Murray Gets Her Message Out, On Video -- Taxpayers Funding The One- A-Month Effort
Seattle Times Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - The video starts with the kind of evocative background music Ken Burns might use to set the mood for one of his historical documentaries.
Images from the nation's capital alternate on the screen with scenes from Washington state. This could be a thoughtful look at the relationship between the two Washingtons. It could be a travelogue sponsored by some tourism commission. Tulips and daffodils abound, so perhaps it's a plug for the beauty of the Skagit Valley in spring.
It is none of those things.
"Outlook on Washington" is 28 minutes of civics lesson and soft-core political advertising for U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., recorded in the Senate's production studio and paid for by taxpayers. Forty copies of the video are headed for schools, hospitals and cable-access networks throughout the state and there are more to come. Murray's staff plans to produce a new video every month until shortly before the primary election in 1998.
Since Congress first voted itself free mailing privileges in the early 1800s, incumbents have had the edge over challengers in getting their message out to the voters. In recent years, World Wide Web sites have increased that advantage, and now Murray's video takes it to a whole new level.
Produced by her office staff with technical assistance from the Senate's recording studio, it is sophisticated, unfiltered television programming that - if Murray's first effort is any indication - puts her in the best possible light.
A day in senator's life
Murray isn't the first senator to use this service. In content and feel, her program is similar to videos 33 other senators have produced. Washington's other senator, Republican Slade Gorton, has not used the Senate studio to make a video and had no immediate plans to, his staff said.
Murray's assistant press secretary, Rebekka Bonner, who will spend about a quarter of her time on the project, said the intent is to educate the public about legislation and Congress, and to make people feel good about the job Murray is doing.
"The first show introduces people to what a senator does," Bonner said. "We are going to try to make sense of the issues of the day and make our office accessible and usable to viewers. We're trying to demystify the process in which legislation is crafted here in Washington."
Indeed the video does some of that.
It takes viewers through a somewhat typical day in Murray's life here in Washington, D.C., allowing them to eavesdrop on conversations she has with constituents and staff, and introduces the people they might encounter should they write Murray a letter or drop by one of her offices. The video provides viewers with a basic understanding of the makeup of Congress and what can happen to a bill between the time it is introduced and becomes law. There are even a few commercial breaks that feature public-service ads on volunteerism, drug abuse and the benefits of wearing a seat belt.
Interspersed throughout all that, though, is a highly political message delivered in a format that would cost anyone else thousands of dollars to produce.
There's an exchange between Murray and a Clinton administration official discussing the administration's efforts on behalf of foreign trade and the overseas sale of Boeing aircraft. There's a scene of Murray striding up the stairs to the Capitol to vote on maritime legislation, and a segment devoted to her efforts to bring computers to classrooms. In virtually every exchange, Murray champions causes important to the state.
"While we didn't have time to show you all of Sen. Murray's work in just one edition of Outlook, we'll leave you with a quick glimpse into some of the ways your senator is fighting for our state and you right here on Capitol Hill," says the announcer as the program draws to a close.
Communicating vs. campaigning
Senators have long had access to the radio- and television-recording studios, which provide them with a convenient and dignified setting from which to conduct interviews that are broadcast back to their home state. That capability was expanded two years ago when Democrats, after losing control of the Senate, decided they needed to do a better job of communicating with constituents.
Just where and when the line is crossed between communicating and campaigning is open to interpretation, says a staff member on the Senate Rules Committee. Four years ago, the committee issued some guidelines, saying the Senate's production and transmission facilities could be used for official business and public-interest programs.
Beyond that, it's left to a senator's judgment. Murray considered producing a get-out-the-vote video in October before concluding it could be perceived as an effort to turn out Democratic voters. Bonner said the video just released fulfills Murray's obligation to keep constituents informed about what she's doing.
"It gets political when it becomes self-promotion," Bonner said.
The rules committee allows senators to use the production facilities until 60 days before their primary election. Murray intends to produce the monthly videos until that cut-off date in the summer of 1998, the year her six-year term expires.
Two years from an election is traditionally the time senators begin organizing their campaigns. That Murray waited until now to begin producing the videos is coincidental, said Rex Carney, her press secretary.
"We've wanted to do this since day one but we just didn't have the staff," said Carney, who hired Bonner earlier this year because she had experience producing videos. "Our intention was never campaign-related. But she has announced her intention to run for re-election and she'll use every tool at her disposal to make sure the people of Washington state know what she's been doing as their elected representative."
A savings of $95,000
Video producers here estimate this specific tool will save Murray about $95,000 over the next 18 months. They estimate the price of producing her half-hour video at around $5,000. The cost to Murray was about $70 from her office budget, plus the 16 hours it took her staff to produce it.
"It's the best deal in town," Bonner said.
Whether it's a good deal or not will depend, in large part, on how many people see it. Bonner plans to conduct a follow-up survey to determine where it played and whether it covered issues people were interested in. Those responses will determine subjects covered in the future.
"We're wide open for suggestions," Bonner said.
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