing vocals)Since the Earl Weaver days, the Orioles’ success has usually been built on strong fundamentals. Other teams usually spring to mind when you think of the AL East, but when Baltimore is strong, the division is deep and competitive. Even if they aren’t in the thick of the pennant race, the O’s usually have enough talent to have a hand in the division race.

Rays: Mike Rutherford (guitars) – Tamba Bay gets overlooked, but (like the Orioles) they tend to have a hand in the division outcome, even when they aren’t at the top of the standings. They could win the division someday, all they need is a miracle.

Blue Jays: Steve Hackett – They were out of it for so long you almost forgot they were even in the division. But they occasionally pop back up and it’s just like old times.

Tigers: Anthony Phillips (original guitarist) – Hey, remember when they were in this division? Right at the beginning, after the re-alignment in 1995 but before the 1998 expansion. They were even in first place for a bit that year. They’ve had a pretty nice run since leaving the division, probably better than they would have fared if they had stayed.

Mets and Nationals: Daryl Stuermer (concert guitars) and Chester Thompson (concert drums)  – The Mets and Nats aren’t in the division, but thanks to annual interleague geographic rivalries you still see them every year.

 

 

Prime-al behavior

Amazon held its now-annual Prime day this week. Three years in, it’s safe to assume the tradition isn’t going anywhere soon; Sales were through the roof, and other retailers even started to piggyback their own deals off Amazon’s hype machine.

Other big shopping days are big shopping days because of consumer behavior. Black Friday became Black Friday because it was a weekday most people had off without any holiday obligations. Car dealerships and mattress stores, who both sell things you want to see and test before you buy, know you have some extra time over a three-day weekend, so they run promotions during Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, and Labor Day.

Prime Day is different. Amazon created a big shopping day at a time when people specifically do not typically shop. Now that news outlets pay attention and other retailers circle the day on their own planning calendars, you could say Amazon has created a holiday out of thin air.

So is Amazon controlling our brains?

Maybe a little bit, but not any more than any other retailer.

A store (that isn’t going out of business or trying to liquidate inventory) generally has two reasons to put out a “Sale!” sign: 1) Everyone is shopping and they want to entice people in; or 2) No one is shopping and they want to entice people in. Amazon clearly opted for the latter – and as the world’s foremost digital retailer has a near-limitless variety of things to put on sale

Amazon clearly opted for the latter – and as the world’s foremost digital retailer has a near-limitless variety of things to put on sale to lure people in off the metaphorical street – a near limitless number of people they can reach, to boot.

A more direct comparison might be so-called “Hallmark Holidays.” Some are lame even if well-meaning. (Grandparents’ Day never really took off, did it?) But look at how Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day affect consumer behavior and cultural trends in February, May, and June, respectively. Mother’s Day offers a particularly good example – after a Presidential proclamation made it “official” in 1914,

Mother’s Day offers a particularly good example of how a made-up holiday can take off. Within a decade after a Presidential proclamation made it “official” in 1914, the mother of Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis, bemoaned the “profiteering” and opportunism around the day.

It’s easy to say the public is duped into spending money on these days. But the genius behind Hallmark holidays and Prime Day isn’t in creating demand, but focusing consumer behavior. Most people want to express their appreciation for Mom, but Mother’s Day gives them a specific day to do it. Amazon knows that people are usually motivated to buy with good deals, they just picked a day.

Amazon knows that people become motivated to buy stuff when they find good deals. They just picked a day. Now everyone is along for the ride.

 

 

 

 

The benefit of fanboys and fangirls

Last week I posted something on Medium about how Walt Disney World blows other theme parks away – not by being the best theme park, but by telling the best stories. Toward the end, I made a passing reference to Disney re-invigorating the Star Wars franchise.

Maybe that comes off like a dig at George Lucas (not like he would care). It’s actually pretty common for a good media franchise or a political movement to enjoy success beyond its originator.

This year marks the Star Wars franchise’s 40th anniversary. It’s easy to pretend like that has been four decades of uninterrupted cultural significance. That isn’t the case. Sure, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Star Wars built an empire (ironic) of movies and merchandise. By the late 1980’s, though, the franchise flagged; Star Wars looked to have run its course. Something else would surely dominate the 1990s, the 2000s, the 2010s.

Then came Timothy Zahn’s book, Heir to the Empire – the first of three books which would form the closest thing to a sequel trilogy until, well,  2015 kicked off a sequel trilogy. Zahn invented characters, planets, and concepts that felt at once new and wholly consistent with the original movies.

People forget just how fringe Star Wars was circa 1990. Zahn’s novels set the foundation for a library of books, comics, video games, and other media that made Star Wars a marketable commodity again.

All of this was done with the guidance of creator George Lucas – but, notably, without his direct control. That was before the dark times. Before the prequels.

Years after that unsatisfying, CGI-heavy 1999-2005 prequel trilogy, Lucas again turned over the keys – this time to Disney. And it all happened again. The Force Awakens and Rogue One were box office hits. The Last Jedi will be released this coming December, but not before fans examine each trailer release the way Moon landing conspiracy theorists watch video of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bouncing around in that southern California sound stage.

