Ari Melber | The Nation

Ari Melber

Ari Melber

Law, politics, new media and beats, rhymes and life.

What Happened at Obama's First Twitter Town Hall?

The White House convened the first “Twitter Town Hall” in American history on Wednesday, as President Obama answered a battery of short questions posted on Twitter, the buzzy social network, which were culled from thousands of submissions by Americans around the country.

The event combined a novel experiment in social media with some traditional political tactics. So while the White House did not have a sense of specific questions in advance, it sought to control the message by limiting the topic to the economy, and by hand-picking a moderator, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who was unlikely to be intensely journalistic or adversarial. (Obama had the same luxury in his recent event at Facebook, where he was rarely pressed or interrupted by founder Mark Zuckerberg.)

Throughout the event, Dorsey read questions off Twitter, but did not prod or press Obama. This allowed the president to stay on message—he rarely departed from his well-worn talking points on the flagging economy, debt ceiling negotiations, and renewable resources.

Still, Twitter enabled an impressive scale for public participation in the town hall.

Over 40,000 questions were posted on Twitter, and some of the most popular—by virtue of retweets—made it into the event, including queries about the Bush tax cuts and strengthening NASA’s space program. Other grassroots favorites, like whether pot should be legalized to increase revenue, failed to get a nod from Dorsey.  A third of all questions were from people on the East Coast, where the event ocurred in the afternoon, while 16 percent of questions came from the Pacific timezone, and only 5 percent from people tweeting in Mountain time.

By PR standards, Wednesday was an easy win for the White House. An analog version of a similar conversation, with Obama pressing his economic agenda, would not draw this kind of coverage. And driving more people to Obama’s Twitter accounts, which already have an impressive 11 million followers, is useful as Obama’s re-election campaign gears up.  But overall, this was still a pretty low bar for online civic participation.

The administration’s forays into civics online, as I’ve argued before, have not met the public demand for deeper interaction with elected officials. Nor have they provided the kind of transparency and independent, citizen advocates who can use these forums to raise concerns of the public that are not presented, for whatever reason, by the current media and political establishment. That is probably the most significant promise of this kind of citizen media—as past questions about torture and drug policy have demonstrated—and it’s not the kind of change that the White House is going to force on itself.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

Cuomo's Big Problem in 2016: Democrats

After New York’s historic gay marriage vote last week, the national political media has begun speculating about the presidential prospects for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.  Right now, in fact, Cuomo is drawing more national media attention and more Google searches than at any other point in his governorship.

Check out this Google Trends graph, which shows people’s searches on the bottom and press coverage on top—the peak “D” refers to a Washington Post article, Andrew Cuomo, 2016 frontrunner?:

So reporters and regular people are zeroing in on Cuomo. But put aside the historical significance of the gay marriage vote, and anyone who follows New York politics knows the prospect of Cuomo as a popular Democratic primary candidate in 2016 is a joke. 

This boomlet is a drastic illustration of the gap between DC political reporters imagining what the Democratic base wants and what the Democratic base actually says that it wants. By contrast, on Tuesday, one of the most popular diaries submitted by a reader on a top liberal blog, DailyKos, bashed Cuomo’s conservative record:

But while the same-sex marriage achievement is a terrific one…Cuomo has otherwise governed New York like a red-state conservative (not just a New York Republican, but a Christie-like conservative) who has made the New York Post editorial page swoon: ending taxes for millionaires, while cutting services for the elderly, children, disabled, ignoring environmental hazards to protect the deep-pocketed gas drilling industry, and waging a war on labor.

Eric Alterman, a columnist for The Nation and the Daily Beast, notes that Cuomo’s budget will cost New York schools
2,600 teachers and another 1,000 city workers, “many of whom work in health care for the poor, at a time when the need for both could hardly be greater.” Those cuts were not inevitable austerity measures, Alterman emphasizes, since Cuomo “fought tooth and nail to ensure the death of New York’s millionaire tax, at exactly the moment when its proceeds might have been able to prevent exactly [these] kinds of cuts.”

Those measures don’t play well with the progressives, union members and government workers who form a substantial part of the Democratic primary electorate. That’s especially true after the high-profile showdowns with Republican governors in Wisconsin and New Jersey—and in a climate where Democrats’ main, recurring domestic beef with President Obama is insufficient economic populism.

In New York state, the Democratic establishment obviously wants their top dog to look good, and last week was a clear victory. But privately, even some local Democrats who have worked for Cuomo say his record provides little foundation for a presidential run.

