A Race Remembered: Obama Doc, By The People

katie-bakes-iiI can’t say I started crying during the opening credits of the upcoming HBO documentary By The People: The Election of Barack Obama, because I got to the theater five minutes late. But as I slid into my seat and arranged my concessions — at the Landmark Sunshine theater, where the movie just finished screening for a week, they have 12 kinds of flavored powder you can sprinkle on your popcorn, and it’s magical — the smiling faces of Sasha and Malia popped up on the screen and I lost all hope of keeping my composure.

I’m a total sap; your mileage may vary. (And, full disclosure, I’m friends with the movie’s assistant producer Elissa Brown.) But with the rich benefit of hindsight, viewing the early days of the Obama campaign is like walking a friend to her surprise birthday party: You’re secretly giddy about what’s in store. The film — which will air on November 3 on HBO — begins in Iowa in 2007, eight months before the caucuses and light years before today, and spends nearly half of its two-hours focusing on the state and the young supporters populating its campaign headquarters.

We meet Tommy Vietor, the baby-faced Iowa press secretary, and Ronnie Cho, the son of Korean immigrants who throughout the course of the film rivaled me in tears shed. We meet the people — David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Robert Gibbs — whose names flooded the news and our email inboxes. And we meet, in intimate, backstage detail, Senator Barack Obama.

Early takes have already compared the film to the celebrated 1993 documentary The War Room, but as the Chicago Sun Times‘ Lynn Sweet (who appears often in By The People) points out: “The War Room did not have Clinton.” Filmmakers Amy Rice and Alicia Sams began following Obama on his trip to Kenya in 2006, and their acess to him and his staff, particularly early in the film, is stunning. The cameras literally trail behind as he gladhands through Iowa crowds (and, out of their earshot, admits to feeling like he’s been through a wrestling match) and strategizes with his advisors. The filmmakers even secure an honest and moving interview with Obama’s sister in Hawaii — one of the great moments in By The People — and catch her young daughter playing with an Obama bobblehead doll and chirping about “Uncle Rocky.” It’s not until a later moment, when a weary Obama finally asks from a barbershop chair for some “quiet time” with the cameras off, that you realize just how up-close and personal you’ve been all along.

The pitfall of this proximity is an air of adulation that hangs over By The People. (One cameraman questioning Obama about a poll showing Hillary Clinton widening her lead to 34 points is quite literally apologetic: “I’m sorry, but I have to ask”.) Producer Ed Norton noted in an interview that the film was not designed to be an exposé but rather “a document of what the internal reality of the movement was.” In other words, those hoping for any gotcha moments should look elsewhere. A snippy review — in my opinion, overly so — in Variety finds this to be the movie’s biggest flaw, maintaining that the filmmakers “apparent emotional investment is reflected in the cheerleading tone that informs so much of the film” and complaining about the film’s rapid sprint in the final 30 minutes through the highlights (and, in the case of a few disturbing shots of rabid Republicans, lowlights) of the general election.

The pacing didn’t bother me; I’ve had enough Sarah Palin in my life, thank you very much, and at this point we all know the details of the Jeremiah Wright flap by heart. And I found the older footage illuminating. In a touching Christmas Eve call to the Iowa headquarters, David Axelrod pep-talks about winning the nomination and going on to defeat “Mitt or Rudy or Huckabee, or whoever those assholes nominate” with nary a mention of the ultimate Republican nominee. How quickly things change! And allocating more time to the details of September and October would mean cutting back on perfectly understated moments from February and March, like David Alexrod human-pretzeled over a hotel chair – legs akimbo, cell phone to ear, index finger barely reaching the trackpad of an adjacent laptop on the floor – or Jon Favreau watching TV with his mouth hanging skeptically open, rolling his eyes as Hillary Clinton intones “You know what they say: As goes Ohio, so goes the nation!”

I was told that the filmmakers had to tread lightly in their coverage of Clinton in the editing process, given her current position in Obama’s cabinet, but to me the Hillary-related moments are devastating enough. At the Iowa County Fair we watch Obama playing carnival games with his daughters and disarming a nearby crowd with some goofy chants; the movie then cuts to our first glimpse of Hillary — awkwardly flipping burgers, her face quivering in concentration, surrounded by fusty middle aged supporters struggling to operate their digital cameras. I winced. The juxtaposition is meant to be funny, but it felt a little mean: less a smile than a smirk.

