Blundering Politicians and the Internet

By Paul Farhi Washington Post Staff Writer

First it was a TV spectacle. Now it's part of the Internet's growing archive of Embarrassing Political Moments Caught on Tape.

John Kerry's "stuck in Iraq" comment has been YouTubed.

In a scenario that is increasingly familiar this election season, Kerry's botched jab at President Bush on Monday has become another viral phenomenon. Even as television reporters have moved on to other stories, Kerry's remark keeps resonating on video file-sharing sites, drawing tens of thousands of viewers who missed it on the airwaves.

Although better known as the home of TV-show snippets, music videos and goofy amateur clips, file-sharing sites such as YouTube and Google Video have matured this year into powerful tools of political ambush, enabling almost anyone to post recordings of slips that the mighty would rather forget. This new twist on the old game of gotcha has rapidly become known as "YouTube politics."

The trend might have reached its most explosive moment when amateur video of Sen. George Allen's infamous "macaca" comment was posted in August. This week, Allen (R-Va.) was a bystander in another piece of video, in which a heckler is shoved against a plate-glass window by Allen's supporters after shouting at the senator in a Charlottesville hotel.

Sens. Conrad Burns, Joe Biden and Joe Lieberman have been recent Internet video stars, too. Burns (R-Mont.) popped up this summer on YouTube in a grainy clip from a campaign rally in which he says that "a nice little Guatemalan man" was painting his house -- implying that the worker and others he'd hired might be in the country illegally. The video was shot by a worker for Burns's Senate rival, Democrat Jon Tester. Burns's campaign, which is pushing for immigration controls, had to scramble to tamp down the controversy, denying that the workers were undocumented immigrants.

"YouTube has put every campaign on notice that someone's watching," says Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who managed Sen. Robert Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. "This has been a real wake-up call to a lot of candidates who shoot from the lip when there isn't a big TV affiliate standing in the room. ... Now they have to realize that every day is game day."

Or as Democratic consultant Jim Jordan, a manager of Kerry's presidential campaign, put it, "It's easy to wander off message after a long day ... and now it's more dangerous than ever."

Then there's the video of Biden (D-Del.), a potential presidential candidate in 2008 whose exchange with a supporter at a June event was caught by C-SPAN. After learning that the young man was Indian American, Biden lauded his relationship with Delaware's Indian American community, then said: "You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin Donuts [in Delaware] unless you have a slight Indian accent. I'm not joking." The offhand comment made its way onto the Internet, forcing Biden to explain and defend himself.

It's not new for candidates to employ "trackers" to act as a kind of political paparazzi, in hopes of catching their opponents in something embarrassingly newsworthy. Until recently, though, a campaign typically had to rely on middlemen -- often the mainstream media -- to make the unflattering material public. And when news organizations chose to report such comments, they usually did so for a limited period.

File-sharing sites have changed the political-media ecosystem in fundamental ways. Ordinary users -- not just media and campaign professionals -- can shoot, edit and upload clips themselves using cellphones or digital cameras, bypassing traditional media gatekeepers.

President Bush's spoken gaffes are so numerous that they could fill their own online library -- from his mangling of the adage "Fool me once, shame on you" to his hesitancy over what to call the State of the Union address ("in my State of the -- my State of the Union -- or State -- my speech to the nation, whatever you want to call it"). Those clips were from 2002.

Perhaps the most powerful demonstration of online video was supplied by supporters of Democratic Senate candidate Ned Lamont of Connecticut. To underscore Lamont's claim that the incumbent Lieberman was too closely allied with President Bush, his campaign posted a brief clip of Bush kissing Lieberman before this year's State of the Union speech. Another clip showed Lieberman jumping up to lead a standing ovation for the president during the same speech. In all, dozens of pro-Lamont/anti-Lieberman videos flooded the Internet during the primary campaign, which Lamont won in an upset in August.

What's changed, too, is the speed with which the public can view this kind of footage. When Burns commented during his 2000 reelection campaign that some Montanans were without health care coverage because they "choose not to be insured," his opponent, Brian Schweitzer, used the comment in a TV ad that aired three days later. Nowadays, such video likely would be posted in a few hours.

Unlike a "negative" campaign commercial, online video is typically cheap to produce and distribute. Video clips also aren't subject to campaign finance limits or Federal Election Commission disclosure requirements (the ubiquitous "My name is [blank] and I approve this message"). Since YouTube allows users to post videos under aliases, it can be nearly impossible to tell exactly who is disseminating a particular clip.

Even so, political professionals say online video isn't a substitute for traditional forms of communication, such as advertising and news coverage. The difference is sheer numbers: A 30-second TV spot for a candidate can reach hundreds of thousands of would-be voters at once, as can a newspaper story or an evening news report.

The Internet, though, has become a part of the media mix. Many campaigns upload their TV commercials to file-sharing sites.

Footage of Kerry making his "stuck in Iraq" comment was viewed about

35,000 times in the first 24 hours after being posted on YouTube. That is a modest figure, at least compared with the potential audience that saw it on news channels.

But until last year, it would have been impossible to see Kerry on YouTube at all. The company, based in San Mateo, Calif., didn't exist until February 2005, and didn't have measurable traffic until the middle of that year. Since then, it has vaulted into the ranks of Internet superstars. According to the Internet tracking firm comScore Media Metrix, the site had 16 million unique U.S. visitors in July, making it one of the Web's 40 most visited sites. Google Inc. agreed to buy YouTube last month for $1.65 billion.

Video file-sharing "completes the technological infrastructure for personal video," says Michael Cornfield, an adjunct professor at George Washington University who studies technology and politics. "Before, everyone had cellphones and video cameras and broadband, but no way to share what they shot. YouTube is the keystone in the bridge."

What this means, he says, is that "every [politician] now has to check YouTube in addition to monitoring Google and Wikipedia."

Warns Cornfield: "They better be prepared to live with it."

Copyright 2006 Washington Post.

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