“Cuomo has governed as a red-state conservative, cutting taxes for millionaires while decimating services for children and the elderly,” says one Democratic operative who has worked for Cuomo and other government officials, adding, “He placed the interests of big business over all else.” The operative, who is disillusioned with Cuomo’s governorship and requested anonymity to speak candidly about his old boss, says people should study the totality of Cuomo’s “extreme right-wing record, praised by the Tea Party and New York Post,” because there’s little chance that “progressive primary voters would rally behind that.”

For his part, Cuomo recently said the presidential speculation was “silly,” because it is premature. He’s half-right.


Van Jones Returns, Launches Liberal Alternative to The Tea Party

Carmen García wrote this guest post, with reporting by Ari Melber.

Over one thousand liberal activists gathered in Manhattan on Thursday night, in a bid to counter the Tea Party and elevate a progressive who can tangle with the Becks and Bachmanns that dominate today’s outraged populism.  The event launched "Rebuild the Dream," a MoveOn-backed effort to organize around economic issues.

The crowd that filed into Town Hall in midtown Manhattan was a mix of progressives old and young, in work clothes and casual attire. While they mingled and waited for music by The Roots, a second event was staged in a nearby press room. There reporters and bloggers heard from the would-be leader of a liberal Tea Party -- the attorney, author and former Obama official Van Jones.  Bowing to the lexicon of today’s Left, however, it was clear that Jones was not announcing a “campaign,” (despite the flashy website, social media strategy and PR campaign). He was not launching a lobbying “coalition,” either, (even though the effort was backed by MoveOn, labor unions, USAction, TrueMajority and "many others to be announced").   The event promised the beginning of a movement.

According to Jones and MoveOn, the driving forces behind the launch, "Rebuild The Dream" is the Left’s collective effort to use grassroots organizing and new media to challenge the rhetoric coming out of Washington and strengthen the middle class.

Jones is a natural fit to lead the effort. For many Democrats and liberals, he is viewed as a rare pol who can leverage authority, celebrity and purity. His professional and ideological credentials are in good order; he led up Green Jobs for the Obama administration, and was infamously run out of that job after a misleading and race-baiting campaign by Glenn Beck.  Jones never sold out -- he blew up.

“He’s a great communicator,” says MoveOn head Justin Ruben, “and we need more great communicators.”

Ruben and Jones say they are following the Tea Party's strategy. “The thing that we’ve been doing a terrible job of is telling our story,” says Ruben. Highlighting how conservatives managed to unite Birthers, tax-phobes, and social conservatives under one ideological and—perhaps more importantly—rhetorical brand, Ruben said "Rebuild The Dream" could play a similar role for multi-faceted liberalism. It will be a “movement service organization,” he said, with Jones as a visionary -- not director -- and an opportunity for activists to unite under a “common banner, both literally and figuratively.” There will be "American Dream House Meetings" in mid-July, convened through MoveOn, to gather input on the effort's goals.

Some major principles, however, have been predetermined.

In Jones' speech on Thursday, he argued that an active government was critical to building a healthy middle class, regulating responsible employers, and cultivating “good citizens.”  He warned the audience about three “lies” animating the conservative narrative:  America is broke; Taxing the wealthy is bad for the economy; and “Hating” on our government” is actually patriotic.  There was more red meat on these contrast points. Jones offered several lines zinging Right wing greed, including his observation that “Corporate America would be the worst boyfriend ever” -- which drew plenty of cheers. Defining an opponent is useful for organizing, but it’s an open question whether Jones’ critique of conservatives is shared by all the potential allies he wants to recruit for this effort.

As Jones spoke, his old boss was 11 blocks away at the Sheraton in midtown, asking for campaign donations. While rarely referenced explicitly, Barack Obama definitely loomed over the proceedings on Thursday.  Rhetorically, Jones cast Obama's election as a step towards larger goals. His tone was deft, toggling between a dose of disappointment with Obama (“We voted for peace and posterity, we got war and austerity”) and a call for people to finish the job themselves (“It’s not yes he can -- it's yes we can”). Substantively, the core premise that liberals need their own populist Tea Party assumes a failure of Obama's Democratic Party, as well as the extant national institutions on the Left. Finally, it's worth remembering that Obama functions as something like the negative space on the Tea Party's canvas; their protest movement is cohesive because its adherants are all mobilized against Mr. Obama. There's nothing like uniting against a single, clear opponent, and for "rebuilding the dream" or re-electing the President, the Republicans' disarray has left the Left without one for some time.

