YouTube becomes a political force in state races

Monday, October 8, 2007 | 1:07 p.m. CDT; updated 7:22 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — The recent YouTube video claiming to show Missouri’s attorney general using a state car to attend a political fundraiser has highlighted the way video sites serve as both a tool and a danger for Missouri politicians.

On Sept. 25, a YouTube video was posted ostensibly showing Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon using his state vehicle to travel to fundraising events for his gubernatorial campaign.

Details about how the video was recorded and who is responsible for posting the incident are unknown. Even the source of the video, still posted, is unclear because YouTube does not require a full name, only a valid e-mail.

In the case of Nixon, the videos were posted on YouTube by a person with the username BRDT1, with only the name “Wiggy” and the location “United States” on his YouTube profile. YouTube lists five mostly anti-Nixon videos from BRDT1 in the past two months.

One day after the video was posted, the state Republican Party sent a release to the general media directing reporters to the site. It quickly became a statewide political news story.

“When it catches the attention of the mainstream media, that’s when we see that it can have an affect on a political candidate or on a campaign,” said Mitchell McKinney, MU political science professor.

Nixon’s campaign spokesman said the Republican Party’s sensationalizing of the video doesn’t have much bearing on the campaign.

“We won’t cater our campaign to our opponents’ YouTube attacks,” Nixon spokesman Oren Shur said.

The attention received by the Nixon YouTube video demonstrates how the video site has entered the realm of Missouri state politics.

The impact of a YouTube video on politics was demonstrated nationally in 2006 when George Allen, a former Republican U.S. senator from Virginia, was defeated after coverage of a YouTube video showing him using a racial epithet.

As video sites such as YouTube have gained in popularity, more politicians are scanning the sites, uploading their own videos and watching for any clips that may be damaging to their careers. And it’s become a factor in Missouri politics.

“These are public officials, or they want to be public officials, and certainly we the people should know what they are saying. They deserve some ability to have some downtime and to be spontaneous, that is true. Laws of harassment are in effect,” McKinney said. “I tend to come down on the side that the more information that we have, the better.”

Hiring political operatives, or “trackers,” to catch controversial moments on film has become a part of some local campaigns.

According to John Hancock, Gov. Matt Blunt’s re-election campaign spokesperson, the state Democrats have hired a cameraman to follow the governor.

“We are certainly aware that a camera is present where we are, and it probably does have an affect sometimes, but the governor has a message to deliver whenever he goes out and speaks and he is going to deliver it whether Jay Nixon has got a camera pointed at him or not,” Hancock said.

Democratic Party spokesman Jack Cardetti said the party initially hired a “tracker,” cameraman and researcher Vinay Vaz, to follow Blunt and monitor his speeches about stem cell research.

“We found out very quickly that how he talks about the issue of stem cell research in conservative parts of the state versus how he talks about stem cell research in front of your more business Republican groups was extremely different,” Cardetti said. “So we picked up very early on because of our tracker that Gov. Blunt likes to talk out of both sides of his mouth on the stem cell issue. That is certainly information that is useful to people.”

Vaz has received $5,205.21 since July 31, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission.

Having a cameraman or “tracker” is not unique to the Democrats.

“We had a fellow that was employed by the campaign that did a variety of things that included shooting some footage of Jay Nixon. But we don’t have anyone presently with that duty,” Hancock said.

Hancock did not rule out the possibility of employing someone to follow Nixon in the future.

Although some revealing videos have damaged the careers of politicians in other states, many of those running for statewide office said they are not concerned with people filming them.

“I’m not afraid of people who are trying to catch me. I say bring it on,” Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, said. “What I say to one person is the same thing I’d say to a thousand people in a public place.”

Harris is running for the Democratic nomination for attorney general against Rep. Margaret Donnelly, D-St. Louis, and Sen. Chris Koster, the state senator from Harrisonville who was elected as a Republican but switched parties earlier this year.

“All candidates at a statewide level are aware that anything they do or say can now end up on a YouTube screen, and I think it is something that is ever-present in all of our minds,” Koster said.

Spokespersons from both of the state’s major political parties said candidates are prepared for the constant scrutiny.

“Candidates know that in this 24-hour-a-day news cycle and blogs that their every move is watched more,” Cardetti said.

Republican Party spokesman Paul Sloca agreed and said the scrutiny holds candidates accountable because now the public can see more than just what shows up on TV.

“What has changed is that you have to continuously be ready to respond and communicate in a quick way, in a clever way, and I think that is a challenge for any campaign,” Donnelly said.

Except for Harris, each of the candidates have incorporated YouTube into their campaigns.

Harris said there was no particular reason for its absence, just that his campaign has not yet gotten to the YouTube-type aspect.

His delay was questioned by Andrew Franks, midwest chapter president of the American Association of Political Consultants.

“There’s a lot of keeping up with the Jones’ in politics. Frankly, as easy as it is, I’m surprised they don’t have them,” Franks said.

Donnelly has released one campaign ad solely on the Internet.

“I think the growth of communicating over the Internet will continue and YouTube is just part of that,” Donnelly said. “I plan to be an active YouTube user in this campaign.”

The expected Republican candidate for attorney general, Sen. President Pro Tem Mike Gibbons, said he plans on incorporating YouTube into his campaign. “It can be an inexpensive way to convey your message,” the St. Louis County Republican said.

MU Journalism professor Charles Davis said using YouTube videos, which are difficult to attribute or verify, violates some of journalism’s major tenets.

“Just because there is visual evidence doesn’t mean it’s true,” Davis said. “Visual evidence, like anything else, can be abused.”

The news directors of KMIZ/Channel 17 and KOMU/Channel 8 agree.

“Things get put on YouTube for a reason — people have an agenda,” said Curtis Varns, news director at KMIZ/Channel 17.

Representatives from both KOMU/Channel 8 and KMIZ/Channel 17 said they did not broadcast the Nixon car video and would need to have in-depth discussions before similar videos would be considered.

“I think you merit them about the same as if some guy you don’t know on the street corner in Columbia was whispering something in somebody’s ear,” Davis said. “If you have an unverified source, with an unidentifiable agenda, posting a video without any context, how can that be the source of any serious allegation against anybody, in any political context?”

While YouTube can serve as an information outlet for Missourians, politicians struggle with it because their message cannot be focused on one group like television or radio advertising can, Franks said.

Just because a video is on YouTube doesn’t mean it will be viewed by new or undecided voters, he said.

“Mostly the people who are looking at the videos are partisan anyway. They are not independent voters,” Cardetti said. “They are probably somebody that is extremely interested in politics, they are probably already a Democrat or a Republican.”

McKinney said that is the biggest problem with effectively using YouTube as a campaign tool.

“By and large, the folks out there aren’t going to YouTube for this,” McKinney said.

Campaigns that hire trackers must compensate them as well as provide equipment, which can add to campaign costs.

“I haven’t seen anything even that has cut down on campaign costs,” Hancock, who has been involved in politics for 30 years, said. “It’s a new vendor to pay, it’s a new service to provide, it’s a new medium to engage.”

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