The Star Wars franchise is invigorated again and, just as in the 1990s, someone else is leading the charge.

It isn’t surprising that Star Wars fans connect better with the works of fellow fans.  Translating this to another industry: What images spring to mind when you think of Barack Obama’s historic 2008 campaign? Maybe Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” graphic or the “Yes We Can” video. Neither was produced by the campaign itself, though the campaign was happy (and smart) to reap the benefits of their influence.

Why does this happen?  Here’s a theory: Fans have enough detachment to see what makes their obsession interesting. George Lucas might have built an excellent story explaining Darth Vader’s motivations for his descent into evil; he forgot how much the likable characters, practical special effects, and witty dialogue had to do with drawing viewers in. Obama’s 2008 campaign was known for it’s “hope and change” rhetoric. The campaign spoke about “change,” but it was the supporters who started talking about “hope.”

 

 

United stock rebounded – just like BP’s did

At the close of trading today, United’s stock traded at $79.67 per share. That’s the same United Airlines whose stock dropped after social media buzzed about a passenger getting dragged off a plane. Remember that story?

Remember that story? Remember the tweets and Facebook posts about how upsetting it was that a passenger could be bumped from a flight, then roughed up to boot? Remember the days of self-inflicted bad PR? United became a cautionary tale for a few days. Yet, if you bought 1,000 shares of United on April 18 and sold them today, you’d be almost $12,000 richer.

British Petroleum had a much more dire disaster on their hands when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew in April 2010. The day of the disaster, April 20, BP traded at $60.48 per share. By June 25, 2010, share prices had plummeted to $27.02. Yikes. Yet if you bought 1,000 shares at that nadir then sold the day before Thanksgiving at $41.47, you’d have an extra $14,000 in your pocket for Black Friday (less whatever you paid to get a really nice beat-down rod to help with the crowd at Wal-Mart). While BP has never hit the pre-spill peaks, they stock has stayed relatively solid since.

For these companies, you have to wonder how much internal panic there was when each respective problem hit. In each case, a few news cycles getting raked over the coals meant short term stock drops. It’s hard to be patient and ride out the storm in those cases. Yet in each case, the stock rebounded. People kept pumping gas at BP stations. When United’s flights came up as the cheapest alternatives for a given route, people still bought tickets.

Social media vitriol might seem like it burns with white hot fire. But fires eventually burn out. That’s worth keeping in mind the next time some outrage du jour clogs up news feeds.

 

 

 

Getting out of the bubble

NBC’s 90th anniversary show last weekend featured a heavy dose of former and current stars sharing memories of how certain shows were so “important” or “ground-breaking.”

“Come on,” I found myself thinking at various times. “This is television. This is passive entertainment we watch because it’s easier than reading and we don’t feel like putting on pants and going out.”

On Medium, I wrote about NBC’s inflated perspective – and how such a mentality might bleed over into the news division. But it isn’t hard to see how this would happen – and it doesn’t come from a place of arrogance. Anyone who works in a field, or in a given place, runs the risk of an altered perspective. People who work at NBC for years, and develop an understanding of its history, could be excused for over-inflating its importance (especially on a program designed to showcase the network’s programming). Similarly, it’s understandable why someone in the news division might conflate any attack on a media outlet as a full-on assault on the First Amendment.

Cultural bubbles exist. And while they may not pop easily, you can at least see outside of them, if you’re looking. For reporters, that’s going to become even more important in the coming years.

That’s not to say that television shows have not had meaningful cultural impact, nor that criticisms of the press could devolve into the erosion of press freedoms. It just means that the occasional dose of bubble-popping perspective is healthy and necessary.

The First Black President

Here’s a real “check your privilege” moment. Did you know that, in 1971, Bill White became the first black play-by-play announcer in sports when he took to the mic for the New York Yankees? It took until 1971 for that to happen.

It makes sense when you think about it: Teams tend to hire former athletes as their sportscasters, and until 1947 there weren’t any black baseball players. So seeing a black sportscaster 24 years later seems right – except, of course, that neither of those lines should never have existed in the first place.

Still, I had no idea that White was so significant until I read this post on The Undefeated. (I just knew him as Phil Rizzuto’s former broadcast partner.) The piece uses White’s legacy to point out how the Barack Obama Presidency has changed the perception about further color barriers: Obama has made those barriers temporary. If a black person can be President, we assume will will be the “first black [INSERT ANYTHING HERE]” at some point. Time, more than prejudice, is the enemy now.

For whatever you think about now-ex-President Barack Obama (I have some opinions), that legacy alone means something. As a white guy, I can’t even fully appreciate it myself; just as I took for granted growing up hearing Joe Morgan and Ken Singleton call baseball games. When I was young, my parents told me that if I tried hard enough, I could do or be whatever I wanted. It’s hard to imagine a parent having to tell their child the opposite – that no matter how good you are, some doors will be closed. Whether it was always true or not, that was a legitimate feeling in communities of color.

Among the debates surrounding the legacy of our 44th President, this accomplishment is worth celebrating. It’s sad that there was once a color barrier on the baseball field, or in the broadcast booth, or any number of other places. Now, hopefully, we can know there will never be a time like that again.