Untold story behind the story: “Barack Obama: People’s President”

A film to reveal what the old media didn't show...

A film to reveal what the old media didn't show...

When Barack Obama and his running made Joe Biden won the US Presidential Election held on 4 November 2008, they not only beat the Republican duo McCain-Palin but also a host of other also-rans. It’s too soon to tell, but that date might also mark the beginning of the end for the old media, also called the mediasaurus, who have been dominating the public’s access to news, information and commentary for over a century.

But how did it all happen? Who can tell us the real story as it happened, and why, without filters and biases so rampant among the mediasaurus?

On this blog, we have watched with deep interest and some fascination the rise of Barack Obama from relative obscurity to become the President of the United States. On 6 November 2008, soon after the election results were confirmed, we noted how Obama had just been elected ‘President of the New Media world’. I explained: “Obama’s rise has epitomised change in many ways. Among other things, he is the first elected leader of a major democracy who shows understanding and mastery over the New Media World, which is radically different from the old media order.”

On 20 January 2009, when he was inaugurated, we wrote: “For four or eight years, Obama’s every move, word and gesture will be captured, dissected and debated to exhaustion by admirers and detractors alike. And his administration will be under scrutiny by thousands of citizen journalists who don’t share much except the digital platforms and social networks on which they post their impressions. Welcome to the New Media Presidency. The hard work – and real fun – begin now!”

And now, one of the world’s leading new media activists, Danny Schechter, is about to release a new documentary on how the Obama campaign rode the new media wave to the White House — and more importantly, how the same new media can help the American public to keep Obama Administration accountable.

The film “Barack Obama, People’s President”, (slated for DVD release later this month by ChoiceMedia.net), documents the online and on the ground techniques that were used to win the highest office in the land.

As the film’s advance promo blurb says: The one story that most TV outlets didn’t tell in the 2008 election was the most important one -how did a young and relatively unknown candidate become President? If you voted for Barack Obama or not, this is a story you will want to know because it shows how the face of presidential politics changed forever. Barack Obama used techniques never seen before in a nationwide election — his grassroots mobilization and use of the internet was unprecedented, inspiring and effective. You have seen the rest of the coverage — now see the real story.

The film goes inside the official and unofficial campaign to show how Barack Obama was turned into a political brand to appeal to young first time voters. It shows how social networking on the internet — blogs, Facebook, texting and other techniques — were used carry the message to the masses and to raise tens of millions of dollars for the campaign. Popular online videos such as “Obama Girl”, along with those created by regular yet passionate supporters to engage their own communities, became one of the most important tools in the campaign’s success.

Watch the trailer of “Barack Obama, People’s President” directed by Danny Schechter:

Emmy award winning film-maker Danny Schechter, who is also blogger-in-chief at MediaChannel.org that keeps a critical eye on the media, just wrote this explaining why he made this film:

“It is hard to remember that two years earlier Obama was barely known, registering on the radar screen for just 10% of voters. He was also hardly a brand name as a first term Senator who spent more time in state politics in Illinois than on the national stage. Moreover, he was young and a man of color — not qualities that usually prevail in a presidential arena which tends to draw far older, far whiter, and far more centrist candidates. The thought that he would beat frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the primaries was, quite frankly, unthinkable to most of the elite.

“And yet he prevailed, as he used a phrase appropriated from labor organizer and Latino legend Caesar Chavez. Obama turned the farm workers Spanish language slogan “Si Se Puede” into “Yes We Can.” Rather than focus on specific political issues, he built a campaign on the promise of “Hope.” Rather than just rely on traditional fundraising — although by the end, he was plush with it — he reached out over the internet for smaller donations from millions of donors.

Perils of the New Media Generation...

Perils of the New Media Generation...

“Few in the major media gave him a chance, but he was not discouraged because he had created his own grassroots media operation using sophisticated organizing and social networking techniques to build a bottom-up movement, not the usual top-down apparatus. While his campaign ran the show, he encouraged independent initiatives including citizen-generated media, music videos, personalized websites, twittering and texting, etc..

“This is the new direction our politics has taken. It is a story that may be somewhat threatening to old media – and older activists – who prefer a one to many approach to communication, as opposed to forging a more interactive empowering platform. There is no question that young people — especially those mobilized by Obama — prefer online media and that choice is making it harder and harder for traditional outlets to sustain their influence and, in some cases, even their organizations. Old media may be on the way out.

“This is why our film is, in my mind, so important, not just as a record of how Obama won and what happened in 2008, but in what will happen, can happen, and is happening in the future. This is why I believe its critical for Americans to see it — and others in the world as well — to recognize how Obama represents more than just another politician, but a whole new approach to politics. That old adage is worth remembering: “It’s not the ship that makes the wave, it’s the motion of the ocean.”

