A Candidate's Not-So-Candid Camera?

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."

Chuck Olsen, a Minnesota freelancer paid for his work by Rocketboom and the campaign, writes on his blog: "For what it's worth I'm convinced Edwards is a passionate, smart, authentic person who would make a great president."

Robert Scoble, a blogger and former Microsoft staffer, paid his own way -- except for the flights on the Edwards campaign plane during the multi-city announcement tour that began in New Orleans. "Was I used by the campaign? Absolutely," he writes on his blog. "I was there to give a different look at the campaign than the Washington Post or CNN could give." Responding to criticism by another blogger who accused him of "doing exactly what his handlers wanted, namely, giving Edwards pseudo-legitimacy among the technophile idiots," Scoble says, "I got to know his staff instead of trying to ask a question that'd get Edwards angry or give me an answer that he wouldn't give Matt Lauer on the 'Today' show."

Small is Beautiful?

The slimmed-down Wall Street Journal looked colorful but cramped last week after debuting at its reduced size, with a huge "What's News" digest and a display ad squeezing the front-page stories into three remaining columns. But the more important development has nothing to do with the money-saving layout.

"The culture here has changed dramatically in the last few years," says Managing Editor Paul Steiger. He says 80 percent of the paper's articles will now stress analysis, interpretation or feature writing, with only 20 percent of the what-happened-yesterday variety. As if to underscore the shift, the lead of Thursday's paper was an opinion column by Alan Murray saying that the CEO of Home Depot had "failed most spectacularly" as a public spokesman. The news story on Robert Nardelli's resignation and $210 million golden parachute ran to the column's left.

The late Journal editor Barney Kilgore once said that "it doesn't have to happen yesterday to be news," Publisher Gordon Crovitz recalls. "To which I'd add, just because it happened yesterday, it may not be news to our readers."

Steiger says he assumes that most readers, though not all, have already seen the day's news online. The paper plans to break most of its exclusives on its subscription-only Web site, which has 800,000 customers. When the Journal learned that Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet would resign rather than make corporate-mandated budget cuts, it put the story online -- prompting Baquet to confirm the news to his staff -- and came back with a more detailed piece the next morning.

As for the smaller paper's 5 percent loss of news space, Steiger insists tighter editing (plus info-graphics in the USA Today mold) will make up the difference.

Some Journal staffers, meanwhile, are quite upset over an incident last month in which advertisers were told in advance that the paper planned a story on jets that rent time to clients, allowing the handful of companies in the field to buy ad space in the Personal Journal section.

Insiders say that Hilary Stout, the section's editor, objected to the advertisers' involvement and declined to assign the story, and that travel columnist Scott McCartney refused the assignment after a jet company called him to ask about the story. Another reporter was drafted and wrote a balanced piece.

Steiger says the story -- which was first noted by Women's Wear Daily -- was "much too narrow" for advertisers to have been notified in advance, as opposed to a story or package on a larger industry. Such arrangements, he says, could "create confusion and make people think the story might be an advertorial. . . . I'm glad that some reporters raised questions about it." He says the paper will be "more diligent" about what it tells advertisers in advance.

Plagiarism Watch

Jacqueline Gonzalez, a San Antonio Express-News columnist, resigned last week after editors found her lifting information without credit in three columns. An internal inquiry began after Gonzalez was found to have ripped off the online encyclopedia Wikipedia for material on the origin of Dec. 25 as the observed birth date of Jesus Christ.

Hollywood on the Potomac

Washington journalists must be getting famous. In a "tribute" to the 110th Congress sponsored by the Creative Coalition, the "celebrity delegation" touted in the invitation includes not just Heather Graham, Morgan Fairchild, Fran Drescher and Rip Torn, but Newsweek's Howard Fineman, MSNBC's Tucker Carlson and CNN's Bob Franken. The Jan. 31 event is a $1,000-a-ticket fundraiser for the lobbying group.

"I'm not a delegate to anything," Fineman says. "Even though there's nothing wrong with it, it looks like they're dangling us all on a revolving stage. I'm not even sure I'm going to be there."

Franken says he is a "celebrity wannabe" and that "this will cause a lot of people to say, 'Who the hell is Bob Franken?' "

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