Hyperpartisan: Inside 'The Message,' the tiny left-wing viral-video conspiracy that wants to bloody Romney 2012
1:13 pm Jul. 19, 20121
The video was shot from the point of view of the Republican nominee (obviating the need for a Romney impersonation), as he listens to three aides gathered around a conference table. The main character is an obnoxious Republican strategist that Camp Romney retained to "get us through this NAACP thing."
"Now let's get down to brass tacks," the script has the strategist telling Romney. "Blacks don't like us. And we're about to give a speech to a whole lot of them. So what we wanna do is turn their criticisms into an advantage for us."
For the next four minutes or so, expositions about Romney's and the G.O.P.'s track record are delivered as opposition talking points the team is trying to turn around. The aim of the piece? To detail the former governor's weaknesses and to "lacerate" him for various instances throughout his career in which he "routinely failed to speak out against racial injustice," as the video's creators put it—staying silent on the exclusion of blacks from the Mormon priesthood, for instance, or, as one of the ersatz advisers explains: "Not condemning these boderline racist comments about Obama from Republicans, not to mention Trump and the birther stuff."
In traffic terms, this first offering from The Message, a new video-production effort and accompanying website, themessageis.com, didn't reach the viral video hall of fame by any means. But it did get lots and lots of attention.
A few hours after the video was posted, the Drudge Report's giant splash headline screamed: "SMEAR: TOO 'WHITE' FOR NAACP ADDRESS." (It linked back, in turn, to an outraged Washington Examiner item.)
"Well that's just great," Sean Hannity snarled on his daily radio broadcast. "This is all they've got, the left. That's it!"
This was all good news for The Message, whose didactic brand of progressive agitprop seems to blend the satirical ethos of "The Daily Show" and zany comedy of "Funny or Die" with the earnest sensibility of MoveOn.org and the viral potential of BuzzFeed and Upworthy.
And in this election season, outrage and virality are a part of doing business. Among those who fear a close election over low voter turnout, dialing up the passion is a passion of its own. It's a no-fail proposition: riling up people like Sean Hannity and Matt Drudge from across the aisle is good, and so is riling up the base. Often, the same viral phenomenon can accomplish both. And the NAACP video did just that.
BEHIND THE WHOLE EFFORT IS CLIFF CHENFELD, a 52-year-old attorney and father of three whose tanned complexion and facial features make you wonder if he might be related to Woody Harrelson.
The Upper West Side mini-mogul and Democratic donor is the co-founder of Razor & Tie Entertainment, a West Village-based record label and music-publishing company whose artists range from Neil Sedaka, Suzanne Vega and Dee Snider to modern-day stoner rockers The Sword and aging New Jersey pop-punk outfit Saves the Day. It also created the wildly successful "Kidz Bop" series, in which session musicians between the ages of 5 and 12 put a cherubic touch on the day's Top 40 hits. (The latest installment, "Kidz Bop 22," dropped on July 17.)
Why's the guy who brought us the children's choir version of "Set Fire to the Rain" sinking money into a political video play?
There's not really a short answer.
"I've been very involved in politics for a long time, primarily in the giving mode," said Chenfeld, who was in-between meetings in his fifth-floor Sullivan Street office on a recent Monday, dressed in a white U.S. Open T-shirt, blue plaid shorts and black Chuck Taylors.
"I've grown increasingly frustrated with the way in which Democrats and progressives run campaigns, and how they get their message out," he said. "As we began another election cycle, I just kind of looked at myself and said, OK, am I gonna do what I’ve always done?
"My problem with the Democratic party and the progressive world is not that we’re not left enough," he continued. "It’s just that we don't fight properly. We don’t fight for certain issues. That world has also done such a poor job social-media wise, with creating compelling content that will engage people. We’ve totally lost the ability to communicate with younger people. So all of that put together, we decided to do this thing with the goal of attempting to articulate positions and issues in a way that had not been done before, and to articulate issues and positions that the Democrats should be taking, but maybe haven’t been taking."
Chenfeld set the plans in motion earlier this year by reaching out to former AOL chief creative officer and co-founder of The Knot Michael Wolfson, who had done consulting work for Razor & Tie in the past. Wolfson then looped in his colleague, Andrew Zipern, an ex-New York Times reporter-producer and fellow former AOL creative guy who is a partner with Wolfson in the digital firm Vaudeville Ventures (formerly Rocketfuel).
Wolfson also brought in Eric Burns and Karl Frisch, the former president and former communications director, respectively, of Media Matters for America, who decamped from the left-wing media-watchdog in 2011 to launch their own communications firm, Bullfight Strategies. They came up to New York to meet with Chenfeld earlier this year, and liked what they heard.
Wolfson and Zipern run the content side, along with several other collaborators and a small army of interns, out of Vaudeville Ventures' East Midtown offices. Burns and Frisch, who are based in D.C., handle the P.R., marketing and "interfacing with official Washington," as Burns put it.
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