While Obama’s opponents are hastily constructed, the film takes tremendous care to develop the personalities of those within the Obama camp. Speechwriter Favreau, so brilliant with his prose, occasionally slips and acts his age. “Blah blah blah, hope change… yeah” is his answer when asked about the text of one upcoming speech. The ongoing dynamic, particularly on Election Day, between the feisty (and at times, black leather jacket–clad) Axelrod and the laser-focused Plouffe is a joy to watch, as are the scenes featuring Gibbs and his young towheaded son. “This is like listening to the pregame show before the Super Bowl,” mutters Gibbs nervously in the hours before the Iowa caucus results as he stares at the TV. “None of it matters. Just kick-off the damn ball.” (No clearer an indictment has been made, really, about the state of the media today.)

But while the documentary avoids getting sucked into that dangerous meta-trap of focusing on the 24-hour news cycles du jour, media nerds will nevertheless delight at all the cameos in the film. Milling around in the theater lobby afterwards, I confessed to a friend that one of my favorite moments was scoping out Ryan Lizza’s office at the New Yorker while he was being interviewed on screen. Overhearing, a random girl rushed over and grabbed my arm. “Oh my god,” she said. “I was doing that too!” (The film, unsurprisingly, made no mention of Lizza’s later being denied a seat on the Obama plane late in the campaign in what some felt to be retribution for controversial New Yorker cover art.) The wonderful Candy Crowley crops up often, as does Newsweek’s Richard Wolffe. I chuckled to myself during a classic clip of Chris Matthews — “What was once inevitable for Hillary is now barely a possibility,” he says gravely, practically licking his chops — and felt a pang of nostalgia when I saw that his two guests were David Gregory and Chuck Todd. And when Tim Russert’s mug appeared, I cried. Again.

Obama himself becomes understandably more distant from the cameras as the election wears on and his profile rises, but there remains plenty of behind-the-scenes footage late in the film, most notably in a scene showing his preparation for a debate with McCain in which Obama worries about appearing “whiny.” And when he delivers an election eve speech in the rain just hours after the death of his grandmother (who is interviewed early on in the movie and talks charmingly about her grandson and his friends playing basketball and “raiding the fridge”) the documentary cameras captured what the cable news crews did not: tears in his eyes, and even on his cheeks.

My sniffles, by that point, were no longer the only ones in the theater.

Katie Baker has contributed to Gawker, the Yale Daily News, Young Manhattanite, and US College Hockey Online. Her blog can be found here. She also has a day job.

Sarah Palin Ends Twitter Silence, Goes National?

SarahPalinUSAPicture 4 Is this Sarah Palin’s new twitter? A few weeks ago we speculated where the former twittering Governor of Alaska might land after her AKGovSarahPalin was put to rest along with her governorship. Alas Twitterland has remained free of Palin’s insightful (and possibly more politically incorrect!) tidbits for the last three weeks; instead the Bard of Wasilla appeared to have taken up residence on the longer-form friendly Facebook.

However! The wait may be over. CNN is reporting that SarahPalinUSA is Palin’s new handle despite the fact there have been no tweets from the account yet. In what may be construed as a hint of what’s to come Palin has dropped the AK altogether, and gone national! One imagines we won’t have to wait that long for her to peep up — 140 characters seems the perfect length with which to communicate all thoughts and facts on Death Panels. No explanations necessary!

Whether or not this is actually Palin’s account is yet to be determined. As our columnist Tommy Christopher pointed out to us, this account not only has no tweets but has yet to be verified by Twitter, which is something Twitter does with high profile users to confirm their identity. Nor has it transferred over Palin’s followers from her AKGov account. Is this one for real? We’re just a tweet away from finding out.

CNN Claims “Journalistic Quality,” While Turning To Stand-Up Comedy

griffin_8-10It may be the summer slump, but most cable news networks are sticking with, you know, news, to get through it. But when health care isn’t drawing the ratings, the town hall protester loop gets boring and no one is drinking beers at the White House, one cabler decided to go a different route.

