Will you YouTube vote for me?
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Will you YouTube vote for me?

Date: October 5, 2007
By: Sarah D. Wire and Lucie Wolken
State Capitol Bureau
Links: YouTube video of Nixon and Missourian2008

JEFFERSON CITY - The recent YouTube video claiming to show Missouri's attorney general using a state car to attend a political fund raiser has highlighted video sites are serving as both as a tool and a danger for Missouri politicians.

On Sept. 25, a YouTube video was posted allegedly showing Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon using his state vehicle to travel to fund raising events for his gubernatorial campaign.

Details about how the video was recorded and who is responsible for posting the incident are unknown. Even the source of the video, still posted, is impossible because YouTube does not require a full name, only a valid email. 

In the case of Nixon, the videos were posted on YouTube by a person with the user-name BRDT1, providing only the name "Wiggy," and the location, "United States," on his YouTube profile.  YouTube lists five mostly anti-Nixon videos from BRDT1 going back two months ago.

One day after the video was posted, the state Republican Party sent a release to the general media directing reporters to the site.  It quickly became a statewide political story in mainstream media.

"When it catches the attention of the mainstream media, that's when we see that it can have an affect on a political candidate or on a campaign," said Mitchell McKinney, MU Political Science professor.

Nixon's campaign spokesman said that although the Republican Party tried to sensationalize the video, it doesn't have much bearing on the campaign.

"We won't cater our campaign to our opponents YouTube attacks," Nixon Spokesman Oren Shur said.

The attention received by the Nixon YouTube video demonstrates how the video site has entered the realm of Missouri state politics.

The impact of a YouTube video on politics was demonstrated nationally in 2006 when the Republican U.S. Senator George Allen was defeated after coverage of a YouTube video showing him using a racial epithet.

As video sites such as YouTube have gained popularity, more politicians are scanning the sites, placing their own videos and watching for any clips that may be damaging to their careers.  And it's become a factor in Missouri politics.

"These are public officials, or they want to be public officials, and certainly we the people should know what they are saying. They deserve some ability to have some down time and to be spontaneous, that is true. Laws of harassment are in effect," McKinney said. "I tend to come down on the side that the more information that we have, the better."

Hiring political operatives, or "trackers" to catch controversial moments on film has become a part of some local campaigns.

According to the Governor's re-election campaign spokesperson, John Hancock, the state Democrat's have hired a cameraman to follow Gov. Matt Blunt.

"We are certainly aware that a camera is present where we are, and it probably does have an affect sometimes, but the governor has a message to deliver whenever he goes out and speaks and he is going to deliver it whether Jay Nixon has got a camera pointed at him or not," Hancock said.

Democrat Party Spokesman Jack Cardetti said the party initially hired a "tracker" -- a cameraman and researcher -- Vinay Vaz, to follow Blunt and monitor his speeches about stem cell research.

"We found out very quickly that how he talks about the issue of stem cell research in conservative parts of the state versus how he talks about stem cell research in front of your more business republican groups was extremely different," Cardetti said. "So we picked up very early on because of our tracker that Gov. Blunt likes to talk out of both sides of his mouth on the stem cell issue. That is certainly information that is useful to people."

Vaz has received $5,205.21 since July 31 according to campaign finance reports filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission.

Having a cameraman or "tracker" is not unique to the Democrats.

"We had a fellow that was employed by the campaign that did a variety of things that included shooting some footage of Jay Nixon. But we don't have anyone presently with that duty," Hancock said.

Hancock did not rule out the possibility of employing someone to follow Nixon in the future.

Although some revealing videos have damaged the careers of politicians in other states, many of those running for statewide office said they are not concerned with people filming them.

"I'm not afraid of people who are trying to catch me, I say bring it on," Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, said. "What I say to one person is the same thing I'd say to a thousand people in a public place."

Harris is running for the Democratic nomination for Attorney General against Rep. Margaret Donnelly, D- St. Louis and Sen. Chris Koster (the state senator from Harrisonville who was elected as a Republican, but switched parties earlier this year).

