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Mayor-O’Brien ‘feud’ changes media landscape

Political and media experts say the facetious feud between Newark Mayor Cory Booker and talk show host Conan O'Brien perfectly illustrates the intersection of old media with new media.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The old media story for politicians: TV show slams city, outraged mayor pens complaint, controversy fades away.

The new media story for politicians: TV show slams city, tech-savvy mayor stokes the fire by distributing humorous video response via YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and is invited to make a guest appearance.

Political and media experts say Newark Mayor Cory Booker and NBC's "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien may have broken new ground the past two weeks as they traded humorous barbs over the pros and cons of gritty Newark, New Jersey's largest city.

( is NBC Universal-Microsoft joint venture.)

They view the facetious feud as a perfect illustration of the intersection of old media — a television show that draws about 2.6 million viewers and is seeking a younger audience — with new media like Google's YouTube video sharing network and the Facebook and Twitter social networks.

The new media have the potential to reach an even larger audience. Facebook passed 300 million users Sept. 15.

"This may be part of the new job description for mayors," said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of television and popular culture. "This guy really knows how to use the Internet and how to use Twitter. The minute I watched those videos, he became my favorite U.S. mayor because he was witty, he was hip and he was funny."

Booker's got more than 789,000 followers on Twitter and 14,000 supporters on Facebook. His first video response to Conan has been viewed more than 118,000 times on YouTube.

Newark ranks 64th among U.S. cities with 280,000 residents. But Booker ranks 4th among elected officials on the Web site, which tracks Twitter popularity. Only President Barack Obama, U.S. Sen. John McCain, and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom are ahead of him.

Making a plug for city
The exchange began Sept. 23 on the Tonight Show when the 46-year-old O'Brien joked about Booker's new health care program, which he said consisted of a bus ticket out of Newark. Booker, 40, replied Sept. 29 by extolling the city's virtues and "banning" O'Brien from Newark Liberty International Airport in the first of three YouTube video responses.

"Try JFK buddy," Booker deadpanned in a reference to the notoriously congested airport in nearby New York City.

The two traded humorous insults through the end of the week, with Booker managing to work in several plugs for the city. The exchange is invaluable national exposure, political consultants said.

"Cory is a young guy that knows how to use new media in ways that most politicians don't," said Steve Ayscue, a political strategist and multimedia consultant. "The fact that he's engaging Conan like this is incredible."

Reaching young people
And in politics, face time is money. A 30-second national television ad on the Tonight Show can cost $40,000, according to the Message & Media consulting firm.

"I really don't know anyone at the mayoral level who communicates more innovatively than Cory Booker," said Joe Trippi, a political consultant who managed Howard Dean's Internet-driven presidential campaign in 2004. "He's reaching young people where they are."

Booker is part of a small, but growing, cadre of politicians who have learned they can control their messages more effectively and ensure their delivery by distributing them via social networks. Former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has amassed more than 910,000 supporters on her Facebook page.

O'Brien has invited Booker to appear on the Tonight Show and the mayor has promised to do - after O'Brien visits Newark. Drew Shane, a spokesman for the Tonight Show, declined to say whether O'Brien would do so.

Newark had become an icon for urban decay before Booker took office in July 2006. The city, which lost 46 percent of its population from 1950 to 1990, regained about 1,500 residents during the first two years of his administration.

"All joking aside, Newark is often used as the butt of jokes," said Booker, who is trying to craft a blueprint for urban renewal in the city. "It's a cheap way to get laughs, and we're not going to tolerate it anymore."