“Obama, for all his shortcomings, which are becoming more obvious by the day, has pioneered the way change must be won — not by people on the top, but by all of us. It remains for “us” to hold him accountable. We live in a culture of amnesia – it is important to learn the lessons of the recent past.”

Read the full comment: New Film Tells Unreported Story of Obama’s Election on MediaChannel.org

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Message placement: Gates Foundation discovers TV soaps are good for health!

There's still time for TV to redeem itself...

There's still time for TV to redeem itself...

In the developing (or majority) world, we have been doing it for years: embedding subtle messages on health, environment, family planning or civic behaviour in popular, highly-rated entertainment shows on television.

In parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, there is a long history of collaboration among non-formal educators, advocacy groups and broadcast companies to mix entertainment with public education — a difficult balance to achieve without putting off viewers who tune in for entertainment. See, for example, my coverage of the BBC World Service Trust’s work in India.

Now, it seems, this ‘edu-tainment‘ approach is also being tried out seriously in the home of ‘soap operas’ or television drama: the United States.

A recent report in the New York Times describes how the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working with video production companies and broadcast networks to shape story lines and insert health-related messages into popular entertainment like the television shows “ER,” “Law & Order: SVU” and “Private Practice.”

Already, the foundation’s messages on HIV prevention, surgical safety and the spread of infectious diseases have found their way into these shows.

The report, written by Tim Arango and Brian Stelter, said: “Now the Gates Foundation is set to expand its involvement and spend more money on influencing popular culture through a deal with Viacom, the parent company of MTV and its sister networks VH1, Nickelodeon and BET.”

They called it “message placement”: the social or philanthropic corollary to product placement deals in which marketers pay to feature products in shows and movies. Instead of selling Coca-Cola or G.M. cars, they promote education and healthy living.

Some viewers in television-saturated US might say: it’s about time! In the past, many American companies producing entertainment content have resisted approaches from social activists to use the mass medium for public good.

In the late 1980s, when I shared some Asian experiences of mixing television drama and public education at an international science communication conference in Spain, American academics and journalists in the audience were intrigued. “But this can never happen in the United States…we keep our education and entertainment separate, and with good reason!” one of them said during question time.

Clearly, those hard attitudes have been changing slowly. As the NYT article says: “The efforts of philanthropies to influence entertainment programming is not new…. The Kaiser Family Foundation, which focuses on health issues, has been doing such work for a dozen years. It has worked story lines about H.I.V. and AIDS into programs on CBS and UPN (now known as the CWnetwork), including the reality show “America’s Next Top Model.”

Left, ABC’s “Private Practice,” and NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU.” The story lines of both shows have spread the health-related messages of the Gates Foundation. Images courtesy ABC & NBC

Left, ABC’s “Private Practice,” and NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU.” The story lines of both shows have spread the health-related messages of the Gates Foundation. Images courtesy ABC & NBC

The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication is at the forefront of blending entertainment with public education. “There’s a lot of research that shows that when a character in a series says, ‘I’m going to be an organ donor,’ it’s effective, more effective than giving out a pamphlet,” said Martin Kaplan, director of the Centre.

The Centre has a Hollywood, Health & Society programme that provides entertainment industry professionals with accurate and timely information for health storylines. It organises meetings between health specialists and script writers for entertainment shows – not just drama, but also reality and variety shows.

“Our view is you don’t have to sacrifice entertainment value to be accurate,” Kaplan is quoted as saying in the NYT article.

That’s a view – and experience – shared by TV writers, producers and programme managers from Mexico to South Africa, and from India to the Philippines. In fact, this is an approach the Gates Foundation should consider rolling out in the majority world countries where they are already a key player in selected areas of health and development. Despite the recent spread of broadband internet, broadcast television is still the dominant mass medium – and primary source of news and entertainment – for most people in much of the developing world. That’s billions of eyeballs we’re talking about – and the cost of producing quality entertainment (even with education subtly embedded in some places) is significantly less than in the west.

In short, Gates can get a bigger bang for its bucks on the airwaves in the global South. And there’s really no need to convince TV industry gate-keepers and producers on how edu-tainment works: they’ve been at it for years, using whatever resources they can find.

Read full article: Messages With a Mission, Embedded in TV Shows, NYT 2 April 2009

When traffic moves: Which is the biggest carbon emitter of all?

In January 2008, I wrote about two short videos made by Pradip Saha and colleagues at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in India on the auto industry’s contribution to worsening traffic congestion, air pollution and public health in metropolitan India.

Now Pradip & Co have come out with another revealing short video. It answers a simple question: of the various types of motorised transport on our roads, which one emits the most carbon dioxide per person that slowly but surely bakes our planet?

Their blurb says:
Watch video to find out who wins in this race to emit more. A blue graph will appear shortly on your screen. Do not be alarmed. It is an attempt to illustrate the Carbon each of us emits while traveling to work everyday.

