Everybody Likes a Shipwreck

1 April 2013

IMG_20130302_191647“Terrible Disaster” is the name of a game my favorite 4-year-olds play. With couch cushions, throw pillows, the dog’s bed and anything else that’s soft and safe, Claire and Abby build a fairytale castle or pirate ship on the living-room carpet.

My part is to destroy it in a shipwreck or hurricane, stranding the giggling girls in an uproarious heap on the carpet, all the while intoning seriously, “It’s a terrible disaster!” It’s all make-believe, of course.  In telling the story, I’m in control, scaring the girls even as I’m assuring them that all’s well. They might call me the Master of Disaster.

The original “master of disaster” is political consultant Chris Lehane. That’s been his epithet sinceNewsweek stuck it on him in 1995. Lehane had captained the PR response that successfully weathered the scandals of the Clinton White House. He tells those stories and many more in his new book, Masters of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control (Palgrave Macmillan), co-written with Mark Fabiani and Bill Guttentag, in which he also enlightens us about the techniques that inspired The New York Timesto dub him the “Master of the Political Dark Arts.”

It’s not really black magic, though, just an appeal to some facts of life. Everybody loves a story, and every story needs a crisis. As Claire and Abby—and all the rubberneckers on the Jersey Turnpike—know, human curiosity about catastrophe runs deep. Everybody likes a shipwreck, although we would rather see than suffer one. Masters of Disaster is a pilot book for navigating the almost inevitable public relations kerfuffle in your future.

Ten Commandments almost seem too many. The Golden Rule of PR is that you have to tell your own story. If you don’t, somebody else will. In romance, it will be your rival; in politics, your opponent; in business, your competition. A story needs a beginning, a “turning point” and an end. Every turning point is a crisis and inspires a story. PR is storytelling, and storytelling is how public relations professionals like Lehane craft “damage control.” He helps folks whose livelihoods depend on being chattered about and paid attention—politicians, actors, sports stars—when the public gaze gets too intense. “I can do this myself,” might be your skeptical reading of Masters of Disaster, after being entertained by Lehane’s witty re-retelling of famous PR disasters. But most of us, like Claire and Abby, require a little help with our tales and welcome the calm presence of an avuncular storyteller.

On the evidence of this book, Lehane (an Amherst trustee) is the guy you want to be seated beside at dinner: a charming raconteur of ruined reputations. Sometimes the fun of the tale is that Lehane was there, as in Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater, but many a PR disaster he recounts—in politics, business or sports—is a familiar tale told well: Tiger Woods, Herman Cain, Tylenol.

Trained as a lawyer (Harvard 1994), Lehane and his coauthor Fabiani run a strategic communications firm that counsels businesses, actors, politicians and pro athletes: characters whose public images often are formed where law, money, politics and communications meet. His firm has represented clients as varied as Goldman Sachs, Lance Armstrong, the National Hockey League and Hollywood studios.

But my favorite among his stories recounts how he and his wife rescued the reputation of their pet Lola after an altercation with an overzealous canine companion at the dog park. It’s instructive to see how Lehane applies his commandments for damage control in such a homey setting, far from Washington or Hollywood. It would make a great movie.

As in the classic movies, Lehane mines nuggets of dialog to adorn his commandments. You know the lines.Sunset Boulevard: Be ready for your close-up (that is, get your facts straight). Cool Hand Luke: Do not fail to communicate. Casablanca: You may feign surprise, but never let yourself be shocked. The latter reinforces a subtler message: the story you tell has to be believable. What Lehane learned at the movies is to provide a plot, characters or a setting that the public is already familiar with.

Lehane himself is now starting a movie career of sorts. He and co-author Guttentag have written a film,Knife Fight, a satire loosely based on Lehane’s work in political imagineering. Lehane’s story comes around and makes sense somehow: He convinces politicians to think like directors, to see the campaign like a movie and create a narrative. Then Lehane’s story becomes the nar­rative. Who plays Lehane? Rob Lowe, of course, whose career once went like this: Brat Pack, sex tape, rehab.

