Monday, July 12, 2004

American Candidate (Showtime): Let's Play the AmCan Casting Game … Who's Your Connection?

When Showtime and RJ Cutler announced American Candidate, they suggested connections wouldn't matter. But, when it came to casting, it looks like they did.

Today, we're going to play an Internet search-based variation of six degrees of separation, one that illustrates some of the connections between several of American Candidate's players and illuminates aspects of the casting process neither Cutler nor Showtime is willing to comment on right now. And although they may not want to comment, a bit of googling reveals yet another way in which American Candidate seems to have played an old-fashioned political game.

Networking. The kind where who many of the cast knew seems to have helped get them on the show.

I know, those of you following this blog are shocked by this turn of events!

After all, you thought the various follies already exposed in this blog, such as Cutler's decision to cast exactly the sort of Ivy Leaguers, millionaires, and children of real presidential candidates that he claimed made people feel the real political process disenfranchised ordinary folks, were just an abberation. Especially since Cutler told The Guardian that "Just as American Idol went searching for undiscovered musical talent, American Candidate will be on the hunt for untapped political and leadership skill."

And besides, right smack over there on the AmCan website, there's a press release where Showtime executive Robert Greenblatt claims that although "The ideas upon which this country was built – that anyone can run for public office and each voice counts – seem to be a thing of the past... This show, which is designed to find the ideal ‘American candidate’ from out of obscurity, will try to change all that." And that "this unique series is designed to find an unknown leader from the ranks of ordinary citizens who could catapult to national prominence."

Surely, the casting crew of American Candidate wouldn't have chosen to go with already "tapped" political and leadership skill. The kind that makes a good many of the cast of American Candidate far from "obscure," but very well connected in the national networks of professional politics where they've advanced their careers. The kind that means cast members like Bruce Friedrich, Chrissy Gephardt, Keith Boykin, Malia Lazu, and Lisa Witter already act as advisors, executives, directors, or sit on several boards of various political activist organizations and spend a good portion of their lives on the conference / convention circuit or being interviewed by the major media in print or on TV.

Just because Jennifer Netherby of Variety reported in June, after the cast was revealed, that "producers of the mock-presidential election series hired experts in grass-roots political recruitment to research potential contestants before they were contacted and informed about the show," doesn't mean that those experts weren't picking "average" or "ordinary" citizens like Cutler and Greenblatt claimed.

Surely the "experts in grass-roots political recruitment" wouldn't have gone with what they already knew -- like those professionals RJ told the Kansas City Star he didn't want when he said that "The Founding Fathers did not envision political professionals running this country … They were going to emerge from other walks of life." The kinds of professionals who wouldn't need the show to function as what Cutler described to CNN as "a platform" for contestants "to launch their political careers."

Surely they wouldn't have so blatantly contradicted Showtime's and Cutler's descriptions of American Candidate by relying on the non-revolutionary, usual form of networking that already gives us politicians.

If they did though … and picked cast members who actually functioned almost as nexuses in the activist networks … the connections amongst some of the supposedly "unknown leader[s] from the ranks of ordinary citizens" might look something like this ...

Lisa Witter who was named the Rising Star of the Year by the Washington State Democrats in 1998 has been rising ever since. Oxygen named her as a "Fearless Leader" and honored her as "an outstanding activist and expert on women's issues." She also is the co-founder of Institute for a Democratic Future and a former Emerge executive committee member and current advisory board member. Emerge is supported by American Candidate Advisor Marie Wilson whose statement that "Emerge will create a whole new pool of vibrant, dynamic and politically-savvy candidates. We need more organizations like Emerge," appears as a rotating endorsement quote on the organization's front page.

Lisa Witter and Marie Wilson also crossed paths just this last April when both were slated speakers at the national April 2004 Women's Funding Network Conference.

The timing may well have been fortuitous, since an article recently released by Women's e News reveals that Marie Wilson "helped recruit female applicants." (Although, as you know, Witter's late appearance has raised many other questions.)

Witter is also Executive Vice President and General Manager of Fenton Communications, "the country's largest public interest strategy and media firm," and Fenton and Witter's position there make her a major player in so many circles it's difficult to list them all.

But I will give you a sampling.

Fenton Communications "current and former" clients include:

The John F. Kennedy School of Government, where of course, AmCan advisor Dr. Elaine Kamarck currently hangs her hood.

Showtime's American Candidate "Strategic Partner" "Rock the Vote"

Showtime (though that appears to be an isolated case of one show)

The "Institute for Policy Studies" where Malia Lazu is "the project director for Democracy Action Project."

And, as they note in their latest newsletter, this spring, Fenton also worked with the LGBT community and is currently working with groups such as the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Freedom to Marry -- a "gay and non-gay partnership campaign seeking to win the right for same-sex couples to marry."

This is one of the major issues in which LGBT advocates Keith Boykin and Chrissy Gephardt are deeply involved via the National Black Justice Coalition (Boykin is President) and the National Stonewall Democrats (Gephardt is their spokeswoman and Grassroots Campaign Corps Director).

