The Press Conference That Wasn't | Our Town | Chicago Reader

The Press Conference That Wasn't 

MoveOn's Chicago team learns the hard way that timing is everything.

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The MoveOn press conference, which is supposed to start at 10:30, is on the second floor of the Chicago Temple, at the First United Methodist Church. But how do you get to the second floor? There's no "2" button in the elevator, a nearby staircase leads to a locked door, and the elevator operator is occupied. There are no signs to help me out. A woman standing outside the door to the church notices my confusion and asks if I'm here for the talk on housing set-asides. What? No, but here's another stairway.

Good thing I'm not with the press.

MoveOn, or more properly MoveOn.org, characterizes itself as a "nationwide network of more than 600,000 on-line activists" whose raison d'etre is to "bring ordinary people back into politics." I don't remember when I signed up to receive E-mails from them, or even why, exactly. Maybe during the Clinton impeachment hearings I was forwarded an E-mail calling for Congress to "censure and move on," or maybe it was after that. Some of the E-mails ask for donations to political campaigns, some request a call to a congressman or senator, and some are merely newsletters, but I'd never responded to any until January 8, when I got one saying MoveOn was planning a cluster of press conferences to unveil its first TV ad, a spot urging the Bush administration to "let the inspections work."

These were to be held simultaneously in 13 cities on the following Thursday, January 16. Volunteers were needed; media experience was deemed helpful. Mary Rickard, a public relations pro working for free, was in charge of the Chicago event, but the ad would be presented by dedicated amateurs who'd been coached over the phone by hired hands from Fenton Communications, a PR firm that specializes in socially responsible clients. The conference would also feature at least a dozen people who'd contributed money to the ad campaign--middle-class citizens trying to make their voices heard.

I'm a middle-class citizen who happens to work as a journalist. Journalists are allowed to have opinions, of course, but we're not supposed to allow them to slant our coverage of a story. And generally we're not supposed to become part of the story. Which means, in the strictest interpretation, that if you're reporting on a drought, you shouldn't give your subject a glass of water because it would destroy your credibility as an objective observer. Or that if you're covering politics you shouldn't vote. But the fact is I like the idea of do-it-yourself democracy, and I figured I could at least help set up some chairs in support of it.

Mary Rickard called and asked me to come early, so I have, by an hour. I make it up to the second floor and am greeted by a 40-ish woman in a pageboy, boots, and a knee-length skirt. She's not Mary--she's Carol, the pastor's secretary, and she informs me that I'm late.

"You were supposed to be here at eight," she says.

"I don't know anything," I tell her. "I'm just a volunteer."

Mary arrives at 9:35, dressed in a powder blue suit and carrying tapes of the ad in a paper bag. Seconds after her arrival, Perry Recker, Michael Stephen, and Kristin Brown come in; now they're standing together in front of a table that holds a vase full of flowers, meeting one another for the first time. Perry, neatly dressed in a brown suit, with graying hair and a goatee, is a donor. Michael, a white-haired psychologist, will be a spokesperson. Kristin, dressed in a black suit, will also be a spokesperson; she appears to be in her mid-30s, which makes her the youngest-looking volunteer.

"There's no sign downstairs," she tells Mary.

Mary doesn't think we'll need one. "I'm best friends with the elevator operator, who made this whole thing happen," she says. "He introduced me to the minister and walked me through the whole thing."

Everything is already set up--a TV and VCR, a big square of tables pushed together, and plenty of chairs. Mary's happy to have scored such a nice venue for free, but more important, she says, is its proximity to City Hall. The City Council is supposed to vote on an antiwar resolution this morning, and all the press people will be there until it does. The Fenton flacks still wanted all 13 press conferences to start at the same time, but Mary continued to try to find a way around the problem and that's part of the reason, she explains to Carol, that she wasn't here at eight.

"We'd changed the time six times," she says. "The PR firm that's running this nationally told me that eight was too early, but it was too late to call you."

When the third spokesperson, Donna Conroy, arrives, it's time to watch the ad. After wrestling with the TV and VCR for five minutes, calling on the pastor, the pastor's secretary, and the church techie, Kristin gets a picture.

Late last year MoveOn asked its subscribers to come up with $27,000 to buy a full-page ad in the New York Times. About 11,000 people responded, sending in more than $400,000. Production of the TV spot and the money to buy time to show it came out of what was left over. The MoveOn folks are excited because it's already been mentioned on the CBS Evening News and MoveOn international campaign director Eli Pariser was talking to Diane Sawyer about it on Good Morning America just this morning.

