By Other Words
By Jason Salzman
It used to be that journalists would join major candidates on the campaign trail, following them from coffee shops to parades and beyond as they tried to woo supporters and votes.
Reporters would record how a candidate might change his or her stump speech in front of different audiences — or catch gaffes.
Nowadays, the reporter on the campaign trail is becoming a thing of the past. Nationwide cutbacks have depleted the ranks of reporters at newspapers and television stations.
Journalists still trail presidential candidates, to be sure. But non-presidential candidates don’t get blanket coverage like they used to.
Candidates instead face a new kind of scrutiny.
Partisan “trackers” with small cameras are following key U.S. Senate and gubernatorial candidates around in states across the country. These trackers record as much of the candidates’ daily interactions as possible and ask them questions.
These folks are hired by political groups that want to catch candidates making gaffes or going off-message.
With video recording devices in their hands, trackers are sort of doing what the old-style campaign-trail reporters used to do. Except trackers aren’t trying to illuminate the “truth” like professional journalists are supposed to do. They’re trying to expose “dirt” or publicize information that will hurt a candidate.
But still, if journalists aren’t out there on the campaign trail, I’m glad someone is. If it has to be a partisan tracker paid to uncover information a candidate may not want exposed, so be it.
That is, as long as trackers, on all sides of the political mud pit, act ethically.
We should welcome the presence of camera-carrying trackers on the campaign trail as long as they follow this basic ethical standard: They shouldn’t misrepresent themselves, lie, or trick candidates into saying things candidates don’t really believe.
Why would the partisan fighting dogs who employ trackers ever stop short of any deceit or trickery to hurt an opposing candidate?
If the people demanded it. That’s why.
If a tracker is caught lying or misrepresenting himself, the public (journalists, you, me, our Facebook buds) should explode and show the world that the backlash caused by lying makes it not worthwhile to lie in the first place.
We’re at a strange moment in the evolution of journalism when this actually seems possible. In North Dakota, the NorthDecoder blog recently revealed that a conservative tracker following Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp had lied to the candidate’s campaign, saying he wanted to be a volunteer. Once accepted by the campaign, and wearing a campaign t-shirt, he suddenly pulled out his camera and harassed the candidate.
After the story was reported by the NorthDecoder blog, the tracker disappeared and his name was removed from the website of the conservative organization that he was working for.
We don’t know what happened to him, but let’s hope he was fired. If so, his story can serve as an example of how ethics can take a foothold as other forms of information-gathering replace journalism, even if those forms are driven by a partisan agenda.
But if we don’t demand ethical behavior, by getting mad as hell when we hear about trackers lying to and tricking candidates, we’ll never get it from partisan hacks. That’s for sure.
A former media critic for the Rocky Mountain News, Jason Salzman is board chair of Rocky Mountain Media Watch and author of Making the News: A Guide for Activists and Nonprofits. www.bigmedia.org