In addition, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, for whose causes Boykin has often worked and by whom he has been honored for his work, oftentimes partners with the National Stonewall Democrats on various activist projects. And of course, as the various press releases in the last few weeks have made eminently clear, Boykin advised President Clinton on LGBT matters and Chrissy Gephardt did the same for her presidential contender father. There's little need to examine Boykin's or Gephardt's connections extensively here. A quick google of either reveals more than enough press to expell any doubt about their connections and experience in highly political positions.

I will mention, though, that they appear in a trifecta link in Trailmix, the National Stonewall Democrats' blog. Trailmix notes "Chrissy will be joined on American Candidate by our friends Keith Boykin and Malia Lazu." and "Malia is a field director for the Young Voter Alliance, a new partnership effort of the Stonewall Student Network and four other groups, which seeks to turn out young voters for Democrats this fall."

Meanwhile, The Pace, the blog for the Young Democrats of America who are one of the groups partnering with the Stonewall Student Network on the Young Voter Alliance, has announced that "We have two friends of YDA that are running as 'American Candidates' - Malia Lazu and Lisa Witter.

And both Lisa Witter and Malia Lazu were slated to appear at "Take Back America" the 2004 National Conference in DC for "Campaign for America's Future."

Yet another of the groups that make up the Young Voter Alliance is Clickback America. As Clickback America explains, the organization is a partner with MoveOn.org and "Each time you take an action at Click Back America, $1 will be donated on your behalf to the MoveOn.org Voter Fund." And as you are no doubt aware, based on Lisa Witter's and MoveOn.org's press releases, MoveOn.org is one of Witter's major clients.

Furthermore, like Witter, Lazu also has crossed paths with AmCan advisor Marie Wilson. In the last year, Malia Lazu and Marie Wilson were speakers at least two of the same conferences.

And Marie Wilson has worked before with the Center for Voting and Democracy where Malia has served on the board of directors.

However, Lazu has other connections as well, too many in fact to list them all here. Suffice it to say that in addition to her duties with the Young Voter Alliance, her many conference and convention appearances, and the other organizations she serves, the Young Democrats of America also note that "She was named "Activist of the Month" by MTV [Viacom] in June 2000, and is a board member of the Youth Council of The Partnership for Excellence in Government as a representative of MTV [Viacom]. She currently sits on the following boards; YouthVote, Dunk the Vote, Council for Excellence in Government, Declaration Generation and the Center for Voting and Democracy-education committee."

And this is just a sampling of the connections -- for Malia as well as the others. For the curious, there is much more available simply by googling.

So, what does all this prove once we realize that several contestants, a few show advisors, and even organizations affiliated in some ways with Showtime and American Candidate move in the same circles? Is it a conspiracy?

No. It's not a casting conspiracy. It's networking – the way things are always done – in business and politics. Cutler's "experts in grass-roots political recruitment" simply gave him the other experts in grass-roots activism that he didn't hire.

The problem, though, is that Cutler and Showtime led hundreds of people, and the press, to believe that they wouldn't be rewarding just the sort of networking connections that most of Cutler's cast has but that "ordinary" "unknown leaders" don't. They used Cutler's reputation and cultural capital, and that of the "advisors" listed in the AmCan press releases, to persuade people to believe that they meant what they said.

Showtime and Cutler chose a cast in which it's obvious the majority of the 10 picks already have the networks and connections needed to launch political careers. A cast already so busily engaged in politics, that for many of them, politics in some form or another is their career, and one in which candidates such as Bruce Friedrich, Chrissy Gephardt, Keith Boykin, Lisa Witter, and Malia Lazu already are frequently interviewed by major media. They're far from obscure and certainly not the "non-pros" Cutler once claimed he wanted to encourage.

Back in May, when AmCan was still stringing the "ordinary" applicants along while it invited the hand-picked ones out to LA, he told Carina Chocano of the LA Times that "Our goal is to identify future leaders," and "I think it's more realistic and exciting to imagine each of the 12 people who are on our show returning home to their communities, getting involved, running for city council, running for Congress or mayor or senator and then looking back on this 12 years from now and saying, 'Wow, half of those 12 people are in positions in government now and one of them is rising quickly.'"

But the people he'd invited out to LA in May were already prominent leaders in various political organizations. Of course they're going to go back to their communities and get involved – hell, that's their real careers. Richard Mack was even running for governor when American Candidate convinced him to give it up.

And all of this raises a few interesting questions.

To draw upon on AmCan quote in another of my entries, if this show is about "a political system that isn't working," and a "groundbreaking" approach to politics, then why did the casting process use one of the oldest political systems around?

Does anyone really expect that using the same old methods will produce something revolutionary?

And finally … particularly when they've selected a group that had the means, the connections and the press access to run for real if they so chose …

What does it say about American Candidate's casting and the show itself when they recruited people who already could have run for city council, mayor, or Congress, but didn't?