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The pundit in Room 325

YouTube critiques turn student into guru for presidential hopefuls.

June 16, 2007|Jim Puzzanghera | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — During the 2004 presidential campaign, the radical way for candidates to reach young voters in college dormitories was to appear on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." This time around, some candidates have gone straight to the dorm rooms.

Not just any room, but Room 325, a single on the third floor of a red-brick residence hall at Georgetown University here. Two long-shot presidential hopefuls have trekked there to meet James Kotecki, a 21-year-old international politics major who has become the candidates' unlikely guide to the YouTube demographic.

In January, right about the time that presidential hopefuls began experimenting with posting campaign videos on the Internet, Kotecki started critiquing their efforts through YouTube videos of his own. Talking to pencil-puppet versions of the candidates, the self-described "huge political geek" dispensed campaign advice from his dimly lighted room, where shelves stocked with Pringles and Special K served as the backdrop.

The campaigns paid attention. Kotecki became a kind of unpaid online video consultant, with candidates taking his tips and sending back video responses.

Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican, and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, a Democrat, even visited Kotecki's dorm room for serious, sit-down interviews that he posted on YouTube.

Kotecki's graduation last month meant that he left the dorm room behind, but not his influence. On Thursday Democratic candidate Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio joined Kotecki for a YouTube video they shot in a Capitol Hill park. A Republican hopeful, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, recently did the same at a Washington fundraiser.

"I'm not going to say never in my wildest dreams would I have ever expected this, because I have a tendency to dream pretty big, but it's not really something I could have predicted," Kotecki said of his newfound notoriety. "YouTube is a total crapshoot."

And Kotecki got lucky.

Before he became the unofficial VJ for the 2008 presidential campaign, Kotecki was just another kid with a video camera.

He often broke up his studies at Georgetown by surfing the offerings on YouTube, the video-sharing site. When he bought a Web camera in January, he decided to join the craze.

"Everyone else is doing it," he thought. "It seems like they're having a good time."

Kotecki started recording his opinions, two or three minutes at a time, about how each presidential candidate was using the video site. He posts them on his blog, jameskotecki.com, and on YouTube.

Occasionally wearing a blazer and sometimes even a tie, the clean-cut Kotecki delivered his opinions rapid-fire to squeeze as much content as possible into each short video.

They were no-frills productions, spiced with the standard YouTube accouterments: cheap props (pencil puppets made with black-and-white head shots of candidates and handwritten signs), improvised sound effects, pop culture references ("Star Wars" and "Fat Albert") and a peculiar screen name (EmergencyCheese -- after a goofy business idea he had in the 11th grade to produce special containers of cheese to be used in an emergency).

"Your YouTube presence is weak," he told Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). He praised former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat, for focusing on specific issues and keeping his videos short, while encouraging Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to show more of his sense of humor.

For Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), Kotecki had some practical suggestions -- talk directly to the camera, use different backgrounds. "I'd also recommend sitting up straight," he said.

These were not earth-shattering insights, but Kotecki was one of the only people making them. His critiques were focused, well-researched and creative.

Steve Grove, head of news and politics at YouTube, discovered Kotecki's videos and decided to feature them on the site's home page, providing major exposure.

"It was this really earnest, intelligent, smart, young kid saying, 'Hey I want to talk with the candidates. Let's have a two-way conversation,' " Grove said. "It seemed genuine."

Kotecki's attention turned to politics in high school. He spent part of his junior year as a congressional page and fell in love with Washington. Georgetown was a natural college choice, and living in the nation's capital only further fueled his interest in politics.

When he started making YouTube videos, Kotecki researched and recorded them between classes or at night, cobbling them together with the software that came on his laptop computer. His girlfriend, Emily Freifeld, lent expertise from her broadcast journalism studies. He posted them on YouTube and sent them to the presidential campaigns.

The campaigns didn't ignore them.

Edwards posted a written "Thanks" to Kotecki's YouTube page in February. About a month later, Kucinich went one better, addressing Kotecki directly in a 50-second video response, taking his advice for tighter close-ups.

"My advisor," Kucinich said, holding up his own pencil puppet of Kotecki.

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