By New York Times
STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. — Hundreds of times in the past three weeks, cable television viewers here have been the exclusive audience for two of the roughest advertisements of the political season.
One links Senator Barack Obama to the former mayor of Detroit, Kwame M. Kilpatrick, an African-American whose political career unraveled in scandal. The other features Mr. Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A Wright Jr., also black, and his now infamous sermon marked by the words “God damn America.”
The advertisements, from a political action committee that is not connected to Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign, are running only here, in Macomb County, heavily populated by white, unionized auto workers, once considered “Reagan Democrats,” whose votes could largely determine which candidate wins Michigan, a state vital to both sides.
The advertisements point up the unusual nature of this year’s more potentially pernicious political attacks: They are not coming with the loud, nationally recognized cannon blast of the type launched by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth against Senator John Kerry in 2004, but, rather, as more stealthy, narrowly aimed rifle shots from smaller groups armed with incendiary material.
Mr. McCain has at times been a target of over-the-top attacks from outside groups, such as a recent advertisement from the liberal group Brave New Pac, based in California, that suggested his time in a Vietnamese prison ill-affected his ability to be president; the Internet was filled with various unsubstantiated and discredited rumors about his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, immediately after he named her last month.
But the more explosive charges from outside groups against Mr. Obama have often drawn closer scrutiny this year for their volume and the cultural and racial sensitivities they tend to touch, and, occasionally, seek to exploit.
In Mr. Obama’s case, the messages have frequently sought to paint him as foreign, like the chain e-mail messages sent for months to Jewish areas of Florida, suburban Philadelphia and other swing states that portray Mr. Obama as Muslim (he is Christian). This week, a hate group calling itself the League of American Patriots distributed fliers to as many as 50 homes in Roxbury, a mostly white town in northern New Jersey, portraying Mr. Obama as Osama Bin Laden and including language that was derisive of black people.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, said the fliers, initially reported by The Star-Ledger in Newark, were the first overtly racist printed tracts of their kind this election season.
The advertisements running here against Mr. Obama come from a group called Freedom’s Defense Fund, a political action committee based in Washington that was formed four years ago and raises money from conservatives around the country. The advertisements have stood out because of the group’s connections — including to its paid consultant, Jerome S. Corsi, the author of the highly negative, largely discredited political biography of Mr. Obama, “Obama Nation” — and what local critics say are their racial overtones.
“That’s all they are — race oriented,” said Ed Bruley, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Macomb. “I think some people will be affected by it, others will see it for what it is.”
It is a view shared by Democratic leaders, including Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who, in a recent interview with MSNBC, said of the advertising campaign, “The fact that it is being run in a predominantly white suburb tells you that there is an explicit effort to try to divide people by race.”
Todd Zirkle, the executive director of Freedom’s Defense Fund, said race had “zero” to do with the spots. “That’s the standard retort when you want to say ‘Don’t listen to these people,’ ” Mr. Zirkle said.
He said the group’s intention was to show Mr. Obama’s affiliations — although Mr. Obama and Mr. Kilpatrick were never known to be close.
He said coming spots would highlight Mr. Obama’s ties to two white men, the developer Antoin Rezko, a former financial backer of Mr. Obama’s who has been convicted of fraud, and to the Weather Underground founder William Ayers, with whom Mr. Obama worked on an education commission in Illinois and whose past Mr. Obama has repudiated.
Mr. Zirkle said a fifth spot would highlight Mr. Obama’s supposed support for the Kenyan prime minister, the opposition leader Raila Odinga. Mr. Zirkle did not share that script, but Mr. Corsi’s book asserts, without substantiation, that Mr. Obama has been a close supporter of the African leader. Mr. Obama remained neutral in the Kenyan elections.
Any suggestion that it’s morbid to talk about John McCain’s mortality was mooted by the candidate himself the moment he chose an obviously unqualified running mate. So let’s talk.
