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Medea Benjamin for President* 

The new reality TV show American Candidate is as rigged as a Florida election. A recount won't help. We need a boycott.

Wednesday, Jun 2 2004
During her career as a famous San Francisco-based global agitator, Medea Benjamin has seen enough political tragedy and travesty to challenge anyone's view of reality. She has been quoted as recalling that her older sister's boyfriend, while a soldier in Vietnam, sent back the ear of a Vietnamese man. She subsequently became an anti-war and anti-poverty activist; in that role, she has seen children starving in Mozambique, identified suffering caused by Cambodian sweatshops, and repeatedly traveled to Iraq, where she has witnessed death, destruction, and social chaos. But none of these experiences prepared her for the existential heart of darkness she's currently confronting: Benjamin hopes to be chosen as a contestant in a TV reality show.

"It's too bad. Their process has been pretty atrocious," says Benjamin, a co-founder of the travel agency and gift shop Global Exchange who has tried, and, it seems, failed, to earn a spot on the upcoming reality series American Candidate, a Showtime cable offering that has 12 contestants vie with one another to be a "candidate" for president. "They want people to think [contestants will be chosen by] the number of supporters you have. But I think they are using criteria other than that. I think there's total lack of clarity about the whole thing."

Now, I realize the American radical left has a lot on its plate right now, with the war in Iraq, the war on terror, government attacks on civil liberties, and the continuing scourge of poverty, here and around the world. But I'd like to nonetheless propose one more issue: the lack of integrity of Hollywood reality shows. They're the most ubiquitous source of truth, insight, and human connection America has right now, and Benjamin (whom Newsday last week called "one of America's most committed -- and most effective -- fighters for international human rights") has tipped me to apparent corruption behind the reality facade.

Benjamin was one of 1,000 people who participated in a supposed competition to be considered as a contestant on American Candidate, scheduled to appear on the Viacom subsidiary Showtime in August.

The show was conceived as a sort of political version of American Idol. In it, 12 contestants will compete in a series of statesmanship-oriented challenges, Survivor-style, while real-life political consultants scrutinize their moves. At the end of each episode, America will vote someone off the air. During the final two episodes, candidates will debate each other. The winner of the competition gets to make a speech on Showtime and receives $200,000 in "campaign funds" that can be (but don't have to be) used to abet a very short-lived presidential candidacy. The show has reportedly passed muster with the Federal Election Commission, perhaps because participants won't be allowed to actually campaign for president while the program is on the air and will be able to declare as write-in candidates only during the month between the show's end and the presidential election in early November.

The concept was fine by Benjamin.

"I was doing it only because it wasn't real," she says, contending that she'd hoped to use the show to air her favorite political issues, as enumerated on her Showtime Web page: "I am passionate about wanting to see my country take a different path: one that promotes peaceful solutions to international conflicts, and one that uses its vast resources to eliminate hunger and poverty at home and abroad. This program can give a voice to those of us presently marginalized by the two dominant parties and can help revitalize our political system."

But in the way of television reality shows, there were important components of the American Candidate process that seemed convincingly real, yet were phony. The show ran an aggressive public relations effort that encouraged people to become "candidates" and then "campaign" to become one of 12 finalists who would appear on the program. The show ran a cross-promotional campaign on Yahoo!'s HotJobs that said, "Wanted: Leader of the Free World." Producers required "candidates" to fill out elaborate questionnaires. The contestants were encouraged to attend "campaign" events around America. The producers urged "candidates" to keep campaign Weblogs, all with a stated aim of attracting "supporters," who, it seemed to go without saying, would bolster "candidates'" chances of making it on the show.

Many of the 1,000 "candidates" seemed to take this encouragement at face value.

One radio talk-show host used his job to flog his "candidacy," wrangling 96,378 clicks on the "Support Me!" hyperlink on his special Showtime Web page. A schoolteacher induced his students to peruse his site, winning 7,531 "votes." A sex-manual author informed book shoppers that he was a "contestant" on American Candidate, garnering himself 2,355 clicks. Benjamin enlisted her notoriety in the peace activist world -- boosted last week by the Newsday piece -- and earned herself 3,935 votes.

And a Web designer produced a site titled "American Voices," complete with endorsement blurbs from photogenic everyday Americans. "You have put me into the Top 100 Candidates with the most supporters," the designer effused. "Thank you for clicking the 'Support Me!' button and for spreading word to your friends and family. It is really having an impact!"

In reality, it wasn't having any impact at all, acknowledged American Candidate producer R.J. Cutler, best known for his 1993 documentary The War Room.

"Getting clicks plays no role in the selection processes," Cutler told me last week. "I'm happy to say to you that that is a mistaken impression. You won't be able to find anywhere that anyone associated with the show that says Web site support has any direct impact on somebody getting on the show. The decisions as to who gets on the show are made by producers of the show -- by me -- and by Showtime working together. I take full responsibility for that. The online support is a way of building a community of people in common with American Candidate and support a forum for ideas outside the two-party process."

About The Author

Matt Smith


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