Thursday, June 17, 2004

American Candidate (Showtime): Can Something Be Salvaged from the Ruins?

In Allentown yesterday, eight of RJ Cutler's candidates spoke to reporters and a small crowd gathered inside a long-abandoned building that had once served to generate power for the Lehigh Valley Transit Company's trolley cars. The day's focus was ostensibly jobs, and Montel told the group gathered there that the backdrop was a visual representation of what's been "left behind, which is like so many people in America feel about the political process."

As I watched the various video streams of the press conference, however, it occurred to me that Cutler's chosen location also served as apt commentary for a show that had somehow gone off its rails and was losing power fast.

The question is, can Cutler get it back?

If the post rally reactions coming in from Keene and some of the press from Allentown are any indication, it's going to be tough, but there are few indications here and there that something might be salvaged from the wreckage.

First the tough part. Chrissy Gephardt was a no-show in Keene, and so far, it looks like she wasn't required to participate in Allentown either. In footage from the conference, only eight candidates sat behind a table draped with bunting, above them were only eight photographs with their candidate call-in numbers, and only eight were listed in the print news coming from Allentown. But, if you listen to news streams, Montel's emphasis when he speaks of "the eight candidates that are here," suggests Chrissy may still be playing, just not the same game as all the others.

When her non-presence at that table and in all the news was noted on the AmCan message boards, one of her supporters posting for the first time claimed "I was at the Allentown rally today and saw Chrissy Gephardt give a GREAT speech about gay rights." But, I've reviewed all the clips several times over, and I have to wonder about that.

If she was there, she wasn't sitting at the table before the press with all the other candidates, and she somehow escaped the notice of every print journalist and every news camera that's reported in so far. Hard to believe, given the flood of press that resulted from her original announcement.

Even if that poster wasn't mistaken, Cutler's still letting Chrissy play by rules that don't apply to all the others, and that's a problem.

Another problem in evidence both in Keene and Allentown appears to be sheer lack of preparation, on several fronts.

As I told readers, the week before the Keene rally, the Keene Sentinel reported that American Candidate's producers were confused. The day after the rally, Benjamin Yelle of the Sentinel wrote that the rally itself was "confusing," and comments by Keene's Mayor Michael Blastos suggest producers themselves were still a bit confused too. Blastos holds hopes for the show, "if the producers get better at determining what they expect from the communities where they film." But, when it came to Keene, he remarked “I don’t think these guys were really quite sure what they wanted."

There was also confusion and discord over what some residents thought they'd been told by producers. In a scene reminiscent of the one that played out for American Candidate applicants in general and in reference to Richard Mack in particular, some Keene residents gave strong criticism of what they felt were unfair dealings on the part of American Candidate producers.

Radio host Al Kulas was angry at American Candidate because he felt they'd "misled" him. He said he was surprised to see Kerry supporters bearing signs at the rally, because producers of American Candidate had led him to believe "real politics had to be kept out of the filming" and "I thought we couldn't do that, shouldn't do that, or it would be illegal." As a result, he left his Bush sign at home, and ended up feeling "lied to" by the show's producers.

Other Keene residents were literally surprised to find the show filming in their small town. Cutler's team had tried to keep almost everything secret, right up until filming, so when his candidates blew in and out of town, many Keene residents were caught completely off-guard.

In her blog, "Hoarded Ordinaries," Lorianne Schaub wrote about a beautiful, sunny weekend in a town suddenly "invaded" by an "infestation of 'candidates'," whose purpose she only learned after-the-fact. She described a cheerful girl working for Jim Strock who handed her a "cheaply-produced campaign flyer" like others she'd seen discarded in the Square, but neither Strock nor any of the other candidates got Schaub's vote.

Why not?

Apparently, because the flyer for Strock contained little information other than telling her to "'Help Fight for Politics We Can Be Proud Of!' By calling in for Jim Strock," and Strock's campaign worker "failed to outline the issues at stake."

A poster on the AmCan message boards calling herself "NHLady" gave similar comments in a post entitled "Whirlwind stops." She wrote, "In a real campaign, there is abundant information about the candidates, preceding their campaign swings, but with the 'American Candidate', first impressions are the only impressions. In a real election, I would want more info before voting for anyone."