For more on Van Jones' work with Rebuild The Dream, check out this article by The Nation's Ari Berman. For reporting on the attacks on Jones when he served in government, check out this article by The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel.

Article by Carmen García, with reporting by Ari Melber. Photo: Jones with The Roots, courtesy of Rebuild The Dream.

Battling Another Rapper, Bill O’Reilly Defends Obama

Bill O’Reilly is still picking fights with rappers, but it feels like his heart’s not in it. 

On Monday night, O’Reilly hosted Lupe Fiasco, a 29-year old rapper and singer who recently dubbed President Obama a terrorist. The remark created an opening for O’Reilly to attack hip hop while getting Obama’s back.  That’s a twist for Fox News, which usually attacks rappers by lumping them with Democrats, or rehashes the conservative complaints about “gangsta rap.”  But the new angle couldn't really save the segment. 

O’Reilly dutifully presented his soundbites (“Obama is not a terrorist”), then turned to condescension, lecturing “Mr. Fiasco” that the word fallacious means wrong, and observing that few rap fans have political science Ph.Ds.  Mr. Fiasco countered that his beef is not just with Obama, but with militaristic foreign policy, the root causes of terrorism and all American presidents. There was no fire, and very little substance, in the 5-minute exchange.  (It’s a long ways from O’Reilly’s classic rap battles —like the spirited, lengthy 2003 debate he hosted between Damon Dash, Cam’ron and Salome Thomas-El, a black elementary school principal who felt that rap promoted obsccenity and negativity. )

O’Reilly has been obsessed with rappers as social and political leaders for over a decade, but the mainlining of hip hop in American culture has rendered his outrage rather quaint.

“The conventional wisdom is that attacking a rapper is good for high drama,” says Jay Smooth, a hip hop radio host who also does political commentary on the video blog illdoctrine.com. He argues that nowadays, however, rap has become “a bland middle American product like any other,” pointing to this year’s Superbowl, which included three different luxury car ads by rappers (Eminem, Jay-Z and Diddy). “That was a big landmark to me of how far hip hop has come into the safe mainstream,” Smooth told The Nation. Meanwhile, the conservative critique still assumes people think rapper is a dirty word. 

As for O’Reilly’s enduring fascination with his hip hop adversaries, real and imagined, Smooth has that figured out, too:

 "I’ve always had a theory that O’Reilly sees rappers as kindred spirits —sees a lot of himself in their bravado. He’s always had this mix of declaring himself the master of ‘the no spin zone,’ and 'keeping it real' the whole time, but he’s doing a contrived persona that is calculated to keep people watching, which is similar to commercial rappers."

Smooth first spotted this connection in 2007, in an irreverent music video taking O’Reilly’s MC fetish to the next level. (Hint: it rhymes. Video below.)

And back to Monday’s interview, it would not be complete without some post-show sparring.  Later in the evening, Lupe Fiasco went online to complain that some of his sharpest arguments were edited out of the segment. He had charged, for example, that U.S. military manuals “teach you how to be a terrorist.”  He tweeted the claim to his 670,000 followers, hastening to add that his father was a Green Beret and he’s “not against the military.” 

Well alright.  Branding opponents terrorists is a destructive tack, obviously, from any corner of the spectrum.  Still, Lupe’s lyrics are more compelling than his punditry.  Take “Words I Never Said," the new song that started this controversy, where he raps about the War on Terror and the sensationalism of the news media:

I really think the war on terror is a bunch of bullsh**/
Just a poor excuse for you to use up all your bullets...
Your childs future was the first to go with budget cuts/
If you think that hurts then, wait here comes the uppercut
The school was garbage in the first place, that's on the up and up/
Keep you at the bottom but tease you with the uppercrust

If you turn on TV all you see’s a bunch of “what the f*cks
‘Dude is dating so-and-so, blabbering ‘bout such and such/
And that aint Jersey Shore, homie —that's the news!
And these the same people that supposed to be telling us the truth
Limbaugh is a racist, Glenn Beck is a racist
Gaza strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say sh*t
Thats why I aint vote for him —next one either/
I’m a part of the problem, my problem is I’m peaceful
And I believe in the people.

So Lupe on politics is more interesting than Lupe on Lupe -- and definitely more worthwhile than Lupe on O'Reilly.

