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.
The purpose of The Message, according to its founders, is to partner with creatives—writers, actors, directors, musicians, etc.—in producing original, partisan features about the "social, political and cultural topics of the day," while also curating like-minded content from around the web. The Romney video, for instance, featured professional actors and was directed by Jace Alexander. The ultimate goal, the founders say, is to engage potential voters while sparking debates that resonate with influencers both in Washington and the media.
"The idea of, how do progressives actually use the medium of video, whether with voters or young people or people disaffected by the process, in ways that aren't just people barking at each other on cable?," said Burns. "That's where I think the real power of the concept is."
Chenfeld declined to specify how much he was spending on the venture, which actually isn't a venture in the sense that there's no goal of making money. But he did say he hoped The Message would pique the interest of other deep-pocketed individuals or organizations who would be interested in contributing funding. In a best-case scenario, he said, it would eventually have a full-time staff and maybe even a business plan.
"To the extent that this thing could be self-sustaining would be great," said Chenfeld. "I don't think that's impossible. My goal on this is for it to have an impact, for us to fill this niche and for me to no longer have to pay for most of it. But the thing about this is, it either works, or it doesn't work."
"I think there's a lot of people who'd want to get involved with us on one level or another," said Zipern. "People who are involved in an issue, or who are actively trying to change legislation on an issue where, if it made sense for us, we could create a video that could help make that case."
The viral nature of online video lends itself nicely to their mission.
"There's definitely a big space in the social web for really hyperpartisan content," said Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed.
But The Message is also having conversations with "people who have a large platform on cable TV and online," according to Chenfeld.
"We're obviously interested in collaborating with Current TV, MSNBC and a host of online sites that are too numerous to mention," said Burns. "In the short term, we've got to get to the point where we're creating the kind of content people will want to put on the air."
It's these sort of relationships, after all, that can add firepower to a video that might not become an instant hit on its own. As a case study, consider The Message's second big original effort: A Ronald Reagan fact-checking exercise narrated by the bookish Brooklyn rapper Soul Kahn that attemps to debunk the lionized former president's legacy among Republicans as "the second coming of Jesus Christ."
While the Romney satire racked up almost 50,000 views and 701 comments within a day, in addition to the extensive media coverage it received, the Reagan video on Wednesday (the day it was promoted) got a little more than a thousand YouTube clicks, a mere five comments and scant coverage aside from a plug on The Message's own Huffington Post blog.
"If this video comes out," said Chenfeld, two days before it landed online, "and in a week or two, [MSNBC host Joe] Scarborough, who loves Reagan, has somebody on his show, or if Bill Maher or Jon Stewart or whoever it is, all of a sudden wants to make this an issue, all of that's the kind of thing we're trying to do. The measure for this is not to once every three months come up with some video that blows up virally."
He added: "Getting Drudge to cover this is not in and of itself a goal. If all we did was piss off the conservative guys, get those guys to scream about us, I don't think we've done a good enough job. But it's certainly a good place to start."
And The Message certainly seems to have started there.
You can watch the Romney video below: