I once sat through one of composer Philip Glass' single note, hours-long concerts. I tried to grasp the conceptual value of it while I also tried not to eat my own hand out of boredom.
Gavin Newsom is the Philip Glass of politicians. And that's the good news.
At least he's experimenting.
Already only occasionally responsive to the press, virtually not at all to the Board of Supervisors - more than a few people might applaud that - and rarely available in person to the public (remember Willie Brown rode Muni and held open office hours on weekends?) the mayor has now produced a seven-and-a-half hour YouTube video, downloadable by all but interactive for none.
Mr. Newsom has now sealed himself an a multi-hour air pocket, using technology to remove himself further from the actual public square of politics that allows residents to mix it up with their elected officials.
That's what he calls this thing in his more bite-sized video intro (one minute, 23 seconds): "dialogue" and "interactive." It's neither. It's a one-sided message with an agenda. You can submit your own video response, or ideas for San Francisco, but the control stick is still firmly and entirely held by the Mayor; he decides if, when, and how to answer. And comments are disabled on the main Gavin site so there's really none of what he calls "engaging you directly" because there's no, what's that old phrase? Give and take. Even Fidel Castro, whose own long speeches were cited by Gavin-SF Gate commenters and political opponents, answered questions during equally marathon sessions with the media. (He anteed up pretty well on a tough question from Sean Penn's daughter back in 2005.)
At least in non-virtual public meetings, which Mr. Newsom seems not to like so much, citizens can actually get up and ask a question, in real time, with the possibility of an answer. In fact he had one of those yesterday. In Marin. (He's running for governor.)
I tortured poor Supervisor Carmen Chu before the local election about some claims she'd made in her campaign literature. To her credit, with some bobbing and weaving, she responded. That's interaction.
Maybe it's a quaint and outdated view but I always thought public officials were elected by a real people public and answerable to them. Last time I checked, the Mayor was not listed as a virtual official.
Outgoing Board president Aaron Peskin griped to the Chronicle's Chuck Nevius about this, and Mr. Newsom's antiseptic approach to communication. But this thing isn't about the supervisors, or really about the media, whose "filter" of the Mayor's ideas his press secretary frets over. It is about the public's ability to hold their servants, whose salaries they pay, directly accountable.
In my late teens I once sold bound sets of the Great Books of the Western World. It was 54 volumes of the great classics, including a cool-looking guide called the Syntopicon. A fascinating concept for sure. But not only was I a bad salesman, I also found out on return visits to customers that the large volumes proved to be too daunting to actually use. They sure looked good on the shelf, though.
The Mayor himself anticipated that people would complain about the length of his video (that only sounds risque, given a remark his ex-wife once made during a speech). But of the 136 comments on our original story yesterday, and another 100-plus for Chuck's column today, commenters talked much more about SF's problems that aren't getting fixed. And the concern about tech style over substance. "Is he a public servant or is he just a show-off?" asks iliveinsfnow. gregdewar is disappointed. "It's amazing how easily the MSM can be snowed by anything with lights on it. I'd be more impressed if we could do something about crime, MUNI and the total failure of City Hall with regards to the budget. Instead the Mayor lives in a bubble where he can smile and know he'll never be challenged by anyone."
"His words are like currency in a banana republic," wrote bashofan. "When the economy sours, just print more money and never mind the ensuing inflation. Meanwhile every hit he gleans will simply encourage his self-justification. 'Look, my piece on education got 20,000. That's leadership!' "
Of slightly under 300 comments, about ten were positive. "It certainly provides access for everyone, which is a good thing," wrote sf_baker. And catalystgrrl thinks "most of these posters are jealous. This is the best city in the US and he's done a damn fine job of it...Personally, I love a politician who is willing to expound on these subjects...and I wholeheartedly support him."
Tech/info experts, in Chuck's column and other venues, were cautiously approving. "A smart move by better using technology to communicate more effectively," says David All, the founding partner of a web 2.0 company advising politicians. But how about that gold standard of our era: audience engagement?
Barack Obama has also come under some criticism for his YouTubing and other social media communication as a way to control his message. But the President-elect has already had a bunch of press conferences to leaven out the one-way videos. While I've compared the two politicians, I don't think they're comparable. In Gavin Newsom's hands, in the case of his elongated video, social media has a distinctly anti-social taste to it.
Aaron Peskin told Chuck the charts and graphs in the thing are unreadable. The Mayor's press secretary responded, according to Chuck, "that if you really want to see the charts, he'd be happy to send them over." That's helpful.
I confess I haven't packed a lunch or pitched a tent for the day hike required to listen to all 7.5 hours. I will, I swear. But I did see the Syntopicon preview. While he can be very good at public speaking events, the thing about his intro is that he takes fewer breaths between words than Wolf Blitzer, and waves his hands around like a guy on the tarmac bringing in a 747. And while he brags on the Huffington Post about his mayor's page getting 27.6 million hits so far this year, his epic State of the City as of this morning had gotten 4,000.
If he's going to be a film star, he should at least get a drama coach.
For more, read Bronstein at Large.