This short video reminds of what we can do with broadband-enabled online video to raise awareness and catalyse discussion on matters of public interest. I haven’t specifically asked Pradip about this, but it seems like a low-cost, quick-turnaround effort. It’s certainly effective in making a single, important point that has far-reaching policy and practical implications.

What a difference half a century makes: cartoon courtesy CSE India

What a difference half a century makes: cartoon courtesy CSE India

The big question is: who is listening in modern India that has turned itself into a car-worshipping nation?

Visit CSE’s Climate Equity Watch

Watch more CSE videos on Down to Earth channel on YouTube

Teenage Affluenza: A viral video to stir our minds

I’m a bit anxious about impending teenhood. No, not my own, thank you, but my kid’s.

As a single parent raising a 12-year-old who will soon turn 13, I keep reading and hearing all kinds of advice these days on how best to cope with a teenager in the house — that phase in growing up that everyone predicts will involve some turbulence.

On top of all else that comes with hormones-on-legs, there’s now the worry of Teenage Affluenza. It’s a condition that affects millions of teenagers around the world. Most of them live in the developed countries, but in this topsy-turvey, globalised world, there’s no stopping the rapid spread of such conditions all over the majority world.

Look closely, and you can see the symptoms of TA

Look carefully, and you can see the symptoms of TA - image courtesy WorldVision Australia

I belatedly came across this campaign video called Teenage Affluenza, made by the charity WorldVision Australia in mid 2007. It was first made for a promotion kit for the 40 Hour Famine, to be used in Australian schools. World Vision media staff worked with Rohan Zerna Films, Melbourne, who had worked on previous spots for World Vision. The team decided to take the route of irony, providing a spoof feel. The budget wasn’t high. A family friend of the producer starred as the Melbourne teenager. The voice-over was donated by a regular with World Vision promotions. Overseas footage, already held by World Vision Australia, was spliced into the story.

Read news story in The Age newspaper, Australia, on 2 July 2007

Erin is a fifteen year old girl living deep in the South Eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. She is at risk from teenage affluenza, like five million children and teenagers in her country. She still sleeps in the wooden colonial bed her parents bought her when she was ten. Although meals, travel and education are readily available to girls like Erin, many are forced to live on less than $40 pocket money each week. Erin’s iPod only holds 1 GB.

And so the satirical commentary continues. Juxtaposed with Erin’s ‘tragic life’ is the reality faced by children and teenagers in Vietnam, Sudan and other countries affected by famine and the long term impact of civil war. The video ends with the message “Do something else. Do something real. Do something.”

Teenage Affluenza is Spreading Fast: From WorldVision Australia

The video has attracted thousands of responses on YouTube’s online-comments section, including some honest self-analysis from teenagers, while others started a discussion about who is to blame – corrupt governments or first-world greed.

Meanwhile, WorldVision US has released another version of the video, slightly shorter and featuring American teeangers. If anything, the condition is more prevalent there.

Teenage Affluenza: from WorldVision United States



The message to parents is clear: we’re the ones who can prevent our teenagers from contracting Affluenza. All it takes is thoughtful and sustained action. When teens say gimme-gimme-gimme, we have to known when it’s really needed and when it’s wanted. Easier said than done. I know, because teenages seem to arrive in pre-teens these days.

We the parents would certainly welcome reinforcements from any sensible source. WorldVision Australia runs an interesting website called Stir, which tries to engage youth on issues of development and global justice. As a direct intervention charity, WorldVision doesn’t leave it to governments, but urges people to get involved — and do something.

When worlds collide: A funny thing happened on my way to this blog…

Courtesy: The PC Weenies

Courtesy: The PC Weenies

This blog has been silent for over two weeks at a stretch, which is unusual. A few regular readers have enquired as to why.

Well, I’ve been busy on other fronts – some online, others offline. Many years ago, a journalist friend of mine – herself an early adopter of information technologies – cautioned how time-consuming and addictive this medium can be. “Sometimes networking can mean not working,” she said. That’s still true, unless our bread-and-butter is earned entirely online. Conversely, working offline can mean being away from social networking online. You get the idea…

But I digress. The real reason for my not blogging is a lot more interesting – I only wish I could disclose it, but inter-galactic peace depends on my silence. I hope you understand.

This cartoon will give you a hint. ‘When worlds collide’ is one of my favourite phrases, and it seems to be happening to me a little too often. (Disclaimer: I don’t look anything like the blogger in this cartoon.)

The PC Weenies is a popular webcomic with a special focus on technology humour and geek culture, as experienced through the lives of the fictitious Weiner family. The PC Weenies was created and launched on the web in October 1998 by Krishna M. Sadasivam, a former electrical engineer.