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.”

ESPN’s bad week

In a post at Medium, I reacted to Jayson Stark’s long piece assuming that America needed baseball players to speak out on politics. The short version: We disagree. More than that, his assumption – that political rifts have created wounds in need of healing – show disconnection from the broader public who, honestly, just doesn’t care about politics.

Then came this week’s news: ESPN expects to lay off a good on-air talent. The two stories have a common thread.

It would be tempting for anyone on the center right to point to ESPN’s socially progressive programming choices and blame that for alienating its core viewership, but the reasons are a bit more nuanced. ESPN’s tunnel vision and lack of self-awareness has prevented it from adapting to a new media environment. Once the sole source of 24 hour sports on TV, ESPN’s networks now compete with national sports channels run by Fox and NBC, regional sports networks, and – notably – networks run by sports leagues themselves. On top of that, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and the National Basketball Association all offer direct-to-consumer online packages.

That ESPN missed these changes suggests they overestimated their value in consumers’ minds. Like Jayson Stark, they’ve misread the public vibe.

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.

Disney princess study shows people have too much time on their hands

Linguistic researchers have logged hours upon hours of dialogue from Disney movies, and found that in the most recent ones, male characters speak three times as often than female characters:

And yet, in one respect, “The Little Mermaid” represented a backward step in the princess genre… The plot of “The Little Mermaid,” of course, involves Ariel literally losing her voice — but in the five Disney princess movies that followed, the women speak even less. On average in those films, men have three times as many lines as women.

The data come from linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer, who have been working on a project to analyze all the dialogue from the Disney princess franchise. Because so many young girls watch these movies — often on constant repeat — it’s worth examining what the films are teaching about gender roles.

Dangerous right? Let your dughters watch Disney movies at their peril. The researchers divide the Disney princesses into two “eras”; Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty are classics, and the modern era is from The Little Mermaid on. In the classic era, female characters speak as much or more than males; outside of Tangled and Brave, no Disney princess movie from the past half-century has more than about 40% of its dialogue spoken by women.

At Acculturated, Carrie Lukas notes that many of the loquacious gents in these movies are side characters (“the modern-day Jiminy Crickets such as Sebastian inThe Little Mermaid or Olaf in Frozen”) who aren’t even human, and whose gender may not be super clear in the traditional sense.

But there’s something else afoot. Ask yourself, Who are the bad guys in these movies?

Snow White had her Evil Queen. Cinderella had her wicked stepmother and two moronic stepsisters. Aurora, which is apparently Sleeping Beauty’s given name, had Maleficent. Sure, Ariel had Ursula, but Ariel also didn’t have a voice for much of the movie. Since then, most of Disney’s big bads have been boys. After Ursula, the next major bad gal was Rapunzel’s stepmother in Tangled. And surprise: That would be the next movie where female dialogue eclipsed males. (The “bad guy” in Brave was a bear, I think, so it’s a different case.)

(Sidebar: though Jafar serves to underscore this theory, I’m throwing Aladdin out as a “princess movie.” Though Jasmine is marketed heavily as part of the pantheon of “Disney Princesses,” Aladdin is not a princess movie. You can tell because it is named after the male protagonist. This is a hint. You might as well kvetch about Nala not getting enough lines as the “princess” in The Lion King. Also, how much of the 90% of the male dialogue in Aladdin came from Robin Williams?)

Many of the non-protagonist male characters that hog the script serve as either the evil-doers or as buffoonish comic relief. Neither is a particularly favorable image. Would Frozen have been a better movie for women if the slow-witted Snowman had been voiced by Melissa McCarthy? (By the way that could have been hilarious.) That is the answer to the “problems” these researchers have found, and it isn’t clear that it improves the messages these movies send to young girls.

What is clear is that someone got paid to watch an awful lot of Disney movies.

Distrust and Trump

It’s funny to watch talking heads on television news ponder why Donald Trump enjoys apparent popular support, even while making controversial comments that draw criticism from across the political spectrum.

Victor Davis Hanson has as good an analysis as anyone:

The first reaction of Attorney General Loretta Lynch after the recent San Bernardino terrorist attack was to warn the country about Islamophobia. Her implicit message to the families of the dead was not that the government missed a terrorist cadre or let Islamic State sympathizers carry out a massacre. Instead, she worried more about Americans being angry at the inability of the tight-knit Muslim community to ferret out the extremists in its midst…

The government reports that a record 94.4 million Americans are not in the labor force. That is almost a third of the country. How can the same government declare that the official unemployment rate is only 5 percent?

Aside from a government so obviously unmoored from reality, most people watch a 24-hour cable news media where facts are equally alien. Consider that in the 16 hours after the San Bernardino shooting, early Twitter-fueled reports the attack on misguided anti-Planned Parenthood activists, white supremecists, and a workplace dispute, before the facts actually came out. The need for speed has surpassed the need for accuracy.

There’s also a willful tone-deafness to opposing views which creates distrust. Megan McArdle got it right in a column about the public discussion about Syrian refugees that sprang up right after the Paris attacks. McArdle, who supports taking in more refugees, had plenty of criticism for the holier-than-thou voices from her own side of the argument:

Perfectly reasonable people are worried that a small number of terrorists could pretend to be refugees in order to get into the U.S. for an attack. One response to these reasonable people has been: “How dare you say people fleeing terrorism are terrorists!” This is deeply silly. Obama administration officials have admitted that they can’t be sure of screening terrorists out from asylum seekers.

As a result, media and politicians wringing their hands over Trump lack any moral authority to do so. It’s no wonder negative news stories and condemnations from his oppoenents don’t affect this guy’s polling numbers.

(Sidebar: There’s also the whole question about whether the poll numbers translate into a viable campaign. Some media outles have started asking those questions now. Why now? Why wasn’t that considered relevant four months ago?)

 

Crummy Little Podcast Episode 4: FUBU on a Klansman?

George Chidi, who is responsible for this hilarious video of a Klansman wearing FUBU sneakers, is this week’s guest on the Crummy Little Podcast.

George got some attention for that video, as you might expect, but what’s been missed was his coverage of the confederate flag rally from which that video came. He also spent a week covering a shady soccer stadium deal in DeKalb County, outside of Atlanta. It’s a long podcast, but it was a great conversation about news reporting, media, where it’s at and where it’s going. It probably could have been two shows, but I liked the flow of it.

This was an especially fun episode for me because George and I go back a ways. Long before I had a crummy little podcast, I had a crummy little radio show back at UMass on campus station WMUA. George was the news director at that station for a time, and even guest-hosted my show at least once (and did a better job than me, if I remember right). Needless to say, he’s done our alma mater proud since.