Videos below:

Jay Smooth's O'Reilly video:

Lupe Fiasco's music video:

The Fiasco-O'Reilly debate:

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

Netroots Nation Day 2: Media Overplays Obama Angst

The White House dispatched Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer for a different kind of press conference on Friday in Minneapolis, where he tangled with a prominent writer known as Angry Mouse (Daily Kos’s Kaili Joy Gray). Hundreds of other writers were there, too, since Pfeiffer was headlining a conference for liberal bloggers.

The skepticism facing Pfeiffer is dominating coverage of this year’s Netroots Nation, along with broader stories recounting liberals’ “frustration” and disappointment with President Obama. But having attended this conference six years in a row (my life is the Internet), I think these stories miss the mark. They fit into a precooked narrative about “Progressives vs. Obama,” which is well-known, easy to write and, yes, partly true. Some of the most active and committed liberals in any area are going to have informed critiques of elected Democrats (from the White House on down). But that’s not what Netroots is about.

This conference is unusual because it was hatched online by activists, not any funded group with a formal agenda, and then evolved into a large and relevant draw for the upper echelons of the Democratic Party (Pelosi, Reid, Both Clintons, Gore, Dean). But it’s not focused on them. Obama felt the need to attend in person in 2007, when he was running for President, along with every other major candidate. But in the off years, when fewer candidates (and the reporters who trail them) drop in, the conference goes on, with three days of programming on policy, organizing, writing, publishing and politics. Most of the time and energy is devoted to wonky, detailed discussions—not presidential scheming or Obama-bashing.

For example, I’m writing this post from a session on government surveillance of American citizens, with two ACLU lawyers, policy blogger Marcy Wheeler, who made her name during the Libby trial, and Julian Sanchez, a libertarian writer. The ACLU is talking about S. 913, Sen. Rockefeller’s bill to create a one-stop ban on Internet tracking; Wheeler is detailing a new law enforcement program to use nail polish purchases in data mining to target potential terrorists. Along the way, they are noting which Democrats need to be pushed on civil libeties, flagging who is in town for the conference (Franken, Wasserman-Shultz). But the goal is to influence policy, with the elected officials as a tool. They’re not basking in a meta-political discussion of how “warm” people feel towards Obama, or whether they “have anywhere else to go.”

Still, like so many political activities, the press coverage here is doled out inversely. So these wonky panels are packed but undocumented, while the handful of sessions about the Obama’s relationship with the Left look like a Green Room. There were forty-two panels on the first day, for example, but the one titled “What to Do When the President is Just Not That Into You” kept showing up in articles about the conference. There were definitely more nationally themed fireworks at that talk, but I thought the session on local labor organizing in Wisconsin, for example, was more significant.

Then again, who cares, right? Bloggers talking about reporters talking about bloggers sounds pretty irrelevant. The media and political perception of The Base/The Left matters, however. Gatherings like this—with 2,400 people, this is one of the largest liberal conferences—are one of the few times when real people and in-person reporting could substitute for recycled narratives about Obama angst. Maybe that’s asking too much.

—— Update ——-
3:40 pm Friday —It’s striking to see that Netroots Nation is the top story on the political web on Friday afternoon, even topping Weiner coverage according to Memeorandum, a useful aggregator that ranks news articles. The top stories reflect the narrative above, with ABC News talking about progressives venting their frustration with Obama, and HuffPo reporting a “break-up” between liberals and the president. (That’s untrue, in the literal sense that most people here will still help and vote for Obama’s re-election.) Meanwhile, Balloon Juice blogger Dennis G. tackles the Netroots narrative in a good post:

I’ve been to Netroots Nation before and I know that there is far more to the event than these reports hyping “Angry Left” and “Democrats is disarray” memes seem to suggest. A lot of great discussions are being had, connections are being made and some real organizing for future victories is being done. But these reality based stories of the conference will not be how Netroots Nation is described to folks beyond the walls of the convention center. Control of that message has been surrendered. By Sunday, the “Manic Progressives” meme will be one of the non-stories in competition to replace Weinergate as the side show du jour. This notion that Right and Left both hate Obama in equal measure will help to [drown out coverage of the GOP]. It will feed the both sides are extreme and therefore the same story line. It will make the never-ending series of hostage negotiations with the GOP a bit more difficult. It will do nothing to help progressives win a single victory. And yet, this “Manic Progressives” message will be the one that defines Netroots Nations for most people who hear anything about it. So it goes.

It would be nice if Netroots Nation was in control of their message, but they are not. From the news reports it seems to be a gathering of the Left stading in solidarity with the Right to shout to the rest of the Nation that Obama is destroying America.


