BOKE / ACS [American Candidate SHOWTIME] / Private_Eye

Subject: report AC Allentown
Date: Fri, 18 Jun 2004 00:59:50 EDT
From: Private_Eye [identity: eyes only (NOT BOKE)]



Here's my report.

I've now been to both Keene, NH and Allentown, PA and talked to candidates and producers.

"Vanech is OUT" -- true.

I was in Allentown. Chrissy Gephardt was not.

It's a straight elimination format, with the field narrowng on the basis of in-state phone vote "primaries" following each major event at each whistle stop.

I do not believe the producers are creating an elaborate diversion by having the eliminated candidates travel with the show. Nor do I believe that Gephardt is still in the running, although I think there's a more complex story behind that than vote-based "elimination" and it will be interesting to see how the show edits/explains that, as all of the professional journalists I've talked with seem most interested in her participation/disappearance. She certanly did not have the lowest number of supporters at her announcement rally, so at what point and on what basis did she leave?

Producers are still being cagey about the elimination process. I wonder if it's straight votes or a combo of get-out-the-vote plus the show staff's evaluation of how compelling the remaining mix of personalities and agendas will be. For example, early elimination of Keith Boykin would make the show considerably less diverse and more bland.

Keith Boykin is doing well and is a super-nice fellow. I'd not been impressed with Bruce Friedrich in New Hampshire, but he was a feisty debater and gave no ground in Allentown, plus he was gracious and receptive to an exchange of views and issue suggestions.

Mack seemed to have less support here (he'd mobilized the legalize marijuana activists in NH), (he also was one of the least vocal during the event), but Joyce seems to have entered her show's listening area, as there were several supporters who know her views from her radio show. Most of the "public" had come to see radio personality Montel Williams in person. He gave a 2-minute intro and then left, but they stayed for the staged "news conference" in hopes he might mix and mingle afterwards. One woman's devotion to the man was almost heartbreaking (God brought Montel to Allentown so she could die happy.)

I went with several [...] applicants to the show, prepared with questions and an agenda. However, the producers were all about control; the invitation-only press was seated in chairs; the public was standing behind a row of show and news cameras. Producers were curt to the public, refusing to allow a woman with a cane and a very old man to sit in the chairs until I told them to talk to a PA and mention that insensitivity to the disabled by a show purporting to be all about inclusion would reflect badly on them. Chairs were brought out, although the segregation of press and public continued.

All was not lost, however. As in Keene, it became obvious that, no matter how many PAs you have running around trying to create a certain narrative, a TV show that requires public participation for any legitimacy cannot control all interactions.

After a few rounds of panel answers to generic economic questions, an actual local called out "What about the Federal Reserve?" and, breaking protocol, the candidates answered and actually debated fiercely about the gold standard. After that, other members of the public called out; one older man challenging the panel to address how environmental protection and economic growth are not incompatible. Generated the most heated exchanges.

As a result of the public's refusal to play mute extras in a staged "news conference," the event changed. Attempting to reinstate order, the producers announced the event was out of time, but candidates would gather behind the podium to talk to the press. As in Keene, however, that plan tuned into general milling around, which allowed us to talk to several candidates and their campaign managers (who had been in the audience, watching). One member of [the applicants] group brought up dissatisfaction with the selection process to Keith Boykin, who seemed to grok it right away, and said, "Talk to a producer. Right now; they're here. I'm serious." So we did.

A junior producer who'd blocked my access to Vanech in NH, although I'd been invited to [meet with him], gestured over a man who identified himself as "Jared." He claimed to be the co-exective producer, although he is not listed as such on the show's site. He declined to give a last name, although he said he was easily reachable by calling Showtime.

They are obviously both aware of and concerned about the backlash. The fact that *as soon* as we bagan asking questions of junior show staff, a bigger cheese showed up, and the fact that, although candidates were giving interviews and TV cameras were everywhere except our back corner -- and yet it seemed that every PA in the place was watching our discussion and terying to eavesdrop -- made me feel that it's become a topic of discussion among the show staff.

This guy Jared, wiry and bearded with a baseball cap, absolutely, categorically insisted that the selection process had been "transparent and open." He said the show was not to blame for people's perception otherwise. He said that every applications was logged in, read, and viewed. He insisted that every single candidate, finalists included, "applied on the website."

