The GOP + Clint Eastwood + 15,000 social media snarkers = a boatload of bizarre at RNC in Tampa
Not for the first time, I'm going to agree with MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow on this one.
Watching Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood debate an empty chair before 50,000 devoted fans at the Republican National Convention was not just the weirdest major public event I'd ever seen before. It may be the weirdest public event I will ever see in my life, equal parts is-this-happening? absurdity and slow-motion train wreck inevitability.
And besides serving as a strange example of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's odd way of tripping over himself when he should be basking in success (remember his campaign's "I don't care about the poor" and etch-a-sketch gaffes?), Eastwood's debate with an imaginary, transparent Barack Obama showed just how quickly new media has changed the response to a gaffe.
Before the last cowboy hat-wearing fan could leave the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the Obama campaign had posted its own retort to Eastwood's taunt; a picture of the seated chief executive from behind, his trademark ears and a plaque reading "The president" visible, with the message, "This seat's taken." Talk about rapid response.
Around the same time, someone created the Twitter page @InvisibleObama, kicking off with a message reading "Someone should tell Marco Rubio he's standing on my foot right now." The page was apparently suspended for a while this morning, returning with the message "Sorry about that.
Twitter took the invisible thing a little too literally."
For a convention shortened by weather and limited by its scripted inevitability, the RNC found media-fed dustups provided its only unpredictable spice, fed by social media chatter like gasoline poured on fire.
The biggest media story, about the black CNN camerawoman who was pelted with peanuts and slur on the convention floor, first hit the public sphere courtesy of a Tuesday tweet from Current TV anchor David Shuster, who had heard about the incident from a friend. By Wednesday, a reluctant CNN had confirmed the details to the Talking Points Memo website, eventually reporting it on air as critics filled the Twitterverse wondering why the cable newschannel wasn't reporting this news.
On Thursday, the camerawoman Patricia Carroll appeared in her only interview, with the online column Journal-isms, giving her account of the incident and warning people "we haven't come as far as we think." This story rose up and flowered in the digital space, as more conventional news outlets were consumed with chasing down Ron Paul and figuring out who Thursday's mystery speaker would be.
Social media may not have ruled the news coverage as so many expected, but it was an important megaphone, from spreading word of MSNBC host Chris Matthews allegations of race baiting by the GOP to Daily Show host Jon Stewart using the Tampa Bay Times' own PolitiFact fact checking site to push Herman Cain into admitting he had misrepresented Obama's stance on loosening welfare work requirements.
As actor Jon Voight cemented his reputation as an offscreen oddball by insisting Obama is a Marxist, Fox News contributor Geraldo Rivera insisted the conservative channel treats him like the "crazy liberal uncle" they love and loathe at once. At times, the RNC's media/celebrity contingent provided more news and entertainment than much of the convention itself.
Jammed together in an unruly mob of talking heads, reporters and hangers-on who only get together once every four years, the 15,000 journalists assembled for the RNC seemed stuck in a serious bubble; hemmed in by the heat, stringent security arrangements and pressing crowds to stay as close to the convention site as possible, immersed in a cavalcade of spinning, insincere political figures.
But social media was a great way to skip around inside that bubble, getting a taste of what the Kid Rock concert at Liberty Park was like and who showed up to the Google reception at the Glaser Children's Museum without actually going there.
Still, by the week's end, as CNN anchor John King handed me a beer from behind a bar the cable channel built on the first floor of the South Regional Parking Garage, I couldn't help wondering if all this expense and effort had really been worth it.
Suddenly, the thought of all this money, time and resources expended to send 15,000 journalists to watch an Oscar winner debate an empty chair seemed like an apt metaphor.
Maybe ol' Clint knew what he was doing better than we thought.