In other news, I ran into radio host Sam Seder in the convention hall, where he is hanging out in front of a promo poster that features him looking oddly ambivalent:

(Photo of Barack Obama from 2007 convention. Credit: Lindsay Beyersetein)

For other Netroots Nation coverage, check out Ari Berman on Dan Pfeiffer,
John Nichols on Feingold, and Ari Melber on Wisconsin.

The Nation’s Ari Melber is writing from Netroots Nation this week, and he is participating in the conference by moderating a keynote session with Senator Al Franken and union leaders on Saturday, June 18. The Nation is hosting a livestream of the conference here. Contact Ari Melber: Twitter, Facebook.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

Liberal Bloggers: Are Democrats Pro-Labor?

Liberal activists rallied in Minneapolis on Thursday for Netroots Nation, a blogger conference that is now one of the largest gatherings in progressive politics. A whopping 2,400 people are here this year, the highest turnout in the conference’s six-year history. The draw is simple: a string of speeches, panels and parties with new political stars, from hometown Senator Al Franken to Paul Ryan’s would-be nemesis Rob Zerban, along with progressive classics like Van Jones, Howard Dean and Russ Feingold—liberals who have been more vanquished than rewarded for their prescience.

In the first timeslot on Thursday morning, organizers from MoveOn, DFA, PCCC and AFT outlined lessons from the Wisconsin labor protests. About half of the standing-room crowd was from Wisconsin, according to a show of hands, and they were interested in how to tap the backlash to change the dynamics beyond Wisconsin.

“We pushed our national membership to not just be bystanders but to actively partake in this election recall process,” said PCCC’s Adam Green. PCCC raised money online for a series of ads featuring Wisconsin residents, which targeted Republicans who had voted against collective bargaining rights. Levana Layendecker, a communications strategist for DFA, said her group spent $1.5 million on their Wisconsin effort. She used her appearance to announce a DFA program to hire thirty-five new organizers for the Wisconsin recalls.

But some questioned the role of these national liberal groups in Wisconsin.

The first question for the panel came from Jill Hopke, a 31-year-old doctoral student from Madison, who basically told the national groups that they did not spark the Wisconsin protests. It was local students hitting the streets, she said, “bringing sleeping bags” and blocking the Senate chamber.

“The reason that I was there protesting had nothing to do with partisan politics,” Hopke stressed, “but that our basic rights to organize were being attacked.” Hopke, who testified at about 2 am during the legislature’s overnight hearings, told The Nation after the panel that some people think the Wisconsin effort was sparked by legislators leaving the state, or by national intervention. Yet the real catalyst, she argued, was people with skin in the game standing up for themselves and organizing locally.

The panelists essentially replied in agreement, stressing that Wisconsin started locally and their challenge was how to follow and assist.

“We’re not carrying a single banner,” said MoveOn’s Daniel Mintz, likening the nascent network backing the protesters to an “open source movement.” He cautioned, however, that the Tea Party had an advantage in using a recognizable national brand, which enabled “folks who are not coordinating [and] not talking to say, ‘I’m part of the movement.’”

The session also reflected a sense that Democrats were not automatic allies for labor priorities.

Matt Browner Hamlin, a web strategist for SEIU, asked from the audience about why a fundamental “class warfare problem” is met with largely electoral responses.

MoveOn’s Mintz replied that the answer was “not to elect more Democrats, or even more and better Democrats.” That phrase was deliberate—it was the rallying cry from Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, and other top bloggers, in previous election cycles. So it’s telling that MoveOn, one of the largest liberal groups with 5 million members and a financial engine for many Democrats, is striking a more strident tone.

“When I look at the 1930s, one of the big differences that leaps out,” Mintz said, “there were big movements of people doing stuff separate from what was going on in government, and exercising power that was separate from FDR and the Democrats in Congress.” A movement is “already building out there,” Mintz argued, and “we need to harness that energy.” He also plugged June23.org, a hub for the new “American Dream” campaign MoveOn is pushing with Van Jones and The Roots, who are playing at the launch event in New York next week. (Nothing says grassroots movement like Jimmy Fallon’s house band. Kidding—I love The Roots!)

If there is a bright spot for labor beyond the backlash, it could be demographic. The widely read blogger Matt Yglesias, who was sitting on the floor just outside the labor panel—apparently posting about the CIA’s interest in another famous blogger, Juan Cole—just noted data showing young Americans actually have the most positive views of labor unions.