Since we know almost none of the finalists *campaigned* on the website (nor are they now), I believe he was talking about how, in order to get an application to download, you had to give your personal info. and a 50-word statement on the site.

Someone pointed out to him that despite the show's claims to be offering a voice to the politically disenfranchised, every single one of the finalists was extremely well connected in politics and the media, and already in a position to wield political clout. he vehemently disagreed, insisting, "These are ordinary Americans" and "We picked the best people."

When I told him that there had been poor communication leading to the alienation of the very people the show had tried to engage, and that maybe, if they could absolutely state that selection had been a level playing field, it was time to send out an email to theat effect, he said, "One's going out." I wonder if [the applicants ] will see a new email, or if he meant the one [that went out] last week.

When pressed on the timeline, he was a bit more vague. Did everyone adhere to the same deadlines and process? Well, "It was totally open, everyone applied through the website." He said any further discussion would just be repetitive.

There are some problems with his claims, obviously, in terms of how many of the finalists have connections to the very media sector the producers belong to, or to the Clinton campaign featured in Cutler's documentary. The timeline is off, as inadvertent comments both on the web and that I heard by the candidtes indicates they were well on their way to selection at the time [applicants] were being given web pages. Plus, the ["finalists"] do NOT read the message boards (even the "what isues should candidates discuss?) and are not familiar with the other applicants via the web pages (as [the applicants] have become with one another). The fact that so many of [the chosen's] pages have the last numbers in the page sequence indicates those were tacked on to confer a sense of uniform process; if [...] all have gone through the same process, the finalists' pages would have been randomly scattered among ours (I imagine the number corresponded to the application log-in number we were assigned.)

"Nothing has been finalized" is a technicality -- when a small group of semifinalists are gong through background checks and psychological testing and you tell another group of people that things are still open, although they have already been excluded and it is the semifinalistsd for whom anything is still open, and people are emailing saying they have to make summer plans and have job offers -- that's misleading.

Also, one of the people I was with got a lot of encouragement until the producer he was tight with quit the show. He tracked her down, and when he mentioned his web page, she said, "Oh, you're doing that part?" He now understads that comment to be that she immediately knew that he was out of the running, as, web campaigning was for people with no chance. One canddiate said she'd known she was on for two months; another slipped and said, "In the past few weeks we've (all the finalists) spent together..." Further, the show has never denied using scouts and outreach consultants to solicit prominent/interesting/attractive applicants.

It looks like the phrase that they've hit on to imply or claim an even playing field is "Everyone applied through the website." Well, no doubt the people they had their eye on did, but there any similarity to the process [the "normal" applicants] entered ended. As for "We chose the best people" and "These are ordinary Americans"... "best" is clearly "best for [the producers] needs, which was prominent or well connected people who would ensure a buzz and viewership" and "ordinary" is clearly code for "hey, even prominent activists and political consultants have bad hair days."

It's been interesting. I can't go to Virginia this weekend, but I absolutely encourage [all "the interested"] to attend the remaining public tapings in your area. It's been informative, eye-opening, and empowering to show up, listen, watch, and ask.

I've also had a crash course in what not to do, so here are my tips:

1) Go in a group. It makes you bolder, you get taken more seriously and less like a lookie-loo, people can fan out to observe or talk more, or can stick together to create a presence.

2) Be clear on your tactics and goals. For example, we had a tactic to ask about casting during the news conference. There was built-in press coverage and we crafted a statement. However, we neglected to print up a press release. Handing that out and giving inerviews during the 40 minutes everyone was waiting to get the ball rolling would have totally gotten some journalists asking our questions --- because they don't like being sheep for a TV program; they like to investigate.

A great tactic is a solid block of signs or t-shirts, something that cannot be ignored. The Kerry people did it in NH. However, you have to be organized and clear when and where you'll act; you'd need to have the signs in your bags or button-downs over the T-shirts, and then have a signal to reveal. This would really work with "American Leaders" signs. Another option is chanting, a very clear, catchy chant, just like political protesters do when they infiltrate a press event or debate. Even thought he show can edit you out, the real press will be very interested.

I think that as taping progresses, attendance at the "public" events will be more controlled. But, for example, for this upcoming event at the University of Virginia, you simply call the academic department and ask how one can observe the debate. Go at the same time as the largest crowd, don't stick out, and go with the flow until the time is right.

