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Eli Pariser May Be Only 23, But He's Helping Change The Nation's Political Panorama Through His Work For, a Grass-Roots Internet Advocacy Group With More Than 2 Million Members.
Published on Sunday, April 18, 2004 by the Journal News (Westchester, New York)
Eli Pariser May Be Only 23, But He's Helping Change The Nation's Political Panorama
Through His Work For, a Grass-Roots Internet Advocacy Group With More Than 2 Million Members
by Heather Salerno

When Eli Pariser wanted to remind voters of Richard Clarke's bombshell allegation — that the Bush administration ignored terrorism threats before 9/11 — he called on his fellow members.

"Can you help us fund this?" he wrote in a mass e-mail.

Attached to the message were storyboards for a TV ad supporting presumed Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. Fiery quotes from Clarke's "60 Minutes" interview preceded the tagline "George Bush. A Failure of Leadership."

As campaigns director for MoveOn, a fast-growing Internet advocacy group that promotes mostly liberal causes, Pariser knew he could count on its 2-million-member international network to respond.

Three hours after clicking "send," Pariser, who's 23, met his fund-raising goal of $300,000, enough to air the commercial on CNN and the Fox News Channel.

Within three days, more than $1 million had rolled in.

"Money in politics traditionally comes from unions or corporations or special interests," Pariser says. "For it to come directly in 22,000 contributions in $25, $35, $45 increments, that's an incredibly exciting thing."

That's Pariser's goal: to help ordinary citizens — Americans without big money or big connections — transform their concerns into action.

MoveOn's approach works, Pariser says, because he and the rest of its leaders respond to members' suggestions and priorities, not the other way around. "Instead of thinking 'What are the views I can get across or convince people of?,' what you're thinking is 'How can I help these people do what they want to do?' " was founded in 1998 by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, as a frustrated response to what they saw as the circus surrounding President Clinton's impeachment hearings. They called for a quick censure so the country could "move on" to more important issues.

Since then, the grass-roots group has become the master of online organizing, or "geek organizing," as the staff jokingly calls it.

Some who disagree with MoveOn's left-wing views have accused the organization of being an arm of the Communist party (speculation began after the official Web site of the Communist Party of the United States included a link to MoveOn, which has since been removed).

"There's absolutely no evidence or credibility to those claims," Pariser says. "It's a totally spurious claim, and kind of mudslinging we have to expect from right-wingers."

Even the harshest critic has to admire how MoveOn has successfully harnessed the Internet to encourage widespread activism.

Clarke took note earlier this month, when he objected to the use of his name and quotes in MoveOn's ad. He told the Associated Press that he doesn't want his statements to seem partisan, and asked MoveOn to stop broadcasting the commercial. The group refused.

(Sen. Kerry, too, seemed to acknowledge the group's talents recently when his campaign hired a MoveOn team member, Zack Exley, as director of online communications.)

Pariser refutes the assumption that Americans are politically apathetic, saying: "They want to be active. They just don't know what they can do at any given moment to make an impact."

He adds: "We really see MoveOn as, ultimately, a service."

In Pariser's case, that service is strictly no-frills. He runs MoveOn's political action committee from a bright yellow closet-sized office in a fourth-floor Manhattan walk-up shared with four roommates and two cats.

And though a Washington outsider, he's quickly becoming a player in the nation's political panorama.

Pariser helped organize hundreds of neighborhood bake sales across the country yesterday to raise money for the Kerry campaign.

He was the key draftsman of MoveOn's antiwar movement, speaking alongside Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King III at a February 2003 peace rally in New York.

He's worked directly with former Vice President Al Gore on MoveOn-sponsored speeches.

He spearheaded a fight against the Federal Communications Commission's media consolidation decision last year, stirring opposition to deregulation that spurred Congress to alter the legislation.

He also directed MoveOn's nationwide contest for the best 30-second advertisement that criticized a Bush administration policy.