McCain “released” his medical records earlier this year. He made 1,000 pages available, which sounds like a lot. But they were released only to a select group of reporters under very specific rules. They had to sit in a room to review them. No electronic devices allowed, so the reporters couldn’t email or call medical sources in real time. Making copies to take with them was also verboten.
The intrepid documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald has put together this video:
Yes, he keeps a demanding schedule and all that, but that tells us nothing about what could happen to him two or four years from now. His melanoma diagnosis dates to late 1999 or early 2000. One of the doctors in this piece states that the recurrence rate of McCain’s type of melanoma is 66% within 10 years, and it’s been eight. Another says that the kind of treatment that would be necessary to deal with a reoccurrence would incapacitate a person for a period of time.
By Manu Raju at The Hill
A 70-year-old man who was imprisoned with John McCain during the Vietnam War says the Arizona senator lacks the temperament to be president.
Phillip Butler says in a new attack ad that McCain’s prisoner-of-war status is not a qualification for the presidency and McCain is not somebody he wants to see “with his finger near the red button.”
“He was well known as a very volatile guy and he would blow up and go off like a roman candle,” Butler says in the ad, which was produced by Brave New PAC, a political action committee associated with the liberal film company Brave New Films.
Leighton Woodhouse, a spokesman for the company, said that the 30-second ad will air on CNN, MSNBC and ESPN from Thursday through this weekend.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and his Democratic surrogates have repeatedly raised questions about McCain’s temperament, but they have praised his war record. Brave New Films has no affiliation with the Obama campaign.
“If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament, and judgment, to serve as the next commander-in-chief, that’s a debate I’m ready to have,” Obama said last week in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president.
Meanwhile, Republicans are highlighting McCain’s P.O.W. status to highlight his service to the country. And former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) spoke in detail in a primetime address at the Republican Convention Tuesday about the torture McCain suffered in 1967 at the hands of the North Vietnamese.
”They took him to the Hanoi Hilton, where he lapsed in and out of consciousness for days,” Thompson said. “He was offered medical care for his injuries if he would give up military information in return. John McCain said, ‘No.’”
The advertisment on McCain’s service will almost certainly be compared to the so-called Swift Boat attacks on 2004, when conservative groups questioned Democrat John Kerry’s war record.
But Woodhouse says that such comparisons are “totally irresponsible,” saying they are “completely different situations.”
A McCain campaign spokesman could not be reached for comment.
When the furore about the Rev Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama was at its height a few months ago, one of the biggest hits on YouTube revealed that the Republican contender John McCain had his own pastor problem.
Sandwiched between the kind of comic clips for which the site is best known, the video produced by Brave New Films showed the Rev Rod Parsley, a spiritual adviser to John McCain, making incendiary comments about Islam. When the mainstream media ran the story, McCain was eventually forced to distance himself from the church leader.
The success of the video and the sequel – The Real McCain 2, which documented several policy flip-flops on issues such as Iraq and the US economy, and was viewed more than 500,000 times within the first 24 hours of being released on to YouTube – justified the decision by Robert Greenwald, Brave New Films’ founder, to move from feature films into an online career.
Greenwald, 62, began his career in television before directing movies, including the kitsch classic Xanadu, starring Olivia Newton-John. The death of his father and the 9/11 attacks convinced him to switch to doing more socially worthwhile work. He began making feature-length documentaries, tackling such targets as Fox News – in 2004’s Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism – and the world’s biggest retailer in Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.
The films were critically praised and reached a large audience, but Greenwald decided to abandon long documentaries and move into producing fast turnaround online videos 16 months ago.
Calling it “an interesting transition”, Greenwald recalls being in the same editing room a few months ago in which he once edited a six-hour mini-series. “Back then I was trying to lose 20 minutes from an edit – now the finished film I am making may only be four minutes long and the job is to lose 20 seconds.”
He decided to make short pieces because he “wanted to make content that was quicker, shorter and more immediate in the news cycle.