3) Be prepared. If you have a question, rehearse it. If you have a statement, print copies with contact information. If you want to report or write about it, bring a camera, film, a notebook, several pens, a minirecorder or camcorder, extra batteries and tapes. Know what you'll ask if you have the chance.

Bring your business card, your cell phone. Get business cards. Contact and communication is everything. Any sort of press credential gets better access.

4) Know your objective. What do you want to achieve? Disruption of a staged event? News coverage of the show's conflict of statement and deed? Get answers from Cutler? Get the show to hold a convention for all the applicants?

The thing is, they're aware they have a web PR problem that might grow to actuual entertainment news. (Contact has been made with advertisers, partners, and the advisory board.) The next step is -- what do [the "other" candidates] want now?

I got confirmation today that not all applicants (even those not selected) went through the same process.

As far as I can tell, it looks very much like there was a change in focus of the show right around the time they extended the deadline. At that point, they began aggressively using the media to solicit applicants, including that cutesy job posting ("leader of the free world") on hotjobs. A number of the NY applicants called a producer in response to an acting casting call, and were video-interviewed here, and then asked to make the 15-minute video. Call me cynical, but I do think that it was all about generating buzz at that point rather than widening the applicant pool.

It looks very much like, perhaps due to budget/production constraints, perhaps due to Showtime bigwigs' input, they changed the way the elimination process would work and shortened the shoot time. They would now eliminate as they went, and since both to preserve and secrecy/suspense and for logistical reasons, any public "voting" would have to be local. **This refocused the casting.** Rather than a roster of true outsiders, they would need a group of people with distinct, preexisting, quickly mobilizable constituencies.

You can see how this works by looking at Lisa and Keith's blogs and Joyce's (husband's?) website. Each uses their niche organizations to conduct telephone or email blitzes for votes in that "primary."

Although the candidates have signed extensive confidentiality agreements, their need to solicit votes and interact with the public has created a seive. Keith lets slip that if he gets enough votes, he'll get to go to the next location. (Implying the loser will not). Joyce actually *sends a thank-you letter to her radio fans for putting her through the first 2 primaries!* (In fact, she gives a phone interview that definitely is borderline spoiling)

By following these blogs and local press reports, you easily can now who goes on and to where, what the schedule is, what the task of the day is.

What else? Oh, the candidates. Too tired to pull up the links now, but Lisa Witter does PR/consulting for [...] Malia does youth get-out-the-vote stuff, and Rock the Vote is a partner. Keith worked on the Clinton campaign that Cutler made the documentary about. Joyce and Mack know one another and I think he's been a guest on her show. These are fairly heavy coincidences for the "best" candidates among [400 plus] applicants.

You can also see how the show concept morphed. Originally, it was to be a winnowing process based on open debate and campaigning, vetted by pundits and politcos. See how promising it sounded in a 2003 interview.

To a great extent, the web campaigning [the "normal" applicants] did [...][,] that they carefully made sure never to explicetly promise was part of the process, was the sad, vestigial gesture toward the show's germinating ideal.

The producers let the press amplify, without dissent, the sense that the casting process was being conducted through web campaigning as late as late May, as in this Utne Reader onlne blurb.

"Until June, though, everyone who applied to American Candidate is still in the race. Female, male, black, brown, white, gay, straight, single, or married -- it matters not. Let your fellow Americans judge you on your views and your ability to convey them...Real issues. Real people. A real chance to vote for what you deem most important in today's America." -- Jacob Wheeler

If I had read that, I would have gone to the site believing my vote counted toward finalist selection. **At the point this article was written, the finalists had completed the entire, complex interview/background process.** The writer is merely echoing the show's position in the email we were sent in late April, after it had been (accurately) leaked that there was already a "short list." In that email, [the "normal" applicants] were told that casting continues till June, thus ensuring [the applicants] positive, continuing efforts.

What else?

Criticism is not just coming from disgruntled applicants. I received a phone call today from Al, of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Apparently I had given him my card.