The spot is based on the infamous "daisy ad" from LBJ's presidential campaign in 1964. It starts with a little girl counting the petals she plucks off a flower; the countdown turns into a military one that culminates in a mushroom cloud. In between are shots of burning oil wells and wounded soldiers, along with a voice-over that warns, "War with Iraq: Maybe it will end quickly. Maybe not. Maybe it will spread. Maybe extremists will take over countries with nuclear weapons." It ends with MoveOn's slogan: Let the Inspections Work.

When it's over, Mary wonders aloud, "Should we get name tags?"

The other five people here know what everyone else is doing, but I have no role. I'm not a donor, nor am I a spokesperson. Mary tells everyone I'm a journalist. I came as a volunteer, but I brought a notebook. I take it out and the spokespeople use me to practice for the upcoming media onslaught.

Donna says, "I've never seen a political organization where everybody is asked to do all the positions. You respond to an E-mail and you're the spokesman!"

Kristin says, "It's nice to know that all those $25, $30 donations have significance."

Michael says, "This is as grassroots as you can get. It's really grassy."

At ten o'clock the three of them sit down for a confab.

"Am I the spokesperson?" Donna asks.

"That's what we're here to decide," Michael answers. "We three are the spokespeople."

"We have three who want the job," Donna says.

Michael says they should divvy up the duties and Kristin agrees. "I should do a welcome," she suggests.

Donna recommends they have one person in charge, but the other two disagree.

They talk about what to talk about. Michael says, "If someone asks, well, what do you think Saddam is going to do, just say, well, we don't know and get it back on the message--let the inspections work."

All three look over to where I'm sitting, on the other side of the table, taking notes. They lower their voices.

At 10:40 there are 14 people in the room, and none of them is with the press. Mary has sent volunteer Bob over to City Hall to rustle up some reporters. But he hasn't returned, and the donors who've shown up are getting restless. Mary explains again about the start time and how she tried to change it to eight.

A woman with short white hair, wearing a blue jacket and a name tag that identifies her as "Kathy," asks, "For those of us who have to go back to work, can we see the spot?"

"Of course," says Mary, "but let's wait for Bob to get back."

When Bob gets back, ten minutes later, he tells Mary there's press everywhere at City Hall.

"Did you talk to them?" she asks.

"They didn't let me in."

The spokespeople use the downtime to conduct a dry run of the press conference. Donna stands up, introduces herself, explains why we're here, and mentions the amount of money she donated.

Mary stops her. "Don't mention the amount of money you donated," she says. Michael agrees.

Kristin stands up, introduces herself, and explains how the print ad led to the TV ad. "And the one message we want to deliver here," she concludes purposefully, "is 'Let the inspections work!'"

She takes two steps over to the TV stand and adds, "And with that, I will push the button."

The investors watch the production, twice. One of them asks the spokespeople if they think the spot is inflammatory.

"That's a good question," Michael says. "Sometimes you have to shock people into thinking about shocking things, such as war." But inflammatory or not, he continues, "the overall message is to 'let the inspections work.'"

A latecomer, Sandra, volunteers to go back to City Hall, and Kathy leaves for work.

Around a quarter past 11, the donors create a forum.

Sue, a blond woman in a smart brown suit who introduces herself as a folklorist and mother of three, compares the gulf war and the recent invasion of Afghanistan to video games.

Barbara, a grandmother and roofing consultant, says even if the inspectors find something, the U.S. "should be part of the world community and not act unilaterally."

Kristin adds that anything found will be destroyed, "so it still removes the need for invasion."

"It's tough to say everything in one ad," Michael observes.

When Mary announces that the ad will run on cable channels for a week, the attendees groan.

"It's a way to get the message out to the masses, not just people who are Internet savvy," she protests.

"How many people don't have cable?" a woman named Sallie wants to know. Six people raise their hands.

Kristin recommends that they look into basic cable. "They won't tell you about it, but if you ask for it you'll get it--it corrects bad reception and it's only $7.80 a month..."

She's interrupted by Sandra's return from City Hall. Nobody's coming, she says. "The press said they'd do it via satellite."

No one looks too upset; people seem happy to have matched familiar E-mail addresses with faces. As it turns out, the ad will get all kinds of attention--on CNN, ABC's World News Tonight, and, strangely, on Channel Five, which plays the spot on the local news and shows a clip of a press conference from one of the other cities without saying where it was held.

We all pose for a group photo. It's an exclusive!

Around noon some of us walk over to City Hall, where the council meeting's still going on. Nine cameramen stand against the wall with their arms folded while Ed Burke introduces a resolution stating that Ron Santo and Minnie Minoso should be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

"And long overdue, I might add," he adds.

I leave, but Mary stays to see the

antiwar resolution pass by a vote of 46 to one.

The speeches were "remarkably eloquent," she reports. "I never had much respect for aldermen. I always thought they were mostly uneducated crooks. But these speeches were really something, really passionate. They should have been in the papers."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Sandra Bever.

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