“You could spend 12 months making a documentary and releasing it, and having your moment in the sun about something that may no longer be in the news cycle any more. Or you can spend 24 hours to put together a short viral video which can actually make a difference.”
Brave New Films has an email database of about 450,000 people, who have in the past purchased DVDs or signed up for updates; each new video is emailed to this core constituency who are then urged to send it on.
The company has also developed contacts with key bloggers and social networking sites to ensure that it doesn’t just preach to the converted.
The films have affected the campaigning of both presidential candidates. Greenwald cites the example of a video series that highlighted the huge increase in the wages of corporate executives. Within a month of the videos being released, Barack Obama had incorporated the theme of executive pay into his speeches.
Footage of McCain praising his spiritual adviser as “a moral compass” was combined with clips of Parsley railing against Islam and saying “America was founded in part with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed”.
In the past it might have been left to paid party operatives and professional political spin doctors to launch the kind of attacks that Brave New Films has directed towards John McCain. Greenwald says he has no ties to the Democratic party or to Obama’s campaign and calls himself a full-time volunteer.
“There are issues that need to be addressed regardless of the candidates,” he says. “People who run for election have the job of getting elected, but our job is to create the passion to force whoever is in charge to do the right thing.”
Brave New Films is registered with the IRS as a “social welfare” organisation. Such groups are allowed to engage in political campaigning, but aren’t supposed to make campaigning their primary activity.
Its offices are in a former Los Angeles motel that, I am told, was once used by film executives to entertain their mistresses. I am shown around by Eddie Kurtz, one of the company’s 35 employees and, like most of the others, still in his 20s.
“This isn’t some bedroom operation,” he tells me as we walk past rooms filled with humming hard drives and flickering monitors. One room is devoted to rapid response, trying to combat stories that may have arisen in that morning’s press – for example, the “Obama is a Muslim” rumours – while in another, a team are working on more long-term projects.
In an adjoining building, a newly constructed studio is nearing completion that will mark the next stage of Brave New Films’ evolution: online broadcasting.
“The plan is to have live studio webcasts,” says Kurtz,”anything up to 20 programmes – everything from Meet the Bloggers to uninterrupted election coverage to progressive cooking shows, and it will be completely interactive.”
By New York Times
CULVER CITY, Calif. — The video blasted across the Internet, drawing political blood from Senator John McCain within a matter of days.
Produced here in a cluttered former motel behind the Sony Pictures lot, it juxtaposed harsh statements about Islam made by the Rev. Rod Parsley with statements from Mr. McCain praising Mr. Parsley, a conservative evangelical leader. The montage won notice on network newscasts this spring and ultimately helped lead Mr. McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee, to reject Mr. Parsley’s earlier endorsement.
In previous elections, an attack like that would have come from party operatives, campaign researchers or the professional political hit men who orbit around them.
But in the 2008 race, the first in which campaigns are feeling the full force of the changes wrought by the Web, the most attention-grabbing attacks are increasingly coming from people outside the political world. In some cases they are amateurs operating with nothing but passion, a computer and a YouTube account, in other cases sophisticated media types with more elaborate resources but no campaign experience.
So it was with the Parsley video, which was the work of a 64-year-old film director, Robert Greenwald, and his small band of 20-something assistants. Once best known for films like “Xanadu” (with Olivia Newton-John) and the television movie “The Burning Bed” (with Farrah Fawcett), Mr. Greenwald shows how technology has dispersed the power to shape campaign narratives, potentially upending the way American presidential campaigns are fought.
Mr. Greenwald’s McCain videos, most of which portray the senator as contradicting himself in different settings, have been viewed more than five million times — more than Mr. McCain’s own campaign videos have been downloaded on YouTube.