"All candidates at a statewide level are aware that anything they do or say can now end up on a YouTube screen and I think it is something that is ever-present in all of our minds," Koster said.

Spokesmen from both of the state's major political parties said candidates are prepared for the constant scrutiny.

"Candidates know that in this 24 hour a day news cycle and blogs that they're every move and their every move is watched more," Cardetti said.

Republican Party Spokesman Paul Sloca agreed and said the scrutiny holds candidates accountable because now the public can see more that just what shows up on T.V.

"What has changed is that you have to continuously be ready to respond and communicate in a quick way, in a clever way and I think that is a challenge for any campaign," Donnelly said.

Except for Harris, each of the candidates have incorporated YouTube into their campaigns.

Harris said there was no particular reason for the absence, just that his campaign has not yet gotten to the YouTube-type aspect.

His delay was questioned by Andrew Franks who is the Midwest Chapter President of the American Association of Political Consultants.

"There's a lot of keeping up with the Jones' in politics, frankly as easy as it is I'm surprised they don't have them," Franks said. 

Donnelly has released one campaign ad solely on the Internet.

"I think the growth of communicating over the Internet will continue and YouTube is just part of that," Donnelly said. "I plan to be an active YouTube user in this campaign."

The expected Republican candidate for attorney general, Sen. President Pro Tem Mike Gibbons, said he plans on incorporating YouTube into his campaign.  "It can be an inexpensive way to convey your message," the St. Louis County Republican said.

Beyond catching embarrassing political moments or serving as a way to spread campaign messages, there are some political spoofs that make fun of certain parties or events. National politics has spoofs such as "Obama Girl" who sings about her love for Presidential candidate Barack Obama, Missouri has Missourian2008.

"I like some of the ones the Missourian does on the legislature," Donnelly said.

Donnelly was referring to Missourian2008, a YouTube user who has posted 10 spoof videos of Republican leaders.

Missourian2008 was not willing to speak without anonymity. The user's videos use footage from within the House and Senate chambers along with manipulated photos of Republicans. Each video says it is not connected with a specific political party.

Missourian2008's spoofs include Gov. Blunt pushing physically handicapped people from the Capitol's roof and a lobbyist's harem of politicians he has "bought" with campaign money.

MU Journalism Professor Charles Davis said using YouTube videos, which are difficult to attribute or verify, violates some of journalism's major tenants.

"Just because there is visual evidence doesn't mean it's true," Davis said. "Visual evidence like anything else can be abused."

Local television stations agree.

"Things get put on YouTube for a reason, people have an agenda," said Curtis Varns, KMIZ News Director.

Both KOMU and KMIZ said they did not broadcast the Nixon car video and would have to have indepth discussions before similar videos would be considered.

"I think you merit them about the same as if some guy you don't know on the street corner in Columbia was whispering something in somebodies ear," Davis said. "If you have an unverified source, with an unidentifiable agenda, posting a video without any context, how can that be the source of any serious allegation against anybody, in any political context?" 

While YouTube can serve as an information outlet for Missourians, politicians struggle with it because their message cannot be targeted to just one group like television or radio advertising can, Franks said.

Just because a video is on YouTube doesn't mean it will be viewed by new or undecided voters, he said.

"Mostly the people who are looking at the videos are partisan anyway. They are not independent voters," Cardetti said. "They are probably somebody that is extremely interested in politics, they are probably already a democrat or a republican."

McKinney said that is the biggest problem with effectively using YouTube as a campaign tool.

"By and large, the folks out there aren't going to YouTube for this," McKinney said.

Campaigns which hire trackers must compensate them as well as provide equipment which can add to campaign costs.

"I haven't seen anything even that has cut down on campaign costs," Hancock, who has been involved in politics for 30 years, said. "It's a new vendor to pay, it's a new service to provide, it's a new medium to engage."

YouTube was created in 2005. Videos can be accessed and uploaded for free. The YouTube spokesperson was unavailable for comment.