Ebene Magazine – Politicians’ new endgame: becoming content creators

Ebene Magazine - Politicians' new endgame: becoming content creators

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In this morning’s announcement that he will be hosting a podcast with Bruce Springsteen, Barack Obama plans to explore the couple’s “parallel journeys” in order to link their identities to America’s greater history. The trailer for Renegades: Born in the USA shows a note of tempered upswing and captures the hopeful mood of Obama from the Trump era. The former president still believes in America as a nation uniquely situated to further perfect its union, but he knows what has happened. He positions the show as a potentially useful project: two deeply admired Americans criticize it for its « fundamental belief in the American ideal – not as an act of nostalgia but as a compass for the hard work that lies ahead. » Together, Barack and the boss could help raise the American ideal off the ground. The star power, the charm, the experience and the good intentions of all those involved are so great that it seems as if “Born in the USA” is breaking in, as if there could be something to it – but there is only the further interdependence of politics and content creation that is as deeply involved as kissing cousins.

Renegades is produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s company, Higher Ground Productions, which is also responsible for Michelle’s Spotify podcast and a number of well-respected documentaries: Crip Camp who have favourited Oscar-winning American Factory, and Becoming, a polished look at … Michelle Obama. The company recently announced a number of upcoming Netflix scripted and non-scripted projects that sound as inspiring, healthy, representative, and changeable as you’d expect the Obamas to do. One of her series, based on a book for young adults, is about a Native American teenager investigating a crime on her reservation. Another is an animated series based on the children’s book Ada Twist, Scientist, about a little black scientist. Another is an adaptation of the literary / science fiction / immigration novel Exit West.

These projects specifically seek to change the type of television that is made, who we see on television and in what contexts, and – who knows! – some of them might even turn out to be good. On the surface, they’re a well-intentioned win-win for Netflix, Spotify, and the Obamas. They polish the profiles of the platforms and offer the couple a lucrative, creative, entertaining and gentle way to reach a lot of people about important topics about them. In March, Netflix Waffles will be introducing & Mochi, a children’s show with two felt dolls and Michelle Obama, about the virtues of healthy eating. Their signature output dates back to their time in the White House.

The Obamas produce far more content than any other former politician, but they’re not the only ones. Hillary and Chelsea Clinton started their own production company, Hidden Light Productions, which recently sold a show called Gutsy Women to Apple TV and produced a series about an all-female Kurdish militia that evolves from a war they co-authored Prestige- TV. Unlike more common book deals and podcasts lately – the list is growing every day: Mike Pence recently announced one, joining Barack, Michelle, Hillary, Pete Buttigieg, and Cory Booker among others – are luxurious TV content arrangements one of the happier prey that can fall to former, future, and semi-active politicians. While it is a rare privilege, practicing it is not without consequence. It suggests that one of the juiciest spoils of a life in public service is the chance to make television, and that television and content in general are one of the better uses of your sizable social and political capital – all at once, in the so much public service already seems dangerously geared towards playing on television.

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You can’t get it here just about whether Renegade or Exit, West are good to themselves or not – when they change people’s minds, when they give us something to hear over dinner, or even in the case of Renegade, when they are cheesy like an extra large one with butter. It’s also about what happens if we sew television and politics even further together. Many politicians already see politics primarily as a type of performance, every moment and every politics as an opportunity to play to the Fox News crowd, their social media followers, the grassroots. The idea that political work doesn’t pass laws or actually help constituents, but rather becomes a voice, personality, brand, is a big part of our dysfunctional political culture and how someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene can say they just get their job through makes it a major protagonist of cable news.

Content can be good, and in some cases good, but content is not « good » itself. Any reading that privileges individual shows, podcasts, production boards (or subscription-based podcast networks) over society-wide repercussions is dull, perversely selective and cares about, for example, orange is the new black and not the man who recently left the White House . After all, Trump had his own kind of production contract, a show, The Apprentice, which made both his finances and his reputation CPR. It prepared him to take over the White House, even though he really wanted his own cable news network. When he won, his main political goal was to make himself a show.

That Michelle and Barack Obama are more responsible stewards of all things, including television, than Trump goes without saying, but it is also secondary. They are honorable people in a country that does not belong to the honor system. NBC has just premiered Young Rock, a likable sitcom based on Dwayne Johnson’s life and told from the perspective of 2032, when The Rock appears to be president – something Johnson has actually been pondered for a long time. That NBC would be willing to do this again for even a half hit leaves you wondering if they’ll keep trying to elect a president until they get it right.

It’s easy to distinguish between the plush, respectable production deals that promote good, liberal causes that only figures like the Obamas can get – funded by elite streaming services co-signed by other celebrities – and the would-be right-wing equivalent of which it are mostly invitations to yak conspiracy theories on popular and dangerous cable news channels and community guideline-free social media platforms. However, this is a distinction without sufficient distinction. The content is not the same, but in either case, Americans live in a world where one of the most convenient rewards for politics is getting involved in content creation, regardless of its form. That we have already followed this path to a terrible result does not seem to prevent us from strolling on. If the journey is less terrible because Barack and the boss are shotgun, it would be even better if we didn’t go that route at all.

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