MOVEON'S BIG MOVE: THE INTERNET COMES OF AGE
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- The Republican Party complaining about tasteless campaigning is like Jerry Springer complaining about the decline of manners in modern society. The story would be hilarious but for the fact that millions of people were seriously misled last week as the Republicans and the rest of the right-wing propaganda machine went to work on the organization known as MoveOn.
As almost everyone knows by now, MoveOn is an organization founded during the Clinton impeachment battle, dedicated to opposing the right wing spin machine and the policies it shills for. MoveOn has become one of the leading voices against the Bush presidency.
Its Website. www.MoveOn.org, describes its positions and activities.
MoveOn recently sponsored a contest in which members of the public were invited to create and submit their own 30-second tv spots about President George W. Bush's record. MoveOn promised that the winning spot would be aired at MoveOn's expense.
When you think about it, it's a neat idea: instead of hiring an expensive ad agency to do the same old thing, invite your loyal followers to do something of their own. Who knows? You might receive something pretty good. The result was the "Bush in 30 Seconds" ad contest.
MoveOn made submissions available for viewing on its Website. Viewers with sufficient patience (or broadband) can download submissions, watch them, and submit votes as to whether each submission should go on to the finals.
Over 1,500 videos were submitted and more than a thousand were made available for public viewing at the MoveOn Website. Over 2,000,000 votes were cast.
The 14 spots that made the finals can be viewed at the MoveOn Website. They are partisan, critical, perhaps a little pedantic at times, and very, very good as political spots. They concentrate on the job-loss figures during the Bush presidency, the budget deficit and the Iraq war, among other things.
One shows a modern-day reverse Robin Hood who steals from the poor and gives to rich corporations. Another shows an automobile speedometer and odometer. In terse visuals accompanied by muscle-car audio, it argues the Bush record as one in which job creation and budget surpluses decayed into job losses and budget deficits.
One shows kids doing adult jobs. The punch line? Our kids will be paying for the deficits we are running up now. Another shows an auto repair shop. "We'll take care of her," says the boss, but his mechanic proceeds to smash the car to rubble, as the voice-over describes what Bush has done to veterans' benefits, the education budget and the environment.
It all started as an adventurous gambit to bring the wider public into the political campaign system, but in the first week of the new year, it became at least in part a public relations nightmare for MoveOn. It also presented MoveOn with the opportunity of a lifetime.
One might describe it with a bit of tongue in cheek as a good news, bad news joke for MoveOn.
The bad news is that out of the thousand or so submissions that MoveOn presented to its readers for their evaluation, two contained graphic comparisons between Bush and Adolph Hitler and between American policies and the Nazi regime.
How do we know this? Most of us wouldn't except for the fact that the Republican National Committee managed to find these two needles in that haystack. As mentioned, it takes time and effort to download even one or two of these videos (using a DSL connection running at three times the speed of the fastest dial-up modem, it took just under three minutes to download one video).
Somehow the Republicans found these two submissions that allowed them to play "gotcha" politics, and they ran with it. Republican National Committee (RNC) Chair Ed Gillespie led off with a condemnation and demand for apologies.
Syndicated talk radio host Sean Hannity sounded self-righteously aghast as he described the offending pieces on his show. His voice dripped contempt as he considered the bad taste inherent in the fact that the audio portion on one of these pieces contained actual Hitler speeches, even as he played that audio over the air.
The attacks continued in the pages of the Wall Street Journal and in National Review OnLine, just to mention a couple.
MoveOn took a spanking. Founder Wes Boyd apologized for the fact that these two pieces had slipped through their vetting process and promised to be more careful in the future.
That was the bad news.
The good news for MoveOn is that it got millions of dollars worth of free publicity, and much of it was actually pretty good. A New York Times piece by Phoebe Eaton was picked up by my local newspaper, the Daily Breeze, which ran it as its lead article on page B1.
Eaton goes into detail in describing the content and production values of various entries and discusses the legal limitations on what can be shown by MoveOn under the McCain-Feingold Act. The article in the Daily Breeze) somehow manages to forget or omits the Republican attacks.
The Los Angeles Times got into the act with an article by John Glionna in the Sunday, Jan. 11, 2004 edition. This piece describes the political context, including the Republican attacks, even as it plays up the achievements of the contest entrants.
Both the Eaton and Glionna pieces included remarks by finalists as to how much they spent. In each case it was of the order of fifty to sixty dollars. Not thousand. Dollars.
Other Internet sites weighed in. Perhaps the best was a comprehensive piece by Joan Walsh in Salon.com on January 7. Her brief summary: "Another day, another big Republican lie." She describes the history of MoveOn.org, the reality behind the Hitler flurry, and the fact, repeated endlessly by MoveOn, that it did not condone the material or sentiments expressed in the two ads and had them removed from its Website.
Fellow Salon.com author and conservative novelist Scott Rosenberg considered the Walsh piece, found MoveOn partially culpable for its partial screen, and summarized, "What the Republicans are doing is pretending that every single entry in the contest was endorsed by MoveOn. It's as if I went over to the New York Times' message boards, found some idiot's rant about how the Trilateral Commission controls the universe, and held a press conference denouncing Arthur Sulzberger for condoning wacked-out conspiracy theories."
MoveOn got a lot of attention last week. It has been in the Republican crosshairs for quite some time now, even if the rest of us didn't know it. Now we know, and now perhaps we will start paying attention to MoveOn as a result. From MoveOn's standpoint, that ought to be good news indeed.
There is another way to look at this whole event, and that is in terms of modern politics and how the game is played. Even ten years ago, this would not have happened because there was not enough Internet connectivity to make it happen. The technology that allows us to place pages on the Internet was just invented in 1993, and browsers like Netscape and Internet Explorer had not yet been developed.
Indeed, the Internet is coming of age on the political battlefield, much as precisely-targeted political mailers did a decade ago.
The ferocious Republican Party response has made this achievement clear in a most telling fashion, because in politics, attacks are the sincerest form of flattery.