Onscreen and off, professional actors understand this need to invent and reinvent our stories. Joan Crawford, whose mercurial career could serve as an object lesson in Masters of Disaster, speaks the truth in Otto Preminger’s 1947 melodrama, Daisy Kenyon: “There’s nothing like a crisis to show what’s really inside people.”

(Published in Amherst Magazine, Winter 2013)


Whence the Drones?

30 May 2012

Another geographic argument that starts by asking an interesting question and then doesn’t answer it. Whence come the unmanned planes that the US uses to bomb Pakistan and Afghanistan? That’s what I thought I might learn in in Where the Drones Are, Foreign Policy, May 30, 2012, but instead, I get Google images of airbases that look like airbases.

A few minutes with Google returned this map, on which you can read the arc of US bases across Africa and into the “Geographic Pivot of History,” the Heartland of Halford MacKinder (1904).


Walking Tour of the Low Line Philadelphia October 15

25 October 2011

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Too Many Laws

10 June 2011

Philanthropist George Soros has not communicated his opinion of state laws that restrict telephone use by automobile drivers. But his latest essay, “My Philanthropy” (New York Review of Books, June 23, 2011, Vol. LVIII No. 11), offers a hint of how this fascinating wealthy man would prefer to see scientific research driving public policy.

As I see it, mankind’s ability to understand and control the forces of nature greatly exceeds our ability to govern ourselves. Our economy has become global; our governance has not. Our future and, in some respects, our survival depend on our ability to develop the appropriate global governance. This applies to a variety of fields: global warming and nuclear proliferation are the most obvious, but the threats of terrorism and infectious diseases also qualify; so do global financial markets.

Global governance could improve our response to infections disease, and to public health more broadly, no doubt. But mere national governance, in the United States, would go a long way toward, say, making our highways safer by prohibiting cell-phone use by drivers. As it stands now, according to recent research sponsored by Public Health Law Research,

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have at least one form of restriction on the use of MCDs [mobile communications devices] in effect. The laws vary in the types of communication activities and categories of driver regulated, as well as enforcement mechanisms and punishments. No state completely bans use of MCDs by all drivers.

(A map accompanies this paper. I have tried to map cell-phone driving laws by state, and it is neither simple nor clear, because the laws are a mess. Feel free to create a better map: the data that Ibrahim, Anderson, Burris and Wagenaaer collected are freely available there and here.)

Ibrahim, Anderson, Burris and Wagenaaer conclude that

State distracted-driving policy is diverging from evidence on the risks of MCD use by drivers.

despite the availability of data. This is where I turn to Soros, whose essay is as much about “why I love humanity” as it is “why I give away money.” Soros, like many of us, once learned that ” free speech and critical thinking would lead to better laws and a better understanding of reality than any dogma.” But…

If thinking has a manipulative function as well as a cognitive one, then it may not be necessary to gain a better understanding of reality in order to obtain the laws one wants. There is a shortcut: “spinning” arguments and manipulating public opinion to get the desired results. Today our political discourse is primarily concerned with getting elected and staying in power. [The] hidden assumption that freedom of speech and thought will produce a better understanding of reality is valid only for the study of natural phenomena. Extending it to human affairs is part of what I have called the “Enlightenment fallacy.”

Soros, notorious for his distaste for George W. Bush, FOX News, and Karl “We create our own reality” Rove, explicitly calls out the Republicans for their manipulation of the public, but recognizes that it’s a bigger problem. He concludes that the message he is trying to communicate is “a profound rethinking of the workings of our political system.” He could invest  some millions in the dautning task of changing the public attitude toward public health and public policy.


ResearchBlogging.orgIbrahim, J., Anderson, E., Burris, S., & Wagenaar, A. (2011). State Laws Restricting Driver Use of Mobile Communications Devices American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 40 (6), 659-665 DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2011.02.024


A Coke and a Smile?

29 March 2011

How can a law improve public health? In 2011, Public Health Law Research is asking “What is the impact of laws addressing consumption and purchase of sugar-sweetened and citric-acid drinks on oral health? ” The study, based at the Appalachian School of Law, is looking at “Mountain Dew Mouth” in Appalachia, the persistently poor teeth among America’s  impoverished hillfolk.

