Tuesday, June 15, 2004

American Candidate (Showtime): RJ Cutler's Credibility is on the line, but his American Candidate picks are making it hard for him to keep it.

Eight posts in, and I've gotta start making these entries shorter. Too much information and writing on the fly makes for some seriously long posts. And if I'm irritated by the way this show seems to be shaping up according to the AmCan publicity and the regular press reports out there, I'm betting the applicants are too. Someone send me a TV project I can actually praise – quick – before I lose what's left of my sense of humor!

RJ Cutler's credibility has been taking a beating in the press and online lately, but he's still trying to convince folks that American Candidate is the real deal. Unfortunately, his actions and those of the candidates are creating discrepancies in the story faster than Cutler can say "no comment."

In a scene last weekend described by a writer for the Keene Sentinel as
"as real as a movie set," Cutler had Montel Williams emoting for the cameras and asking the crowd "to take the show seriously, saying 'We're going to change the way America thinks about the election process'." Since Montel is scheduled to hold a news conference tomorrow morning at the Calo Building in Allentown, we'll probably get a similar stump speech from there.

It may not work though, considering how the candidates' own antics and Cutler's design are making AmCan look more like a regular reality show every day.

First there was the disingenuous encouragement American Candidate gave to regular applicants to keep them publicizing the show and providing window dressing. Then, the ongoing problems with the AmCan websites, where even trying to participate was like a tech geek's version of a Fear Factor perseverance test.

Then came an article in the LA Times, where American Candidate
Bob Vanech told some AmCan secrets, but managed to catch himself and show some good old-fashioned "emerging political skills" as Lynn Smith of the Times wrote. As she put it, "in exchange for keeping his remarks off the record," Vanech said "I'll give you some better stuff later." Readers here will recall that Bob Vanech also courted favor with the producers by providing them free advertising and is now trying to buy supporters by hawking the chance to be on TV. If this is vision, I think Cutler's in trouble.

Next, American Candidate
Keith Boykin goofed and revealed that he knew so little about the actual application process regular folks had to go through, and so little about the American Candidate website, that he practically admitted to the world he'd been ushered to the front of the line and granted an exemption from the "rules."

Now it looks like
Lisa Witter's campaign has been caught in a fib.

Remember the questions surrounding the after-the-fact appearance of American Candidate websites for five of the handpicked pols? Lisa Witter's campaign was facing the same problem as Boykin's. She was announcing a candidacy when she didn't have a webpage on American Candidate, yet anyone could see the 416 webpages for applicants who had met American Candidate's April 9
"final deadline."

How could she explain the obvious discrepancy … particularly when the regular applicants were already raising the issue?

Lisa Witter's press release told readers,
"Due to technical difficulties Lisa's profile does not yet appear on the Web site. Showtime is working to post it as soon as possible." It seemed reasonable at first glance. After all, anyone looking on the American Candidate message boards would see multiple complaints about that.

Except in Witter's case, it seems there weren't any difficulties. A secret source in the know has revealed to me that Witter's American Candidate webpage was active less than an hour after she typed her first entries.

Meanwhile, Cutler and Montel want us take the show seriously, but Lynn Smith reported that Greenblatt was talking entertainment and suggesting that
"some offbeat characters might make it into the final 12." If Joyce Riley's and Richard Mack's online supporters are any indication, at least two did. One poster wants us to know that Riley and Mack "are the only two legitimate candidates in this race," that the two are "friends" and that Mack "has been on her show several times." That's a show heavily featured on just about every conspiracy theory site out there.

If you're wondering what some of those sites might be, just check the login names for some of the Mack and Riley supporters. They're using the addresses as names, and some have been spamming the American Candidate message boards demanding readers go to their sites, or posting expletive laden attacks (quickly deleted). Several are warning readers of dark cabals secretly controlling America and a coming police state, while also telling us 9-11 was, as one puts it,
"an inside job," and "None of your issues matter. NONE."

Even without his supporters' tendency to spam, Richard Mack has been creating credibility problems for AmCan with his very presence on the show. American Candidate originally asserted that "contestants will not be 'testing the waters' for a candidacy for public office" and the eligibility requirements on their application forms made it look like running for a real office wasn't allowed.

While the application forms did change after American Candidate altered the age, citizenship, and travel time requirements, the public office question remained the same:

Given that American Candidate had already discussed eligibility requirements in the press and even with the FEC, applicants believed that holding or seeking public office disqualified them. One even dropped out when he decided to actually run for a local public office. American Candidate had led them to believe that, under
"Determination of Eligibility" on the application, contestants were required to answer "NO" to holding or seeking public office. But now it looks like that question didn't apply.

American Candidate now says that the chosen candidates simply can't be running for office during actual
"production" of the show, but that contrasts sharply with the words "currently" and "between now and November 2004" on the application still available in cache form online today.

There's another slight problem with all these assertions, new or old. Since American Candidate's website went active in March, they've been inviting the public to
"See How They [Candidates] Run" and featuring Richard Mack prominently, with not only his photograph and a link to his AmCan page, oftentimes on the front pages of the entire site, but also in the written text of their invitation that they explicitly describe as a "race," and an "opportunity to build up public support on this website," by "campaigning online and in person." In other words, American Candidate has been and still is asserting that the people featured on their websites have been running, campaigning, and building public support since March.

In their own words, Mack has been too. And until the first week of June, he was also campaigning, really campaigning, for governor in Utah. More importantly, he was using his AmCan website explicitly to campaign for governor. In fact, his AmCan site still contains no American Candidate campaign entries, but rather, directs readers to his campaign site for governor,

Apparently, American Candidate, would like to have it both ways. They want to claim the window dressing was actually meaningful campaigning and use it as part of the show, but they also want to claim that it isn't part of the show when it comes to Mack. There's a new twist on how to think about "the election process."

Finally, I told myself I wouldn't do it, but I just can't resist. Cutler keeps trying to assure us his picks for AmCan are new and different from the politicians we're used to. But, according to John Lapp, a former campaign manager for Dick Gephardt, when it comes to
Chrissy, "If we can't have Dick Gephardt, we'll have the next best thing."
Let's hope Lapp isn't managing Chrissy's campaign … for Cutler's sake.

At this point in the mess, I could almost feel sorry for Cutler, except for one thing. When SF Weekly's Matt Smith questioned Cutler about the credibility of the selection process, Cutler said
"The decisions as to who gets on the show are made by producers of the show – by me – and by Showtime working together. I take full responsibility for that."