Four years ago, the Internet was a Wild West that caused the occasional headache for the campaigns but for the most part remained segregated from them. This year, the development of cheap new editing programs and fast video distribution through sites like YouTube has broken down the barriers, empowering a new generation of largely unregulated political warriors who can affect the campaign dialogue faster and with more impact than the traditional opposition research shops.
Already there are signs that these less formal and more individual efforts are filling a vacuum created by a decline in activity among the independent advocacy groups — so-called 527s and similar operations — that have played a large role in negative politics in the last several election cycles. Especially on the conservative side, independent groups have reported trouble raising money, and some of the biggest players from 2004 have signaled that they will sit it out this time around.
The shift has by no means gone unnoticed by the campaigns. And while strategists in both parties suspect that traditional political operatives affiliated with the campaigns or parties frequently pose as independent grassroots participants by hiding behind anonymous Web identities, few have been caught this year.
The change has added to the frenetic pace of the campaign this year. “It’s politics at the speed of Internet,” said Dan Carol, a strategist for Mr. Obama who was one of the young bulls on Bill Clinton’s vaunted rapid response team in 1992. “There’s just a lot of people who at a very low cost can do this stuff and don’t need a memo from HQ.”
That would seem to apply to people like Robert Anderson, a professor at Elon University in North Carolina whose modest YouTube site features videos flattering to Mr. Obama and unflattering to Mr. McCain, or Paul Villarreal, who from his apartment in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., has produced a harsh series of spots that attack Mr. Obama and make some claims that have been widely debunked.
Counting the audience for such videos can be tricky, as sites like YouTube list only the number of times they have been viewed, not the number of people who view them. That said, according to YouTube, Mr. Villarreal’s video was viewed about 50,000 times. And it cost him just $100 to produce, for software, he said. He said he had no connection to the Republican Party or the McCain campaign, though he said he had reached out to them and not heard back.
The better-circulated political videos have generally come from people with some production experience. One of the most widely seen anti-Obama videos was created by Jason Mitchell, who produces evangelical Christian programming in Durham, N.C.
A conservative-leaning version of YouTube called Eyeblast.tv has recorded millions of hits on the video. But as is often the case with such videos, how many of the viewers come to sneer rather than applaud is hard to tell.
“Four years ago I would just be a ‘political activist,’ ” Mr. Mitchell said. “Now, they call me a ‘communications political strategist,’ and that’s only because of the Internet.”
By Los Angeles Times
In a dim Culver City editing room, two video snippets of Republican presidential hopeful John McCain fill the monitors. In the first, he says same-sex marriage should be allowed. In the second, he says it should be illegal.
The clips are part of the payoff of a weeks-long hunt by filmmaker Robert Greenwald and his production team for damaging Internet video of the Arizona senator.
Greenwald, the producerdirector of scathing documentaries about Fox News and Wal-Mart, hopes to shatter McCain’s image as a straight-talking maverick. But instead of creating a full-length film, he is assembling clips of McCain for a series of two-minute Web videos. The idea is to turn McCain’s own words against him, spreading the videos through e-mail, blogs and websites.
“The effectiveness is hearing and seeing him say stuff,” Greenwald said in the editing bay. The videos “go right to the character issue — who he is.”
The first whack at McCain, now on the video-sharing site YouTube, joins a rapidly growing collection of Web videos posted by critics of leading contenders in the 2008 presidential race. Targets so far include Barack Obama, Rudolph W. Giuliani, John Edwards, Mitt Romney and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The explosion of video-sharing on the Web poses major risks for presidential candidates: Gaffes and inconsistent statements witnessed by dozens can be e-mailed instantly to millions.
The White House ambitions of Republican George Allen of Virginia were dashed in no small part by a Web video that showed him, at a campaign event, calling an Indian American “macaca.” Allen also lost his November bid for reelection to the Senate.
And Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, was hit this month with an anonymously posted YouTube video made of footage from a 1994 debate in which he took liberal stands on abortion and other matters. Romney, who has staked out more conservative positions in his quest for the Republican presidential nomination, posted his own video to explain the shift.
