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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Laugh about ESPN’s Robert Lee decision, but skip the outrage

Did you hear that ESPN has reassigned this weekend’s college football games because an announcer named Robert Lee was going to broadcast the University of Virginia game from Charlottesville, Va.?

Of course you have. It’s been reported everywhere. And ESPN has gotten plenty of internet grief for the decision today, ranging from mockery to outrage.

This is actually a pretty good decision by ESPN. Think about it: Would you want to walk through that town with the name Robert Lee right now? Nothing good can come of it.

And ESPN knows exactly what they would see on Saturday afternoon once Lee introduced himself on camera: Screenshots of the game announcers, their names highlighted on the chyron underneath, with snarky tweets and Instagram posts shared far and wide. Old pictures of General Robert E. Lee would be photoshopped into the announcers’ booth.

There would be another element, too: Instead of taking criticism for being overly cautious, they would catch hell for being insensitive.

Instead, ESPN moved him to another game. They apparently tried to do so quietly, though the decision was leaked – and the internet’s enthusiastic dog pile shows that yes, people will pay attention to announcing assignments. The current situation is the worst case scenario for the option ESPN chose. The alternative worst case scenario – Lee and the network being raked over the coals for latent racism and insensitivity – seems worse.

Given how horribly ESPN has whiffed on America’s move to streaming video so far, this represents a savvy understanding of modern media. (Way to make it to 2011, ESPN.)

But the outrage is unwarranted. ESPN probably didn’t hurt Lee in making this decision (and the current story out of Bristol is that the decision was mutual, anyway). It’s sort of funny, worth a little needling, maybe a late night monologue joke or two, and that’s it. ESPN shows its share of bias in its programming and reporting, but this is not an example.

Robert Lee becomes the big winner in this whole situation though: This weekend he goes to Pittsburgh (a great city with a real college football tradition) instead of being forced to watch three hours of a slap fight between Virginia and William and Mary over who gets to claim Thomas Jefferson for the next year. (Spoiler: No one cares.)

Come to think of it, this may be the first time someone named Robert Lee went to Pennsylvania and came out ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

 

 

Hawk Harrelson: The Donald Trump of Sportscasting (in a good way)

On LinkedIn, I just put up a post about retiring White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson, and what those in political communications can learn from him.

When I was 17, my birthday gift was the Major League Baseball package on Extra Innings. This was before the late-1990s Yankees dynasty and the run of World Series contenders that stretched into the early 2010s. It was also before YouTube, and I had never lived in an area where the local cable company carried WGN out of Chicago.

So when the Yankees played the White Sox that year and I first heard Harrelson calling a game, I wanted to throw things at the TV.

He was unprofessional. He openly rooted for the White Sox. He pathetically used terms like “us” and “we” as if he were part of the team and not just their announcer. It was like they let a fan into the booth.

More than two decades later, I appreciate Harrelson a little more. He’s part of a generation of sportscasters who got into the game exactly as the fans do. After all, it’s only a game; maybe a fan in the booth isn’t such a bad thing. (And yes, maybe it helped that shortly after my introduction to Harrelson, the powerhouse White Sox of the early 1990s became less dangerous while the Yankees’ run of excellence started.)

He wasn’t that much different than the likes of Phil Rizzuto, Harry Caray, and the Seattle Mariners’ Dave Niehaus, all of whom managed to echo the passion of the fans without taking the game (or themselves) too seriously.

Today, the sports media industry seems to reward bland, interchangeable announcers, When he hangs it up after 2018, Hawk Harrelson will be missed.

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.

 

 

 

TV sportscasting is getting it wrong

Tony Romo is now the top color commentator for CBS football games, and Phil Simms is out.

The New York Daily News reminds us that Romo is getting this promotion despite no experience in sportscasting.

(Sidebar: It’s funny, isn’t it, that Romo had to toil as a little-known backup quarterback for years before taking on a job that generally goes to a top, high-profile draftee, but he walked right into a job that normally goes to someone who toils for a couple of years at a lower level?)

Romo might be good. He might suck. But he would have to suck awfully bad to get people to turn off the channel, wouldn’t he? People will tune into CBS to see football and tolerate the announcers. No one is turning the dial to figure skating on Sunday afternoon. So Romo’s “qualifications” and “abilities” are actually irrelevant. Unless he pulls a Jimmy the Greek, he’ll be fine.

Speaking of sportscasting, this week the Dodgers opened their season and will play the year sans Vin Scully for the first time since the 1940s. Scully’s style of calling television games was different, as anyone who watched Dodgers broadcasts will surely recall. Sitting alone on the microphone, Scully would talk and tell stories – like a talk radio host without the ferocious outrage – while incidentally mentioning the game action. It worked especially well on television.

To watch Scully succeed this way begs the question: Why do TV announcers spend so much time describing the action that viewers can see? Think about it next time you watch a game. Then, for extra fun, count how many times they read graphics to you. Michael Kay of the YES Network is particularly guilty of this sin (though I have probably watched so many of his games that my bias may be showing).

It makes sense why they do this – many sportscasters get their start in radio, where there is no visual support. But one would think that some media outlet would try something different. After all, television news programs stopped presenting the same way as radio news. We have had televised sports for something like seven decades, why do we still adhere to radio-era traditions? This is especially true for football, America’s made-for-television sport.

There might be a new model emerging from networks that use “whip around” coverage. The MLB Network does this particularly well with MLB Tonight, where a host and two in-studio analysts watch each night’s action and comment over teams’ local broadcast feeds. Their easy, joke-filled banter makes it fun to watch, mirroring conversations you might have watching games with a bunch of friends. And it’s different from most baseball broadcasts, where an announcer narrates events as you watch them.

This could work for a single team, as well. Wouldn’t that be more fun to watch than some former athlete rhythmically rattling off recaps of the obvious during breaks in the action as most color commentators do? Think of the familiarity and rapport fans could develop with the on-screen personalities.

Television sports is not a high-risk place to experiment – generally, ratings are driven by the games more than the broadcast. CBS gets that, which is why they’re willing to stick Tony Romo in a broadcasting booth with only a few postgame interviews under his belt. It’s time to try something even bolder. The radio era is over.

It’s time to try something even bolder. Sportscasting should evolve past where it was during Vin Scully’s rookie year.

Dumb politics

Last week the Boston Globe quoted me in their story about young conservative activists (despite the fact that it has been more than a decade since I organized campuses for the Leadership Institute). Reporter Dugan Arnett picked just about the perfect quote to sum up our discussion:

“There are always people who are going to say, ‘This is my ticket; I’m going to make sure my campus burns down, I’m going to be on Fox News a bunch, and that’s going to be my path to the spotlight,’ ” says Jim Eltringham, formerly of the Leadership Institute and currently a Republican campaign consultant. “The problem is: That’s a spotlight that burns out quick.”

Our discussion centered on how some campus activists welcomed controversy for controversy’s sake, provoking outrage on purpose to gain attention with little substance behind the actions. It seems like a lesson some in Washington need to learn, too: In a piece on Medium, I argue that there’s a direct link between this type of superficiality and last week’s Republican failure on health care .