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Obama and Politics 2.0: Documenting History in Real Time

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, July 17 2008

I'm taking a crack at liveblogging an event tonight [ed. -- now last night] at NYU featuring Arun Chaudhary, director of video field production for the Obama campaign, in conversation with Ellen McGirt, senior writer at Fast Company and author of magazine's April 2008 cover story "The Brand Called Obama." Arun left his job as an adjunct film professor at NYU to produce video that pulls from public events, behind the scenes, and one-on-ones -- unique creative content that populates and a YouTube channel. Let's get started.

(Originally posted at

I'm taking a crack at liveblogging an event tonight [ed. -- now last night] at NYU featuring Arun Chaudhary, director of video field production for the Obama campaign, in conversation with Ellen McGirt, senior writer at Fast Company and author of magazine's April 2008 cover story "The Brand Called Obama." Arun left his job as an adjunct film professor at NYU to produce video that pulls from public events, behind the scenes, and one-on-ones -- unique creative content that populates and a YouTube channel. Let's get started.

Asked about the new media team, Arun describes at least 50 people crammed into one corner of an office building floor with with "pictures of JFK and graph paper tacked up on the wall." Arun says the new media team spends a fair amount of money, but they're buying fishing poles rather than fish; the broadcast quality footage they capture, for example, can be used for advertising in addition to online video. Asked about past campaigns he tried working with, Arun says they saw media as "too precious" to take creative risks with.

Arun explains his hire by the campaign by saying 'you can learn the politics. You can learn how to navigate these worlds. But you can't really learn the trades very quickly.' The campaign has been attracting successful people that way, he says, naming Facebook's Chris Hughes, who came on to handle social-networking. Arun then screens a well-crafted mock movie trailer calling people to a rally in New York's Washington Square Park that features Obama in slightly goofy situations. Ellen: "We've never seen anything like this before":

Ellen asks if the technology was in place three years ago to make video like this. "The technology was there three years ago, but I don't think the right audience was," says Arun. Back then, he jokes, there were just six hundred of the same people commenting on political blogs and that's it; online participation today spans a wider segment of the population.* Ellen ask how he managed to get approval for the trailer video from the campaign and the candidate. Arun laughs a bit nervously, "I don't know if the candidate saw it," but says that it made its way, he believes, to the level of campaign manager.

The next video was crafted to call people to the pre-Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa, as, Arun says, showing organizational strength was the key to getting attention and momentum in that state. Ellen asks if there was a concern that Obama and guest attendee John Legend were the only African-Americans seen in the clip. Arun pointed to the Internet Archive's Prelinger Archives as the source of the overly white footage. (At the actual event, the video team had five cameras and five videographers in place capturing footage.):

Next video. An Iowa call-to-caucus piece, says Arun, is a campaign classic. It both asks Iowans to caucus for their particular candidate and educates voters on how to actually go through the confusing caucusing process. Both the Obama campaign and the Edwards campaign went the route of a dated instructional-style video, he says. (Arun praises the Hillary Clinton campaign's call-to-caucus video which featured Bill Clinton eating a cheeseburger and saying something along the lines of "exercising is hard, but caucusing is easy."):

It was the campaign's "traditional media" team, says Arun, that whipped together a quick response to the Clinton campaign's 3 a.m. phone call ad. But the new media team tracked down the young girl in the stock footage, Casey Knowles, an Obama precinct captain in Washington State. In the one-minute video, Casey deconstructs the techniques in the Clinton ad -- the blue tint to the footage, the "scratchy voice" -- and slams the "politics of fear." An ad like that, says Arun, would never make on air, but works well online:

The candidate was in Terre Haute, Arun says, when the news broke that Obama had earlier made remarks in California concerning "bitter" Americans. Obama inserted a response to the incident in his Indiana speech. The new media team, says Arun, edited, packaged, and released the candidate's own words within 19 minutes of the speech's delivery. A lesson learned, says Arun, is that people are actually interested in the "sound blast," and will watch long clips in their entirety:

He also cites Obama's speech at their Chicago headquarters.The 14 minute clip shows the candidate addressing his staff, both in person and through a conference call (which creates a few minutes of less-than-thrilling footage when the call goes dead and Obama has to stall while it's reconnected). It wasn't deliberately shot low-fi for an extra dose of authenticity, Arun says, as some people suggested. There was no intention to create some sort of "Tanner 88" moment. It was just, he says, that there was an intern manning the camera:

Asked by Emily about what an Obama administration might bring, Arun says that the role of video in an administration would be even more powerful than in a campaign. He mentions the broadcasting of health care meetings -- creating a broader base of people who are able to keep an eye on the proceedings. The idea, Arun says, is not 'telling people who tell people to tell people,' but to use video to tell people directly. The role of video in governing, he says, is to achieve the goal of "cutting out the middleman."


Question: There's a discontinuity in your work with high video quality and no sound mixing. Why?
Arun: We shoot as high quality as we can because it might be used for broadcast, but get used to it -- a lot of the networks are going so broke that they're getting rid of their "sound guys."

Question: What role with user-generated content play in presidential campaigns?

Arun: Using voter-generated content while probably remain "an unrealized ideal." Much of the content that gets sent to them is "a little strange."

Question: Why is new media going to make young people come out and vote?

It isn't. Barack Obama is what is going to make people come out and vote.

Question: If you embrace an interactive politics 2.0, how do you avoid politicizing governing?

Arun: I think we're ready for 1.5. We'll [ed. -- a clarification: "we" here is a reference to political campaigns in general, and to the tools that might come into common use -- not a reference to the Obama campaign in particular] have virtual townhalls, for sure.

* Updated to correct: The original line referenced political blogs; in making the joke, Arun was referencing hard-core blog commenters.

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