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Trackers, reporters, Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren: Get over it

Posted by Mark Leccese  May 24, 2012 12:39 PM

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The Globe’s Stephanie Ebbert had an interesting — and kind of fun — story in Tuesday’s paper headlined “Candidates wary as opposition cameras roll.” Here are the first paragraphs of her story:

The Haverhill VFW Post was friendly territory for Senator Scott Brown, a National Guardsman himself. Yet in the midst of his remarks to veterans this month, he stopped abruptly, distracted by a video camera in the crowd.

Brown fixed an icy gaze on the man behind the lens.

The cameraman was a video tracker for a liberal group that supports Brown’s Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren. His mission, as it is most days, is to track the senator’s every word, in hopes of catching an inconsistency, or better, a gaffe. The senator, too, reaps the benefits of a tracker, one assigned to follow Warren.

Brown ordered the young man out.

“Every word they’ll use in some kind of negative commercial and it’s shameful,’’ Brown later said, according to the Eagle-Tribune newspaper.

Ebbert reports that Elizabeth Warren’s campaign staff “recently barred a Republican tracker from a rented space in a community arts center in Lynn where the Democratic candidate, a bankruptcy law expert and consumer advocate, was showcasing her expertise.”

I have a question for the Senator Brown and candidate Warren: What, precisely, is your problem with someone recording your campaign appearances? These are public appearances and you are running for public office.

Another question for the Senator Brown and candidate Warren: What, precisely, would be “shameful” about a statement you made at a public event while running for public office being widely disseminated? Isn’t the point of any candidate’s media operation to get what the candidate says widely disseminated?

If the person wielding the camera were shooting video of Senator Brown or candidate Warren to make a flattering campaign video, neither candidate would object. Both would probably go out of their way to make sure the cameraperson had a comfortable seat and back-up batteries for the camera.

The issue is intent: The purpose of trackers from opposing campaign staffs armed with video cameras is to catch a candidate saying something — anything — that won’t look good in television campaign ad.

Ebbert, in her story, calls trackers the “political equivalent of paparazzi” and writes they have been used “for at least 16 years in Massachusetts, since the 1996 Weld-Kerry Senate race.”

I covered the Weld-Kerry race, and there were indeed trackers at many campaign events (although they recorded audio back in those days). No one seemed to mind, if I recall correctly, and the trackers — to me, anyway — always looked a little sheepish.

A tracker has just as much right as any citizen to attend and record a public campaign event. Unlike 1996, the trackers don’t even need to carry an audio or video rig — a mobile phone camera will do in a pinch, and most people these days has one. Anyway with a computer and an Internet connection can post whatever he or she records for the world to see.

That doesn’t mean, as the title of a recent book would have it, that “we’re all journalists now.” The ability to record and disseminate information doesn’t make you a journalist any more than being able to cook up some dinner using pots and pans makes you a chef.

Still, I don’t see much difference between what reporters do at a campaign event and what the trackers do. The intentions of reporters and trackers may be different, but their purpose for being at a campaign event is the same: to gather and disseminate information about what the candidate said.

Ebberts quotes Jeff Berkowitz, former research director for the Republican National Committee, as saying, “There’s a person there whose sole purpose is to wait for you to screw up. It’s stressful for a candidate. They can’t be in a room anymore and just have a conversation and misspeak. As shocking as it may be for people, candidates are human beings and can’t always speak as artfully as they want to.”

Does Berkowitz think that if a candidate “screws up,” the reporters at the event will turn off their cameras and slap their notebooks shut?

When you run campaign for public office in public settings, you don’t get to choose who will be allowed to record what you say. Senator Brown, Candidate Warren and their staffs should get used to it and get over it. Have some respect for the voters who want to know your public statements.

Follow @mleccese on Twitter.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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