In 2006, political campaigns got hip to YouTube, with every campaign following its opponent around with video cameras, hoping to generate another "Macaca" moment - pure political gold in which a leading candidate says something so incredibly stupid and racist that everyone knows he just threw a victory away.
In 2008, politics are going even deeper into YouTube, social networking and the Net. Leading the pack will be John Edwards, who is already playing the edge of online ethics, reports The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz.
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?
Choreographed indeed. The video apparently tries hard to look like an amateur production with quick-cut edits and jerky movements. Edwards doesn't look at the camera as he talks about being genuine in this campaign.
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?"
Besides gaming YouTube, Edwards is paying bloggers and inviting them onto the campaign plane.
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."
Bloggers are notoriously more susceptible to the lucre of campaigns than traditional journalists. But those who aren't on the take have the power to unleash the fury of the whole blogosphere. Says Joe Trippi, who guided the Internet surge of Howard Dean's campaign only to be fired in desparation:
"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."