When the labor session wrapped, people streamed out into the next sessions, including a panel on the “Arab Spring” with four bloggers flown in from the Middle East. I’m there now, so in the spirit of blogging, I’ll be updating this post with more reports throughout the conference. There’s even a rumor that Ari Berman is speaking later…

The Nation’s Ari Melber is writing from Netroots Nation this week, and he is participating in the conference by moderating a keynote session with Sen. Al Franken and union leaders on Saturday, June 18. The Nation is hosting a livestream of the conference here. Contact Ari Melber: Twitter, Facebook.

New Data: Weiner Scandal Covered Less Online and in Print

I have not written about Anthony Weiner’s sext scandal, a sad little saga that has received tons of news coverage because it is considered more interesting than actual news. 

Last week, it felt like the top story in politics. But that’s not actually true.

Weiner’s plight was more like a blip in print and online media, according to new data, while the scandal drew far more time on TV and radio. Here’s a graph from Pew that tells the story:

Overall, Weiner took up 17 percent of all news coverage, but as the graph shows, coverage diverged widely depending on the medium. (The numbers are from coverage from June 6 to 12, and “Congressional scandals” refers to Weiner.)

Newspapers only spent 7 percent of their coverage on Weiner, and he didn’t get much more attention online. Meanwhile, cable spent one out of every three minutes on the beleaguered Brooklyn representative. So if you think Weiner was the big story, you might just be getting your news from the wrong place.

The entire report is available at Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

Did John Edwards Break the Law?

The Federal Election Commission, which regulates campaign spending, does not get much paperwork on candidates’ mistresses. According to the federal prosecutors who indicted John Edwards on Friday, however, the former senator should have been sending his mistress’s hotel bills to the FEC.

That is the most peculiar idea in a very peculiar indictment. It appears on the second to last page, under the charge of making “false statements” to the government, one of six counts Edwards faces. 

The theory here is that gifts from Edwards’s supporters to his mistress were essentially donations to his campaign. And that they should have been counted by the campaign. Since they were not, prosecutors are accusing Edwards of filing false campaign reports with the FEC.

“Those reports failed to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from [donors to Edwards’s mistress],” reads the last line of the indictment.  All the other counts against Edwards rest on the same theory. (He is accused of conspiring to receive, and actually receiving, campaign contributions as personal gifts under the table.)

So the prosecution has to get from the evidence of spending cash to hide an affair (which happened and is generally legal), to proving that campaign donations were made to hide an affair (which did not happen, at least in the literal or traditional sense of the term). It’s a reach.

This is a “novel claim,” according to George Washington law professor Jonathan Turley, who voiced support for Bill Clinton’s impeachment and is not exactly known to be soft on political corruption. Turley could not find a single “actual federal case” supporting the prosecution’s theory. Election law expert Melanie Sloan, who runs the anti-corruption group Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, agreed that “no court has ever interpreted the definition of campaign contribution this broadly.” Turley adds that the defense can argue “this was not an effort to hide money from the FEC but to hide an affair from Edwards’ wife—a classic motivation.”

In any event, without guidance from previous cases, the text of the Federal Election Campaign Act will likely be key.

The law essentially states that gifts for a candidate’s personal expenses do not count if they would have been made irrespective of the candidate’s running for office.

So if Edwards can show that the payments were made regardless of his choice to run—or maybe before or after he ran—then the gifts would not count towards the law’s contribution limits. That logic would undermine all the counts against him. But things get even weirder.

To make this “novel” case stick, the prosecution is proposing that hiding Edwards’s mistress was a core mission of his presidential campaign. “A centerpiece of Edwards’ candidacy was his public image as a devoted family man,” states the indictment’s first allegation. It continues, “the communication strategy developed by Edwards’ campaign stressed the importance of publicizing, among other things, ‘that [his] family comes first.’”

This line is not provided to embarrass the defendant, who disappointed many on this score but to convert the personal to political. If being a “family man” was a campaign “centerpiece,” then preserving that image could be, supposedly, a campaign activity.

“Edwards knew that public revelation of the affair and pregnancy would destroy his candidacy by [undermining his] presentation of himself as a family man,” the indictment alleges, “and by forcing his campaign to divert personnel and resources away from other campaign activities to respond to criticism and media scrutiny regarding the affair and pregnancy.”

Here is where there may be repercussions beyond the participants in U.S. v. Johnny Reid Edwards. This particular case may turn on whether the personal payments should have been categorized as campaign donations. For all federal candidates, however, the FEC already bars spending official campaign funds on personal expenses.

The FEC explains the rule in a recent document providing advice for federal candidates:

Using campaign funds for personal use is prohibited, even when a federal candidate or officeholder is no longer seeking election to federal office.


