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ObamaGirl Video Only a Distraction if the Media Makes It One

BY Colin Delany | Monday, June 18 2007

Cross-posted on e.politics

Take a look at Media Matters today for a glimpse of the potential problems with mixing citizen-generated content and our current political culture — how segments of the mainstream media react when they're presented with something other than the usual scripted campaign events and talking points. I'm talking about Obamagirl, of course (bless her heart), whose winsome smile and winning figure were all over cable news the past few days.

Was her crush on the candidate a plus for him? A minus? Who knows for sure, but some commentators were happy to fit the moment into a running media theme about Obama — that he's too young and too pretty to be President of the United States. Obama lacks substance, apparently, despite the dry policy speeches he's happy to give, and the Obamagirl video fits into the world-view of that part of the political commentariat that doesn't want to take him seriously.

Okay, let's everybody step back for a second. This is an online video. Made by an independent company. Trying to promote itself. And sell t-shirts. While it relies on a common perception of Barak Obama (that he's an attractive man with charisma), the video reveals NOTHING about him as a candidate that we didn't already know.

Here's how the online world treated Obamagirl — we watched the video in droves. We forwarded it to friends who also might like it. A few of us wrote substantive and serious articles about it. Of course, I'm sure it stirred up a certain amount of silliness and the kind of commentary not to be repeated on a family television show, but I have a hard time believing that the video swayed many potential primary voters either way (I will, however, guaran-damn-tee that it will have a very positive effect on the modeling career of one Amber Lee Ettinger).

By contrast, here's how MSNBC News Live treated it on June 17, with help from the Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe:

Anchor Alex Witt said that she had a "concern" that the online video could encourage a "dumb[ing] down" of "political discourse." O'Keefe responded that the "Obama Girl" video "reinforces that debate and I think it's an important one, you know, is Obama a guy that we can trust with the presidency? Does he have good ideas?" None of Obama's "ideas", nor those of any other presidential candidate, were discussed during the segment.

While O'Keefe noted, "[H]ere we are four days after the video surfaced talking about this and not perhaps talking about what the Obama campaign would want us to talk about. I don't necessarily know what that is," Obama gave a speech on June 15 discussing ways to "strengthen families" in a "new economy." In that speech, he discussed his health care plan, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Nurse-Family Partnership and a "transitional jobs" program....

While Witt expressed "concern" for the effect of "Obama Girl" on "political discourse," her own cable network has given extensive attention to "Obama Girl." MSNBC was indeed still talking about the video for "four days after the video surfaced," as O'Keefe noted. MSNBC News Live covered the "Obama Girl" video on June 14, 15, and 16; immediately prior to O'Keefe's appearance, Witt aired a clip of an interview with the woman featured in the "Obama Girl" video, Amber Lee Ettinger.

Media Matters has a longer transcript and video, if you're interested. Okay, so, the problem is that the video is a distraction. BUT, the reason it's a distraction is that parts of the traditional news media are treating it as such. Who's dumbing down the discourse? Not the video producers — they made an excellent piece of parody, with clever lyrics, good shooting and good editing. Who's jumping through hoops to avoid talking about the substance of political issues? Seems pretty clear from here. No wonder Colbert Report and Daily Show viewers know more about public policy than people who get their information from traditional tv news. Too many on television had rather talk about Obama's good looks or Fred Thompson's manly smell than about the issues that OUGHT to dominate our discourse. As Bob Somerby never tires of pointing out, too much ink and airtime are spent repeating The Script — the punditocracy's preconceptions about the candidates.

How about this? Why not treat the Obamagirls and the 1984 ads as what they are — the creations of individual voters, thrown out for our education and enjoyment, and not necessarily indications of some general trend in the zeitgeist. Judge the campaigns by how they react, absolutely, but let's stash the "gotcha culture" someplace safe before it hurts us more than it already has. Here's how I wish the Obama campaign would respond to the next crush on him:

"Senator Obama is flattered by Obamagirl's attention, but he must remind her that he is a happily married man. He hopes that she will have the same affection for his substantive ideas about moving our country forward."

cpd

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