In a Dickens novel, Andrew Kaczynski would be The Ghost of Statements Past — haunting political candidates with visions of years-old contradictions, hypocrisy or embarrassment they would rather forget.
The 22-year-old history major at St. John’s University has an uncanny knack for unearthing obscure or forgotten video clips from the shadows of the Internet and thrusting them back into the spotlight.
It started as a hobby, but his findings made such waves across cable news, blogs and campaign ads that BuzzFeed hired him. His article feed and YouTube channel are full of politically awkward scoops, like Mitt Romney telling Barack Obama three separate times in 2009 to copy his Massachusetts health care plan for a national program.
“You can find the history of everybody,” Kaczynski told me. “The Internet is an archive in itself now, and when something gets put on YouTube, it’s there forever. You can really find anything that you need on these people.”
Here are excerpts from our conversation about how he uncovers clips, their journalistic purpose and why other news organizations miss what he finds.
Jeff Sonderman: How did this all start?
Andrew Kaczynski: I was going to school at St. John’s University in Queens, and I started researching these videos in August and October. I started sending them out to people like Ben Smith at Politico, who now is my boss, and all sorts of other people, and it really started to take off.
I live in Kew Gardens in Queens, which is part of the 9th Congressional District, what Anthony Weiner used to represent. He resigned, there was a special election, and I was looking up videos of the candidates to replace him on YouTube.
I found this funny video of Assemblyman [David] Weprin doing a funny dance — like really awkward, incredibly awkward — and I put it up on my [YouTube] channel because I thought it was so funny. I sent it to a couple people I knew in the local news, and it got picked up and within two days it got 20,000 views.
Then when Rick Perry got into the Republican race I started researching him on YouTube and I found some of his first political ads. I put those on YouTube and sent those out to people, and those got 50,000 views.
I realized, just finding these old things, people were loving them and craving them.
Where and how do you find these videos?
Kaczynski: They really come from all over: Google Videos, YouTube, AOL Video. The C-SPAN archives are incredible — they just put it online in 2010. Sometimes I’ll find them on local news sites where no one would think they would find a video, and I’ll cut that and put it on YouTube. Sometimes they’re just embedded in RealPlayer formats from back in 2005 when that was the only video player people had out there.
The method I’ll follow is to systematically go through all the different sources. Sometimes when I’m doing specific research for a piece I’ll look for specific things, but sometimes I will just search for all videos of Rick Santorum during a certain time, maybe with the possibility it will yield something I’ll find newsworthy.
If I’m really looking for something specific — like I found this Obama video from 1991 where he was protesting at Harvard — I knew it wasn’t online but it was in the local Boston PBS archives, so I contacted them about licensing the footage. If there’s something specific that I know someone has said and I know where it is, I’ll contact people about getting a hold of it. But that’s pretty rare, usually I can find it online.
What are you trying to accomplish? Do you just want to get people’s attention or do you think there’s a higher journalistic purpose?
Kaczynski: The reason I do it is, if you can understand where people’s political positions were in the past, and you can see how they’ve changed over the years, you can really see the evolution into the political self they are today.
When I put a video up, I don’t like to put them up with much commentary from me outside of the context of what’s going on in the video. I like to let people decide themselves if somebody changing their views was out of their core convictions, or out of political convenience.
I will always make sure there is 100 percent, crystal-clear context on something. If I have a longer video where I want to cut something down to the relevant portions, I’ll put up the longer version so people can see both.
You focus mostly on video, rather than old quotes in newspapers. Why is that?
Kaczynski: I like to go with the videos a lot of times, because when people get it straight from the horse’s mouth it has a much larger impact. And people are more likely to share my stories if they can embed the video on their own site and then have a link back to my story.
I also researched and I found George Romney’s FBI file, and I put that on the site, and I found the opposition research book that John McCain’s people put out on Mitt Romney in 2009. So I don’t strictly stick to the videos, but I do like to use the videos as a great way to tell stories.
A video will live on on YouTube forever, whereas with a story someone will read it but then it will get disregarded and kind of lost after a couple weeks.
Why do you think other news organizations, other reporters, don’t do this or don’t find what you find?
Kaczynski: I think to a certain extent some news organizations miss it because they just have reporters focusing on covering the campaign and covering what people say. They don’t have as much time to research things like this, it’s not high on their priority list.
I think with me, too, I’ve just gotten so good at it by doing it continuously and finding all of these specific sites that I can do it faster than everyone else. I can just get the stuff up before other people can find it.