The FEC document continues to explain that its “regulations list some expenses that are automatically considered to be personal use,” such as the candidate’s personal rent and “salary payments to the candidate’s family.”  For other, closer calls on spending, the FEC uses a similar approach to its test for gifts. It’s worth quoting in full:

In determining whether expenses are for personal use or are legitimate campaign/officeholder expenses, the Commission uses the “Irrespective Test.” Personal use is any use of funds in a campaign account of a candidate (or former candidate) to fulfill a commitment, obligation or expense of any person that would exist irrespective of the candidate’s campaign or responsibilities as a federal officeholder. 11 CFR 113.1(g). More simply put, if the expense would exist even in the absence of the candidacy or even if the officeholder were not in office, then the personal use ban applies [emphasis added].

It seems obvious that money for a candidate’s child is an expense that exists “even in the absence of the candidacy.” (Lots of non-candidates pay alimony.)

So Edwards’s lawyers may argue that not only was there no obligation to report the private gifts but the prosecutors actually have the law backwards. It would have been a violation of campaign finance law if Edwards did what the prosecution says he failed to do—file and spend the money for his family as official campaign expenditures.

Now, if Edwards were convicted under this theory, would that be a precedent for treating payments to mistresses as legitimate campaign expenses? Would a candidate who made his personal fiscal responsibility a centerpiece of his campaign be able to use campaign funds to pay off personal debt?

It feels like the right answer must be no. But stretching campaign bans this far could lead to some very unsettling outcomes.

The “ambiguity of where to draw the line between personal and campaign expenditures” is the biggest problem for the prosecution’s theory, argues Professor Turley. “Just because hiding the affair would be of benefit to Edwards as a candidate as well as a spouse,” he told The Nation, “does not necessarily mean the dual benefit converts a cover-up of an affair into a campaign violation.” He added, “The uncertainty over where to draw the lines makes me uncomfortable with the criminal charge.”

No matter how one feels about John Edwards’s conduct, based on what is currently known, these charges should make a lot of people very uncomfortable.

Contact Ari Melber: Twitter, Facebook, Email

Photo credit: Marc Nozell

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

YouTube Reinstates Blocked Video of Child Allegedly Tortured in Syria

Protests in Syria were reinvigorated this week, after a wrenching video documenting the alleged torture and killing of a 13-year-old boy went viral online. The boy was separated from his parents at a protest against the Assad government, which allegedly mutilated, castrated and killed him, then returned the corpse to his family, who risked their lives to produce the video. The boy’s father is now reportedly missing as well. By Tuesday, however, the video that shot from the web to Al Jazeera to the streets of Syria—where people marched carrying signs emblazoned with the deceased child’s portrait—had been blocked on YouTube, the very site where it first launched.

The temporary blockage of the brutal video, which YouTube has since restored, is another reminder that the same social media platforms which help spread protests can also seriously hinder activists.

The video of the Syrian child, Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, is disturbing and ghastly. The camera pans across the boy’s “battered, purple face,” as the New York Times reported, revealing skin “scrawled with cuts, gashes, deep burns and bullet wounds that would probably have injured but not killed. His jaw and kneecaps are shattered, according to an unidentified narrator, and his penis chopped off.” After gaining significant attention in the Middle East, the video was blocked under YouTube’s policy against “shocking and disgusting content.” Thus visitors were greeted with this message instead of the video:

However, after an inquiry by The Nation on Tuesday evening, the video was restored.

“With the massive volume of videos on our site, sometimes we make the wrong call,” said a YouTube spokesperson, who emphasized that the company has a policy against commenting on specific videos. As a general matter, though, the spokesman explained that “when it’s brought to our attention that a video has been removed mistakenly, we act quickly to reinstate it.”

YouTube, which is owned by Google, has company guidelines banning shocking or graphic content. “We make exceptions,” the spokesperson added, “for videos that have a clear educational, documentary, scientific or artistic value.” (That phrasing is somewhat similar to the Supreme Court’s obscenity test, as it happens, which exempts works of serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value from government bans on obscenity.)

In this case, the mistake would seem to be removing a video that was aimed at documenting and exposing, rather than promoting, violence allegedly used against protesters.

