A Candidate's Not-So-Candid Camera?

Publisher Gordon Crovitz, left, and Managing Editor Paul Steiger are overseeing a slimmer Wall Street Journal, but a bigger change is its emphasis on analysis.
Publisher Gordon Crovitz, left, and Managing Editor Paul Steiger are overseeing a slimmer Wall Street Journal, but a bigger change is its emphasis on analysis. (By Mark Lennihan -- Associated Press)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 8, 2007

John Edwards is ridiculing his political consultants.

"You know, they gave me a really great memo," he says, waving the document, which advises him to highlight the importance of public education when addressing teachers. "I pay a lot of money for people who have the expertise to tell me this."

An unscripted moment caught on a cellphone camera? Not exactly. The video of the presidential candidate chatting on his plane is on Edwards's Web site. The former senator seems unusually frank about the absurdities of political life -- or is this just carefully choreographed candor, packaged for the YouTube age?

The 2008 campaign is "totally going to be on steroids this time in terms of what a candidate can do," says Joe Trippi, who masterminded Howard Dean's Internet-driven bid in 2003 and 2004. "You're going to see reality, and you're going to see savvy manipulation under the guise of something that's authentic and real." But Trippi warns against candidates' secretly scripting such moments: "If you get caught, you're dead."

Veteran journalist and blogger Jeff Jarvis says that "candidates will try to look more transparent, whether they are or not. Obviously, you're not going to put something out there that's not flattering. If the casual moments come from the campaign, I can recognize them for what they are."

Mathew Gross, Edwards's Internet strategist, says the campaign is "trying to reach an audience that is increasingly segmented into different channels . . . You peel away the artifice of the campaign to show what's really happening."

Edwards's second bid for the White House, announced shortly after Christmas, was overshadowed by the death of Gerald Ford and the hanging of Saddam Hussein. But Edwards generated plenty of online buzz by hiring friendly bloggers or paying their travel expenses, which would be ethically unacceptable for mainstream journalists.

"We live in a world in which everybody has the power to capture and then broadcast," says Gross, a Dean campaign veteran, noting that the bloggers have full editorial control over their own words and pictures.

Edwards has gone deep into the blogosphere, posting profile pages on MySpace and Facebook and fielding questions -- with his wife, Elizabeth -- on the popular liberal site Daily Kos. His daughter Cate also blogs on the campaign site.

What's striking about the "Webisode," in which Edwards chats on his plane with a freelance video crew, is that it looks like a television documentary, with quick-cut editing and a jerky handheld camera. Edwards, in a work shirt and jeans, is seen chatting with others, not looking at the camera. He says he wants to be judged "based on who I really am, not based on some plastic Ken doll. . . . You're trained to be careful. You're trained to close off, if it feels sensitive, if it feels personal. . . . We're conditioned to saying the same thing, we're conditioned to saying what's safe, we're conditioned to be political, and it's hard to shed all that."

The campaign hired Andrew Baron, founder of the satirical news site Rocketboom.com, to provide advice and to shoot Edwards's announcement video, which was posted on YouTube the night before the candidate personally declared his candidacy in New Orleans. Rocketboom also conducted a separate interview for its Web site, consisting of such softball questions as "What is the John Edwards candidacy about?"

Baron says Rocketboom "is not a journalistic platform" and sets its own ethical standards. As for Edwards, Baron says by e-mail, "this is his opportunity, along with all of ours, to use the video medium to show who he really is/we really are."

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