Caught on Tape: Obama Adviser Explains How to Control Media

Anita Dunn made headlines last week for calling out Fox News. Now she's drawing attention for comments she made about how the Obama campaign managed to control and route around the traditional press.
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White House Communications Director Anita Dunn made headlines last week for calling out Fox News. Now she's drawing attention for comments she made about how the Obama campaign managed to control and route around the traditional press. You can bet this video is going viral. (Embedded below).

In footage from a January conference, Dunn candidly explains the campaign's disciplined emphasis on disintermediation:

The reality is that whether it was a David Plouffe video or an Obama speech ... a huge part of our press strategy was focused on making the media cover what Obama was actually saying -- as opposed to why the campaign was saying it, what the tactic was ... One of the reasons we did so many of the David Plouffe videos was not just for our supporters, but also because it was a way for us to get our message out without having to actually talk to reporters. We just put that out there and make them write what Plouffe had said -- as opposed to Plouffe doing an interview with a reporter. So it was very much we controlled it, as opposed to the press controlled it. And it did not always make us popular with the press... increasingly by the General Election, very rarely did we communicate through the press anything that we didn't absolutely control.

The political establishment -- from top reporters to rival campaigns -- was slow to grasp this dynamic during the actual campaign. Back in January 2008, for example, Obama broke several viewership records on YouTube, reaching voters directly, without comment from the press or countermeasures by other candidates:

Obama was the only presidential candidate to tape a rebuttal to President Bush's State of the Union for YouTube.... [it] was the most watched clip in the world... The public has shown overwhelming and sustained interest in hearing from Obama directly. This is the third Obama video to shoot into YouTube's top three in the past 10 days -- past clips of naked celebrities and Scientology rants -- and the first video that was shot specifically for web viewers, rather than broadcasting documentary footage of a speech.... The traditional media has been slow to grasp Obama's YouTube surge. (There has not been a single article in a major newspaper about the new records in the last 10 days.) YouTube politics are largely covered for gaffes (Macaca) and attacks (1984 ad). But the press is starting to notice the flipside of the Obama Campaign's communication strategy. It's the part that affects them. As the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz reports in a new article:

"In an age of all-out political warfare, the Obama campaign is a bit of an odd duck: It is not obsessed with winning each news cycle. [Obama] remains a remote figure to those covering him, and his team, while competent and professional, makes only spotty attempts to drive its preferred story lines in the press... Obama often goes days without taking questions from national reporters... the absence of a senior official traveling with the press is a sign of benign neglect.... Newsweek correspondent Richard Wolffe [adds] 'The contact is limited. . . . They see the national media more as a logistical problem than a channel for getting stuff out.'"

So reporters are noticing that Obama is not using them to get stuff out. As a presidential candidate, of course, he is getting tons of stuff out. But whenever possible, he is routing around the filters and gatekeepers so that he can speak directly to voters.

It is a classic disintermediation approach.

The campaign events, speeches and clips are targeted to reach the voting public and bypass media framing. Kurtz describes how a Times reporter finally confronted Obama on a recent trip with a question -- about whether Bill Clinton was getting "inside his head." It's the kind of vapid media framing that annoys candidates and voters alike. And apparently, many people would rather hear Obama speak substantively in response to the State of the Union than hear him take strategy questions. There is a potential downside here, of course. The media does not usually like being disintermediated.

I wrote that in January, though at the time, no Obama aides would confirm the strategy on the record. So Dunn's blunt assessment is illuminating -- at least from the insidery lens of political media -- to see how the upper echelons of the campaign prioritized primary sourced messaging over the tactical coverage that dominates political news.

Her conference video continues:

Senator Obama himself did a lot of local television. We went to as much live television as posisble. So it couldn't be edited when it came to him -- it was live. So that he could speak in a longer than 12-second soundbite; So that what the voters heard we determined, as opposed to some editor in a TV station. But we went to alternative media a great deal.... One of the reason the website works so well is we used opportunities in the traditional media to drive people online, to basically say: 'That's where you can get more information; That's where you can get updated information.'

Notice that Dunn's emphasis is not the conventional description of Obama's web success, which focuses on (impressive) fundraising and field developments. She is interested in leveraging the reach of broadcast media to recruit and transfer audiences towards the campaign, as a primary source of media itself.

Dunn's conference video was buried on YouTube, racking up only 300 views on a Spanish language account in the 9 months since it was uploaded. It got a second life on Sunday night, however, when the sensationalist conservative website WorldNetDaily touted it in an overheated article that reads like it's from a Right Wing issue of The Onion:

White House boasts: We 'control' news media
Communications chief offers shocking confession to foreign government

It always goes back to the foreign stuff, apparently. The article also echoes Glenn Beck's counter-attack -- the Fox anchor responded to Dunn's criticism of the network by noting that she once quoted Mao in an educational address. (The horror!)

Of course, it's a little rich that this footage about routing around sensational media is only surfacing because sensational media is counter-attacking Dunn for her criticisms of sensational media.

As she explains in the same video, however, "thanks to YouTube, anything you say you should expect to be on YouTube."

Ari Melber writes for The Nation, where this piece first appeared.

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