CNN decided not only to let Kathy Griffin take over Larry King Live at 9pmET (which she has in the past), but to conduct a full-on non-interview with Levi Johnston. It was Griffin doing a stand-up routine for more than 10 minutes, and it makes CNN’s claims of being the more ‘news-focused’ network that much more laughable.

“Our journalistic quality is higher than its ever been,” said CNN/U.S. President Jon Klein last month. And here’s what that translates to:

Describing her night with Johnston after the Teen Choice Awards, Griffin said, “I have a bruise in a naughty place.”


Griffin: How could you not shave, you’re on Larry King.

Johnston: You said you like me scruffy.

Griffin: You’re right I do like you scruffy, you dirty dog you.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg. Watch the full routine here.

Again, this is not Red Eye, Fox News’ comedy/news hybrid that airs at 3amET. It’s not MSNBC’s sarcastic Way Too Early at 5:30amET. It’s not even D.L. Hughley Breaks the News, CNN’s short-lived show fronted by a comedian that did, occasionally, break some news. This is Larry King, on CNN, at 9pmET. And it is a lot of things, but it certainly is not “journalistic.”

You could argue that CNN’s Michael Jackson-focused prime time coverage in early July could be justified as news coverage, even if it leaned toward infotainment. Now, that facade has evaporated.

For what its worth, at least no one really seemed to give a crap about the segment. Here’s the way it was teased on CNN.com (notice – misspelling that was up all night):

» Follow Steve Krakauer on Twitter

Kathy Griffin and Levi Johnston’s Love Story Goes Late Night on Larry King

Wow. Kathy Griffin may be out to single-handedly save us from the summer news slump! Or at least is aiming to turn celebrity news coverage into some sort of performance art. Last night Griffin filled in for Larry King (a bit like the low-rent version of when Joan Rivers used to fill in on Johnny Carson) and welcomed Sarah Palin grand-baby daddy Levi Johnston as her guest. This, of course, as a follow-up to Johnston attending the Teen Choice Awards as Griffin’s the night before.

Are they dating? You’ll have to watch and decide. Griffin introduces Johnston by way of mentioning she woke up spooning with him and has found love in his “chocolate beautiful eyes.” Levi nods and smiles a lot. It’s unclear whether Levi is in on the joke — if it is a joke. Or merely is the joke. Either way, one suspects the interviews gives a whole new meaning to Sarah Palin’s idea of a death panel.

Is Politics Daily AOL’s Trophy Blog?


Picture 1

source: Politics Daily homepage

In his column in today’s Washington Post, Howard Kurtz painted Politics Daily as a fantastic wonderland of six-figure salaries, 5000-word articles, foreign correspondents who actually go overseas, and a distaste for the “hyperpartisan.” All of which sounds great, but could it ever turn a profit in an environment where traffic for articles like “Strippers Compete in Palin Look-alike Contest” is likely to dwarf Afghanistan coverage for the foreseeable future? If not, what is AOL trying to pull?

A while back, Mediaite wrote about AOL’s new political blog, Politics Daily, as a case study of AOL’s plans to focus on “the content business” by hiring top reporters away from print publications. Among others, Politics Daily has bagged The Baltimore Sun’s David Wood, CQPolitics’ David Corn, and USA Today’s Jill Lawrence, all media vets with impressive resumes. And though Kurtz seemed impressed — he pointed to the “high-minded” site that “slows things down, rather than posting every traffic-generating tidbit,” skeptics of the site — and this particular content strategy — remain.

Politics Daily pissed off a lot of political bloggers when TechCrunch ran this piece claiming that Politics Daily had bigger traffic than Politico. As one blogger told Mediaite, “They’re claiming to be the #1 politics site based on visitor count.  While technically true, I would guess about 80% of those are from places like the AOL welcome screen.  This would be akin to Wal Mart running a news show at their registers and claiming to be the #1 newscast.”

According to Kurtz, the site gets roughly half of its startling 3.6 million monthly unique visitors from its parent portal AOL; it doesn’t yet have big pickup from without. Kurtz cites two of the site’s popular dueling opinion pieces about Sarah Palin as the sort of thing it needs more of, yet is reluctant to ratchet up:

That is the kind of attention-grabbing argument that Politics Daily needs if it is to compete with the likes of the Huffington Post, Politico, the Daily Beast, Slate, Salon and other sites that offer speed, original writing and higher production values. With [Daily Politics EIC] Henneberger calling the operation a “preservation society” dedicated to “respectful” arguments, Politics Daily remains defiantly out of step with the online ethos.

