Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Speaking Dangerously

They have become a standard member of the audience at political speeches - the “tracker.” The opposition sends a staffer equipped with a video camera to record a politician speaking at public events. If the speaker says something unwise, it is recorded for distribution to political blogs and social media outlets.

It’s a practice which tripped up Senator George Allen, leading to his unexpected defeat, after he used the term “macaca” to describe the tracker shadowing him, a term interpreted as a racial slur. With a US Senator as a victim, the practice has been energized. In fact, the Democratic National Committee set up a Web site this year, asking volunteers to send in video, looking for the next “macaca” moment.

With the advent of economical and easy to transport video cameras, and the proliferation of social media sites and political blogs to distribute the results, “trackers” following political candidates at public events have become ubiquitous.

For every candidate, the danger is that something will be said “off message,” creating an issue that was not intended. These can cause a distraction, or worse, even sink the campaign. It’s one reason why creating a standard stump speech, and deviating little from it, is such a good idea.

But this year, a new aspect to the tracker dilemma surfaced in a hotly contested Congressional race in upstate New York, where Chris Gibson was challenging incumbent Scott Murphy. At one campaign stop, the tracker following Gibson around recorded an off-hand comment, although not made by Gibson or his staff. The Murphy campaign then promoted it to the political blogs.

As described by Politico’s Maggie Haberman:
Gibson talked to the crowd about Murphy being for "big government" and sending people to tape him, saying, "What do you think he thinks of your privacy? You trust a guy like that with your guns?"
People in the crowd said, "No!" and Gibson, a former military man, replied, "I'm just asking."
Then a man off to Gibson's left but out of the frame yelled out, "I trust him with my bullet!"
Gibson looked in that direction after the man said it, without saying anything.

Well, here’s the first problem - we don’t actually know which direction the comment came from, because the person making it is off camera. So we don’t know that Gibson looked in that direction, just that he looked around the room after making his own point - something good speakers do anyway.

Before posting the video sent over by the Murphy campaign, Maggie got this reaction from Gibson’s staff:
I emailed Gibson aide Dan Odescalchi the video and asked if the nominee had heard the remark or had any reaction to it, and he claimed he hadn't, saying, "Chris never heard the comment from the audience. Chris was using a microphone and PA system in the front of the room. Chris would obviously never condone any violence of any kind. In this country we settle differences at the ballot box."

Here’s the second problem with this - the Murphy campaign was trying to make their opponent responsible for someone else’s words, even though Gibson never acknowledged the comment, and certainly never said he agreed with it. It’s an attempt at good old-fashioned guilt by association, even though no association has actually been established.

There’s a third problem with this, and the aspect I find most troubling - who is the person who shouted the comment? We don’t know.* He could well be a plant sent by the Murphy campaign for the express purpose of shouting out a comment that could be used by Murphy to try and embarrass his opponent. Murphy had already sent one paid staffer to the event, the tracker, whose job was to try and record something embarrassing. Why not send two? And, who would know? Even the tracker could be kept in the dark on this.

Guilt by association is always a tenuous connection. But shouldn’t we be sure there’s actually some association in the first place?

Not only that, the original mistake can be compounded, because political bloggers tend to link to each other’s posts - particularly in their morning and evening news roundups.

An incident like this raises an additional question for the political bloggers - especially those associated with well-known media outlets such as newspapers, or which aspire to journalistic objectivity, rather than partisan political opinion. Does a video like this actually show what those promoting say it does? And, even if it does, has it been staged in a way that would be tough for anyone else to detect.

My suspicion is the media, and political speakers they cover, will have to wrestle with this last question on an increasingly frequent basis over the next few years - years of speaking dangerously.

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom

* Full Disclosure - I have known Chris Gibson for about a dozen years, and have done a small amount of work on his campaign this year. I also know the tracker who recorded the event. A fellow Tae Kwon Do black belt, he and I trained together for several years at the same dho jhang - in Chris Gibson’s home town of Kinderhook. Oh, and I know Maggie Haberman, and have, on occasion, contributed items used in her political blog (No, I won’t tell you which ones, and neither will she!).