He wanted to know some things about the show as a voting local. He's with the Lehigh Valley Film & Video Council, who'd been approached to help out with locations. He was also the guy who asked the galvanizing environmental question at the news conference. He was upset that the comunity members had no context or background information on the contestants (it is astonishingly acontextual and bewildering to local attendees). He was upset that only the press was given information and bio packets. He couldn't understand what effect his vote would have, nor how any voting could indicate anything at all, given that only a handful of people saw the debate. He wanted to know how the elimination process reflected the claim "Americans choose a people's candidate." He's very politically hooked up, and the mayor and other local bigwigs didn't know, either. So he called the AC PR office -- where some young guy tells him, oh, yeah, Allentown is the first episode of the show, airs on Aug 1st, you can vote after you see it. So he tells me that either 1) they are lying 2) they don't give a shit about the voting constituencies having a clue what their particpation actually means or 3) the entire thing is rigged.

And this is a guy who had 2 days of contact with this project.

Similar comments came my way in Keene.

Oh, an NPR reporter in Keene asked me whether I'd heard a rumor about Gephardt dropping out because of negative impact on both the show and her due to her prominence.

A gadfly/taxi driver/ ex-reporter in Keene, who managed to infiltrate every event, told me he had to sign a confidentiality agreement because he had seen "the taxi pull up to the hotel and take away the booted candidate." (the tenth, the night before the rally.)

Oh, your insight that a political party could leverage AC? As soon as my bf saw the list of finalists, he said, "Ah. This whole show is Cutler's way of promoting the democratic party. Apparently *they* are the disenfranchized." Formula: Dem machine insiders plus certifiable libertarian kooks and the lamest Republican they can find. (Park Gillespie on global warming. "It's just bad science. What difference does a degree over time make? I mean, there have been major climate shifts in the earth's history." -- Um, yeah, and mass extinctions as a consequence. Go ahead and dismiss the bad science park, your four precious little girls don't need an earth to live in. The guy is a *teacher.* Al from Allentown called him "The Bob Jones University guy.") Outcome: Rock the democrat vote. BOKE NOTE: Democrats have no need of "American Candidate" to lift their "ideas" or promote "one of their own" to mainstream legitimacy. And I would say that "highlighting gay candidates" is something the Republican Party would be happy to see happen. Protecting Americans from gay people is about the only thing they are "competent" to do. {smile} I have, however, seen some evidence of Libertarian "getting out the vote" activity. If a "liberal" wins this contest, it would mean nothing ... but if a libertarian won... they have something to crow about. Anything wrong with that? Only that it means the process to find the BEST "American Candidate" ... even from that (wrong) set of finalists, is meaningless. (In a different way than I had anticipated.)

My mom, up at Keene with me, had the theory that the candidates are not the point of the show; they are merely catalysts for inviting the public to air their issues and views nationally. After the rally, the cameras were most interested in organized special interest groups with visuals. (Legalize marijuana activists with signs, etc.) The candidates were besieged not by local press looking to explore their views, nor by instantly converted supporters...but by people anxious to get a hearing on their most pressing issue. My mom felt that was the most authentic, moving, and compelling footage of the day, and that the whole faux-campaign apparatus is just another way to structure a documentary about what's on Americans' minds, like a Bill Moyer's road trip in Survivor garb. I think she may be right. BOKE NOTE: If the show survives to air, this may be the only legitimate frame they have.

Have you seen this? They need even more fuel to the fire.

My main conclusion: this show is totally hackable. They're making it up as they go along. They have no information lid; they have no coherent message for all the quesrions people raise, and they contradict themselves. The porous interactions with the public leave ample room for competing agendas, agit-prop, spoilage of their narrative or visuals, bad press, etc.

Even cursory web skills yield total spoilers; the elimination sequence will be obvious. American leaders or any organized breakaway group, or any actual political group, or, yes, a bunch of 9-11 conspiracy theorists, can totally take over the show, flood the floor the way they flood the board, show up at all the meet-and-greets.

There has probably never been such a vulnerable production, deliciously vulnerable on its own ideals of dissent and inclusion. It failed to include, and thus invites dissent. I would love to see some real theater of the oppressed rather than web kvetches and policy books. It would totally be a more compelling story to the press than regurgitating this pap about "identifying a people's candidate." As Al said, by the time this airs, the people have no voice. (I think the "hook" will be that TV viewers get to vote on the final debate.)

ok, supertired.

-- [signature blocked out]