“I was wrong on some issues back then,” he told viewers. “I’m not embarrassed to admit that.”
For the candidates, as well as their detractors, the chief attribute of Web video is its broad reach, accomplished at little or no expense.
“You can grab it, send it, link it, and at zero cost,” said Matthew Dowd, a top strategist for President Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign. “Two hundred thousand people could see it in 24 hours.”
Several White House contenders have already made promotional Web videos a central part of their communications strategy, using them to reach supporters directly, without a media filter. Democrats Clinton, Edwards, Obama and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson each made Web video statements for their campaign launches.
Clinton has been especially aggressive. The New York senator and presumed party front-runner took questions from supporters on three evenings last week in half-hour Web chats. As part of a broader effort to warm up voters (a fireplace crackled in the background when she appeared Wednesday on NBC’s “Today” show), Clinton pivoted from Iraq and healthcare to the delights of gardening, dog-walking, movie watching, swimming and even closet cleaning.
McCain is planning his own Web version of reality TV. He has hired a videographer to record behind-the-scenes campaign moments of the senator in relaxed settings.
“What the campaign can do in a Web video is show a more personal side of the candidate,” said Spencer Whelan, who works on McCain’s online communications team.
But the same technology allows others to broadcast — often anonymously — videos utterly outside the campaigns’ control. Already, attack videos range from the caustic to the ridiculous.
McCain’s comic potential is on display in a YouTube video featuring the melodically impaired senator singing lines from “The Way We Were” and other Barbra Streisand tunes in a “Saturday Night Live” skit.
Another video on the site shows Giuliani dressed in drag, with Donald Trump nestling his face in the former New York City mayor’s fake breasts — a gag from a long-ago press dinner that struck many New Yorkers as funny, but might puzzle some Republican primary voters in, say, South Carolina.
Edwards, the 2004 Democratic nominee for vice president, is the subject of a popular prank video that uses humor to skewer the former North Carolina senator. Mocked by critics as “the Breck girl” in 2004, the telegenic candidate is shown fussing with his hair for a full two minutes in preparation for a TV interview, as Julie Andrews sings “I Feel Pretty.” YouTube visitors have viewed it more than 27,000 times.
Among the Clinton material posted on the site is a home-video excerpt, first broadcast by ABC News, that shows her confiding to someone at a campaign fundraiser that she avoided e-mail because of constant investigations of the White House during her husband’s presidency.
Obama, a newcomer to presidential politics, is just starting to draw the sort of negative attention that the Clintons have long attracted. Last week, Chicago-area political consultant Joe Novak posted several Web videos taking aim at the Illinois senator’s wife, Michelle, for her healthcare business dealings.
“I’ve gotten very angry over the fawning cheerleading that’s going on in this city by so-called reporters,” Novak said.
Obama campaign spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said Novak’s videos show that the Web “is rapidly becoming the place to put video that is too inaccurate and too scurrilous to put on television.”
By Simon Owens at Bloggasm
On Monday, the New York Times published a story detailing a multi-million dollar ad campaign launched by Starbucks in which the company put up advertising posters in six major cities and attempted to “harness the power of online social networking sites by challenging people to hunt for the posters on Tuesday and be the first to post a photo of one using Twitter.” Those who posted the pictures to the microblogging site were to use predetermined hashtags that were listed in the contest rules.
Unfortunately for Starbucks, liberal activist and filmmaker Robert Greenwald, founder of Brave New Films, came across that Times article early Tuesday morning. Greenwald, who has directed films for major studios and launched Brave New Films a few years ago, had been working for months on shooting an anti-Starbucks video that debuted on YouTube that very day. The mini-documentary features interviews with several former and current Starbucks employees and makes the argument that the company — despite popular perception that it treats its employees well — has unfair labor practices and has aggressively fought off union organizing.