“If there isn’t a market for this kind of Web site, that takes politics seriously, that is politically eclectic and journalistically conservative,” [Walter] Shapiro says, “we’re all in a lot of trouble.”

Is there such a market online? And if so, who’s buying? The answer may not be readers or advertisers, but AOL itself.

Politics Daily’s high-mindedness is admirable, but it raises the question of whether AOL is using the site to buy prestige. AOL and Time Warner will finally split at the end of 2009, after which the newly-created AOL Inc. will be a publicly-traded company. AOL has been telling anyone who will listen that it’s reinventing itself as a content (i.e. blog) provider. Though the site may never make money, AOL could be betting that having one “serious” site to pad out a portfolio rife with fluffy, slideshow-happy sites like Asylum and TMZ is worth the loss. If you’re a five billion dollar company nervous about getting and keeping investors, subsidizing a few great reporters to do solid but unmarketable work may be a price worth paying for good press from the likes of Kurtz.

Politics Daily currently has one Doubleclick banner up top and one sponsored sidebar on the right. Even with 3.6 million uniques, this is hardly the stuff on which to feed a full-time staff of more than twenty-five, many of whom are making six figures. And as Nick Denton wrote in his manifesto “A 2009 Internet Plan,” “Get out of categories such as politics to which advertisers are averse:” It’s unlikely that you’ll see wall-to-wall 90210 ads on Politics Daily anytime soon.

As of publication, several e-mails to AOL Senior Producer Michael Kraskin, who is listed as the contact for Politics Daily, went unanswered.

Sarah Palin’s Nightmare? Kathy Griffin, Levi Johnston Work the Red Carpet

levi_8-10The biggest story coming out of last night’s Teen Choice Awards did not involve Miley Cyrus or a Jonas Brother. Instead, D-lister Kathy Griffin, never one to shy away from controversy, commanded the spotlight with her red carpet “date” – Levi Johnston.

So how did Sarah Palin’s daughter’s baby daddy end up in LA with this dreaded “celebrity starlet”?

“She’s beautiful and funny,” Johnston told Access Hollywood. “She’s the star of the night.”

And Griffin: “Miley, try to top this!” (HuffPost has a slideshow.)

Griffin isn’t just anydelicate, tiny, very talented, celebrity starlet.” No, she’s someone who joked during an Emmy acceptance speech, “Suck it, Jesus. This award is my god now.”

Palin hasn’t weighed in yet on Facebook (her new favorite mode of communication), but if Levi ended up in front of an Obama “death panel” right about now, she may change her mind about the whole thing.

(image by Matt Sayles/AP)

Also, like many celebrity relationships, we can trace the lineage back to some past comments. Sounds like it was love at first MySpace visit:

Goodbye Angry Mob, Hello “Death Panels”

sarah-palin-AlaskaIt seems as though, every week, the Republicans find new ways to alienate normal people. First, there were the Birthers in Congress, amplified by much-publicized coverage of the conspiracy theory from Lou Dobbs. Then, there was the so-called “Angry Mob,” a noisy confluence of birth certificates, tea bags, and healthcare town hall meetings.

Then, just as conservatives were getting some traction by leveraging Democratic criticism into a “stifling of dissent” argument, Sarah Palin comes along to complete the hat trick.

On Friday, the former Alaska Governor posted some grade-A crazy talk on her Facebook page:

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

Well, the echoes of the accompanying cuckoo-clock noises had barely died down when Newt Gingrich rushed in to agree with Palin that Death Panels were, indeed, cause for concern:

While the White House’s Deal or No Deal with PhRMA may be the big political story so far, expect many a cable news panel to discuss the Death Panel, and many a Republican guest to hop on the Death Panel bandwagon. If you need an excuse to get drunk this week, play the Death Panel drinking game, then hope the Death Panel has mercy on you.

This sets a high bar for next week, and I’m not sure they can top this. Maybe Palin will announce her Presidential bid, then pull out of the race the next day.