YouTube was not alone in struggling with whether or how to carry the video. NPR reported that it was “too graphic” to post, but then provided links to excerpts of the video, along with the observation that the footage was “not hard to find.” CNN ran two excerpts, but declared the rest of it too grisly to air. By contrast, Al Jazeera, which broadcasts more graphic images than most Western television, repeatedly played the video. Now the channel is credited with turning al-Khateeb into a child martyr across the Arab world. And veteran American journalist Martin Schram, the former Washington bureau chief for Newsday, even likened the images to the iconic Vietnam photo (and video) of a South Vietnamese general executing a Viet Cong fighter with a bullet to the head.

Jillian York, who researches digital human rights in the Middle East and was recently appointed Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said YouTube performs pretty well when it comes to making these calls.

“Generally, I’ve found that YouTube does a good job at keeping graphic violence up when there’s context,” she said. “I’ve helped activists at times get their videos back up on YouTube,” York recounted, “by going through the appeals process and adding context.”

Last year, YouTube reinstated the account of an Egyptian blogger who was blocked for posting gratuitious violence, after public criticism, and ultimately restored over 100 of his videos with a request that he add more context. It provided a similar process for a Tunisian activist. Ethan Zuckerkman, a Harvard researcher who co-founded Global Voices, an international hub for citizen media, recounted both incidents last year, lamenting how powerful corporations played such a pivotal role in hosting or trimming campaigns against powerful governments. While governments constrain activists’ ability to report on misconduct, he argued, YouTube also constrains activists through their terms of service:

Hosting your political movement on YouTube is a little like trying to hold a rally in a shopping mall. It looks like a public space, but it’s not—it’s a private space, and your use of it is governed by an agreement that works harder to protect YouTube’s fiscal viability than to protect your rights of free speech. Even if YouTube’s rulers take their function as a free speech platform seriously and work to ensure you’ve got rights to post content, they’re a benevolent despot, not a representative government.

Finally, at the practical level, York proposed that who contacts a social media company can matter more than the substance of the contested content.

“I think it often takes a high-level complaint to get their attention. I don’t totally blame them, as I imagine they’re flooded with appeals,” she told The Nation. “Nevertheless,” she concluded, “there is something to be said for instituting a human rights channel of sorts.” It would be a hard channel to watch, but worthwhile, as courageous citizens across the Middle East continue to risk their lives in order to expose and fight their brutal oppressors.

The video, which is extremely graphic and not appropriate for minors, is below:

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

Obama Campaign Launches Birther Merchandise—'Made in the USA'

Barack Obama was the first president to have his birthplace become a national controversy, and now he is the first president to sell merchandise emblazoned with his birth certificate—long form and everything! 

The Obama campaign is mocking birthers and raising cash along the way, selling these new "Made in the USA" mugs with a picture of the president and his documentation:

A new campaign email from Julianna Smoot, Obama's deputy campaign manager, pitches the mugs for a $15 donation. "There's really no way to make this stuff completely go away," Smoot notes, referring to a new conspiracy book called, Where's the Birth Certificate? (Couldn't they have gone with "Dude, Where's My Birth Certificate.") "The only thing we can do is laugh at it," Smoot tells supporters, "and make sure as many other people as possible are in on the joke." 

The timing feels a bit off, however, since the birther controversy peaked in late April, with Donald Trump's race-baiting non-campaign and the subsequent release of the birth certificate. Back then, in fact, I argued that Obama's nascent re-election campaign was missing a chance to seize the birther attacks for political organizing. Instead, on the very day the birth certificate was released, the campaign had sent an unrelated email, without even acknowledging the roiling national controversy. That was an unforced error, I argued:

 "From a purely strategic political perspective, the mainlining of the birther attack is a major mobilizing opportunity, and it's the kind of thing [Obama staff] were adept at during the campaign, but have been reticent to do in the OFA/governing period.... Also, the core activists opening these emails are news consumers, this was the big political story, so choosing to send a message like this on such a big day—a day that was even intense and emotional for many supporters and African Americans—without any reference to it makes it feel like the campaign messages are coming from a different planet, rather than providing special information and a direct line to Obamaland."

Author Micah Sifry, co-founder of TechPresident, wrote at the time that the campaign's resistance to use or mention the birther issue reflect a posture that "was radically different from the days of the Obama campaign." In 2008, Sifry argued, "the campaign stoked supporters passions. Now, they try to temper them." 

The new mugs ridicule the conspiracy nuts and race-baiters who form the birther caucus, which is an entirely appropriate response. Still, as the race gears up, Obama's aides will have to find ways for supporters and organizers with a role for participation and pushback beyond buying merchandise.

Update: Nancy Scola posts analysis and the entire email here.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.
Syndicate content