“Tuesday morning was when we launched the video,” Greenwald told me in a phone interview. “I’m a very early riser, I get up at 6 o’clock here, and I look at the New York Times and there’s a story about this contest that Starbucks is having on Twitter. And I was like, ‘ah, what timing!’ So I sent an email around to several of my colleagues and we immediately jumped on it … When we saw that they had a contest, we immediately decided that we should enter the contest, which we did in very short order. And I don’t know if it’s connected or not, but a few hours later after we sent in pictures of people with suggestions for [Starbucks CEO] Howard Schultz to be more fair to his workers, I think the rules were changed and at least that phase of the contest was ended.”
On a blog post published at the anti-Starbucks website Brave New Films created, people were encouraged to take pictures of themselves in front of Starbucks stores holding signs targeted at the company’s “anti-labor practices.” These users are then told to upload these photos onto Twitpic and tweet them out to their followers using the hashtags #top3percent and #starbucks. According to the post, these are the official hashtags that were designated by Starbucks itself for those who wanted to enter its contest. Within hours, several people had followed these guidelines and there were dozens of Twitpics in front of stores across the country.
As of this writing, the anti-Starbucks YouTube video has amassed over 30,000 views and was featured on the front page of social news site Digg. Greenwald said that Brave New Films is not done with its offensive against the coffee company, but he was hesitant to reveal his next steps.
Given that the the filmmaker was able to take Starbucks’ own Twitter marketing campaign and turn it against it, I asked Greenwald what this means for corporations dipping their toes in social media marketing.
“Well it says that democracy is a wonderful thing, and that we should be very happy with it,” he replied. ” …I think that the corporations will learn very quickly that if they want to function in a social marketing arena, then they’re going to have to change some of their practices or else they’ll have to get out.”
By Sarah Lai Stirland at Wired
Welcome to the 2008 general election, YouTube style.
No sooner had the polls closed at the end of Super Tuesday, when a video popped up on YouTube attacking newly christened GOP front-runner John McCain where he’s most vulnerable: his support for the Iraq war.
The 83-second advertisement shows a consumer gamely struggling on the phone with a friendly but unhelpful service representative. It turns out to be the United States government on the line, which informs the befuddled citizen that she has no choice but to pay a hefty monthly recurring charge for the war.
“In the past couple of weeks, when it seemed like McCain may in fact be the nominee, we thought that the message should be that the deaths in Iraq may not be on the front page anymore, but the money is still coming out of your pocket,” says the spot’s creator, Robert Greenwald, a progressive activist and documentary filmmaker in Los Angeles. “I felt strongly that it was a story that wasn’t being told, and a story that couldn’t be argued against.”
Decisive moments in primaries have always triggered torrents of fresh money into campaign coffers, which eventually translate into television ads. But in this most wired of campaign seasons, a new type of Web 2.0-enhanced nonprofit advocacy group is streamlining the process like never before, producing and distributing slick, effective videos in internet time.
Thanks to converging developments in campaign finance law, the improving technology of digital cameras and the rise of online social networking, voters’ inboxes this election season will be filled at strategic moments with forwarded web addresses for issue-oriented ads like Less Jobs, More War from Greenwald’s Brave New Films.
Filmmaker Robert Greenwald and his company Brave New Films on Monday launched a website featuring a series of videos that detail the hardships of Southern California grocery store workers. The launch of Supermarketswindle.com comes just as grocery worker union members in the region are considering a strike after cuts in pay and benefits.
“There is a David-versus-Goliath battle going on right now between the hard-working grocery store employees and the supermarket CEOs Jeffrey Noddle, David Dillon and Stephen Burd, who each make over $7 million a year,” Greenwald said in a Monday statement. “This is a story that needs to be told now.”
Interviews with three workers from Ralphs, Albertsons and Vons are the first in a series of worker testimonials Greenwald will post on the site. His efforts are part of a partnership with the Los Angeles Alliance, a pro-worker nonprofit group.