The town's newspaper described several residents who actively participated as being "unimpressed." Keene city councilor and local pub owner Randy Filiault interviewed some of the candidates and was unsure if he even would cast a vote. Filiault told the Keene Sentinel that, "candidates didn't seem prepared to answer tough questions about their platforms," candidates weren't well-rounded enough in his opinion, and "They're not going to B.S. their way around us." The Sentinel's executive editor, Kathleen O'Donnell, attended a house party for the candidates, but her impression was that "most of the people at the house party knew more about national issues than the candidates."

The small crowd in attendance at the Calo building in Allentown yesterday morning suggests a similar lack of preparation, and a comment on the message boards from an American Candidate applicant who attended the rally reinforces the impression that locals just aren't getting enough information from American Candidate.

"Blue Star Blues" posted a reply to "NHLady," saying "In Allentown today, the press was given packets with bio pages for each of the remaining candidates. The public, however, received no such information. Too bad, as they're the ones who were urged to vote by phone."

(If you're wondering why that applicant has the blues, it's because American Candidate still hasn't been able to fix the tech. problems and provide the blue star applicants are supposed to have when they post.)

The public might try for some information by hitting the American Candidate webpages or the message boards, but none of the competing candidate webpages have been updated, most lack diary entries, and even those that have entries under "Issues" provide only short sound-bites. And although many of the applicants spent considerable time on the message boards discussing their platforms and working out their views on the various issues and how they might present them to the public, the candidates Cutler chose did not.

Bob Vanech, who appears to no longer be in the running, made only four short and very general posts online. I have been unable to find any posts by Mack, Lazu, Freidrich, Gillespie, Witter, Strock, Riley, Boykin or Gephardt. None. In other words, this is still a one-way conversation, and Cutler's chosen candidates aren't talking much where the public can actually hear them.

So where's the hope in all this?

It's appearing in spite of and outside of Cutler's off-the-rails design.

Although Riley's and Mack's supporters are still keeping moderators working overtime by posting frequent diatribes on the message boards and informing readers that anyone not supporting Riley or Mack is either a sheep, an idiot, brainwashed, stupid, has his head up his ass, etc …, if you can get past their posts, there are some good ideas on that board. And some posters are trying to think and talk about democracy in the ways Cutler's show and his chosen candidates are not.

It's not just on the AmCan message boards either. American Candidate originally formed a partnership with to promote the show and ostensibly encourage applicants to gather supporters. AmCan didn't follow through on the meetups, and even though the next one is scheduled for June 21, none of the chosen candidates or the show's producers seem to be doing anything to actually use meetup. But, a few applicants seem to have recognized the potential there that American Candidate producers can't see.

The vast majority of American Candidate meetup message boards are empty, but the Santa Monica board stands out both in terms of activity and content. One participant there that the LA Times described as "an artist known as Boke" has been pushing readers to think about what the hundreds of applicants and the hundreds of American Candidate meetup members might actually do with their collective power, and how they might use meetup to create gatherings that are fun and worthwhile for both the participants and a TV viewing audience.

He's created a "Democratically Electrified Society of Doomed Orators" called DESODO, and humorously suggested that if candidates intend to debate, those the audience deem losers will be fed to the sharks off the Santa Monica Pier. Sounds silly, but he's also been writing about ways audiences and candidates could actually, really, interact using electronic mediums. Ways that both could be part of the show and the dialogue -- outside the usual fare of rallies and press conferences such as those Cutler's been serving up.

Elsewhere, a group of American Candidate applicants have formed their own message boards and website called "American Leaders," and they too are discussing possible alternatives to Cutler's design. They've been tossing around the idea of organizing and putting on a convention timed to coincide with the climax of Cutler's American Candidate.

Presumably, the point would be for the applicants Cutler "left behind" and out of "the political process" to use all the work they've put forth discussing the issues and ideas on meetup, the message boards, and their own webpages, to build momentum in the electronic mediums in a real and open democratic process well beyond Cutler's closed version. Then, to hold that convention and select an "American Candidate" from their own ranks – one that could challenge Cutler's choice for the public's vote.

Now that's something that actually might cut through the cynicism Cutler's design has created and really get folks involved in new ways. That's something I'd pay to see.