The winner (from 1,500 submissions) was "Child's Pay," which shows children cleaning floors, tossing trash and washing dishes. It ends by asking: "Guess who's going to pay off President Bush's $1 trillion deficit?"

A controversy kicked up when CBS refused to air the spot during this year's Super Bowl, citing a policy that prohibits advocacy advertising. The dispute generated massive buzz for MoveOn, as Pariser used news outlets — an interview in Newsweek here, an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times there — to argue against CBS's decision.

Some critics said free publicity was what MoveOn wanted all along, a claim Pariser denies. "In the end, I would have been happier if we had just been able to run it during the Super Bowl and be done with it," he says.

Colleagues note that the media attention never seems to turn Pariser's head.

Indeed, he peppers conversations about his MoveOn work with more "we" than "I," and he's quick to stress the teamwork involved with all campaign brainstorming sessions.

"There are a lot of people involved in politics who are furthering their own personal agenda," says Moby, the techno-pop musician, who co-founded the "Bush in 30 Seconds" contest. "With Eli, it seems his heart is in the right place. He doesn't bring ego to his work."

Instead, MoveOn founder Boyd says, Pariser brings an engaging, insightful personality that belies his age.

"A year or so ago, we met with members of Congress to talk about Internet organizing," Boyd recalls. "The way it works in Washington, the status people sit at a table and their staff sits against the wall. And Eli looks like he should be sitting against the wall with the young staffers.

"Then in the middle of the meeting, Eli was having trouble seeing everyone. So he went to the head of the table and started talking. It was completely natural for him to be holding court with these House members."

More recently, Pariser launched MoveOn's "house party" project. Members gathered in hundreds of towns across the country for screenings of "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War," a documentary that accuses Bush and his handlers of misleading the public before the invasion.

With a nine-person staff, MoveOn has no field operatives to coordinate with locals. So Pariser set up MoveOn's Web site so members could plug in a zip code, locate the nearest party and RSVP online. Volunteer hosts organized each get-together on their own.

In the end, 2,200 parties (attracting 50,000 guests) were held.

"I never would have thought you could go from a Web page to on-the-ground activities," says Robert L. Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, a liberal think tank that has collaborated with MoveOn.

"Eli is constantly trying to find ways to engage people and empower them to do their own activity."

Pariser grew up in the small harbor town of Camden, Maine, where his parents founded an alternative high school. At home, they refused to censor the news for their young son. Pariser remembers having family discussions about the Cold War when he was 7.

"When I heard something on the radio about Reagan or nuclear war, I asked and they gave me a straight answer," he says.

He graduated from Simon's Rock College of Bard at 19, and was accepted by the University of Chicago's law school. But he deferred and started working as a Web designer, giving little thought to a career in public policy.

"I always kind of was skeptical about politics per se because it can be so soulless and tactical without some sort of big picture thinking behind it," he says.

That thinking shifted in the wake of 2001's terror strikes.

In the weeks following the tragedy, Pariser created, an online petition calling for military restraint and a multilateral response to the attacks.

He e-mailed the link to some friends, who forwarded it to their friends.

Within two weeks, more than a half-million people had signed the petition.

It caught Boyd's attention, too, and the two soon agreed to unite their Web sites. Since Pariser joined MoveOn in 2002, membership has more than tripled.

Right now, though, he's holed up in his apartment, asking the MoveOn community how they should respond to the upcoming Republican National Convention (scheduled for Aug. 30 through Sept. 2 in New York City).

Surprisingly, in this case, Pariser says staying passive might be the best way to be active.

"Sometimes if you give this administration enough rope, they have so much hubris they can just hang themselves," he says.

"The kind of presumption that goes into thinking you can harness Sept. 11 for a political event and plan your national convention in this city ... we may not need to do anything."

As for himself, Pariser says he has no idea what the future holds.

"I can't see beyond November 2," he says. "Everything right now is focused on that date."

Copyright 2004 The Journal News, a Gannett Co. Inc.


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