Candid camera now an important tool in political warfare

2013-03-22T00:00:00Z Candid camera now an important tool in political warfareDavid Lightman Mcclatchy Newspapers Arizona Daily Star
March 22, 2013 12:00 am  • 

WASHINGTON - Republicans are touting a 100-page report full of lofty talk about reaching out to minority voters and projecting an air of tolerance. But three paragraphs spell out another way of doing business: stalking Democrats.

"Well-funded conservative groups should seek to hire activists to track Democratic incumbents and candidates with video cameras constantly recording their every movement, utterance, and action," the report urged.

The five-member study group's report outlined in stark terms what it wants:

"An allied group dedicated to research to establish a private archive and public website that does nothing but post inappropriate Democrat utterances and act as a clearinghouse for information on Democrats would serve as an effective vehicle for affecting the public issue debate."

Like Project Veritas, the conservative outfit that's sparked controversy as it trains what it calls "citizen journalists" to secretly videotape people in politics and government? Like the Democrat-friendly American Bridge, which has a sophisticated tracking operation that logged about 3,200 events during the last election cycle?

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus won't get specific. The party and candidates for federal office are prohibited from coordinating with outside groups leading up to elections.

But the idea of video tracking is growing in politics, aided by the spread of hand-held cameras, the availability of the Internet to spread "gotcha" videos, and the hunger of people for what appears to be raw cinéma vérité.

It caught fire in 2006 after an Indian-American Democratic volunteer shooting video of Republican Sen. George Allen showed the senator referring to him as "macaca," which struck some as a racial slur. The video went viral, and Allen lost.

The video race was on.

Last year, a bartender recorded Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's remark at a fundraiser that 47 percent of Americans are "depending on government" and "believe that they are victims." The clip helped fuel the image of Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy.

The tracking process grew more sophisticated in the last election cycle, as American Bridge was created with the sole purpose of conducting opposition research, communications and tracking of Republicans.

"Democrats felt we couldn't match Republican groups dollar for dollar," explained Chris Harris, communications director for American Bridge. "Our groups had to be more creative, more efficient, and work together."

American Bridge hired 20 trackers, people ranging in age from their 20s to their 40s, who knew how to handle sophisticated camera equipment. They got about 2,000 hours of footage and were instructed to record only relevant events.

They claimed success stories, including catching Romney taking a hard line on illegal immigration, saying among others things that illegal immigrants were "looking for a free meal."

American Bridge raised about $17 million and spent about $15 million. It's already out tracking candidates who could be running in 2014 and 2016.

Among conservatives, Project Veritas, headed by activist James O'Keefe, is also in this mix. Last fall it taped Patrick Moran, field director for the campaign of his father, Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., saying he would "look into" a possible voter fraud proposal. Patrick Moran resigned his position after the video surfaced.

In 2010, CNN reported that O'Keefe tried to embarrass a correspondent "by recording a meeting on hidden cameras aboard a floating 'palace of pleasure' and making sexually suggestive comments, emails and a planning document show." The correspondent, though, was warned in advance, foiling the plan.

Copyright 2015 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.