Back in 1911, in a courtroom in Chattanooga, it was caffeine, not sugar, that was on trial. According to Murray Carpenter in today’s (March 28, 2011) New York Times,

The trial grabbed headlines for weeks and produced scientific research that holds up to this day — yet generated no federal limits for caffeine in foods and beverages.

Those levels remain virtually unregulated today. As two researchers recently wrote in The Journal of the American Medical Association, nonalcoholic energy drinks “might pose just as great a threat to individual and public health and safety” as alcoholic ones, and “more research that can guide actions of regulatory agencies is needed.”

Nobody used the term “energy drink” in 1911, but the drink that was on trial in Chattanooga contained as much caffeine as a modern Red Bull — 80 milligrams per serving.

The drink was Coca-Cola.

It’s an entertaining story, and also, in the end, enlightening if dispiriting to twenty-first century public health law researchers.  “Harvey Washington Wiley, the “crusading chemist” who led the Bureau of Chemistry in the United States Department of Agriculture, had brought a lawsuit against the Coca-Cola Company, accusing it of adulterating the drink by adding a harmful ingredient: caffeine.” The Atlanta company hired its own expert to to test people who drank the stuff, taking advantage of the fact that most existing research had served Coke only to lab rats. The result was

a four-week trial dominated by anecdotal, contradictory or sloppy testimony.

“[The Coca-Cola scientist’s] testimony was by far the most interesting and technical of any yet introduced,” The Chattanooga Daily Times reported. But the jury never issued a verdict based on the science, because a week later the judge granted Coca-Cola’s motion to dismiss.

In court, it’s seldom the science or research that decides the case.


Seeing Is (or Would Be) Believing

22 March 2011

Patty Cohen writes on the “digital humanities” in The New York Times today (22 March, 2001), and misses an opportunity to show us what information technology can do for the liberal arts. She highlights a few unrepresentative projects, and ignores the big question: What can the non-scientific researchers in literature, philosophy, history and the rest of the humanities concoct when given access to great stores of data, and how do they react? Cohen tells us a little and shows us less.

Humanists have always had data; what makes digital data different is the play and the display: you can see the data better and have some fun with it, too.

The title, for which Cohen may not be responsible, is “Giving Literature Virtual Life.” But her story is lifeless.

At the University of Virginia, history undergraduates have produced a digital visualization of the college’s first library collection, allowing them to consider what the selection of books says about how knowledge was classified in the early 18th century.

A library visualization? What does that mean? I would need to see such a thing. Even online, the story offers no link. So here it is, for all to see. Two things make make this a visual representation of the 1828 U. Va. library catalog: maps that neatly mark where the books came from and charts that reveal what they were about. The VisualEyes technology that supports this project allows humanists to create visualizations; ten such projects are demonstrated at that link.

Cohen spends a lot of time at Bryn Mawr College, gushing about teaching Shakespeare with

Their assignment was to create characters on the Web site theatron.org and use them to block scenes from the gory revenge tragedy “Titus Andronicus,” to see how setting can heighten the drama.

“Until you get Shakespeare on its feet, you’re doing it an injustice,” [student] Ms. Cook said. “The plays are in 3-D, not 2-D.”

Cook lacks a basic understanding of what three-dimensional means, believing perhaps it was invented by James Cameron for Avatar. Shakespeare’s plays were created indeed as performances. Until you see them performed, or better yet, get on your feet and perform them, you are doing the Bard an injustice indeed.

Cohen writes thats scholars are only beginning to explore “the contours of this emerging field of digital humanities.” I approve of the metaphor, but reporters too have much more to learn.


Texting and Driving: Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?

15 March 2011
In New Jersey, columnist Bob Ingle, writing in the Cherry Hill Post-Courier, says that a recent effort to make distracted driving illegal is
more a movement to bring in additional revenue than get tough with what is a serious and often deadly problem.
Ingle supports the law, and cites research in support as well.  But if the state really wants to stop distracted driving, he says it should put offenders in jail, not simply fine them.
If texting and hand-held cell talking while driving is the equivalent of driving under the influence, why don’t they make the penalties reflect that?
The database of distracted driving laws at Public Health Law Research provide information about the penalties for various violations across the fifty states.