Press Box

Candidates Trapped in the Panopticon!

Updating Mao, political power now grows out of the barrel of a video camera.

Politicians should always be camera-ready

“In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press,” Oscar Wilde once noted. If Wilde were writing today, he’d amend his comment to include the video camera, that cheap, all-seeing eye capable of inflicting pain on its target.

Both parties have added the video camera to their arsenals. Over the summer, the Democratic National Committee established an “Accountability Project” Web site where volunteers could “document Republican candidates and their public statements at local events, as well as their campaign tactics,” as the site puts it, with the goal being to trap candidates making the sort of “Macaca” comments that destroyed the Republican Sen. George Allen’s re-election effort in 2006.

The formation of “truth squads” to follow opposing candidates on the hustings until they commit a gaffe is as old as politics. But the Republicans now seem determined to marry the truth-detection properties of the video camera to the political tricksterism perfected by Democrat Dick Tuck. This morning’s New York Times (Nov. 4) reports that Republicans targeted Democratic officeholders they hoped to nudge into retirement by menacing them “with video cameras and pressing them to explain votes or positions.” According to the Times, Republican strategists now acknowledge they were behind the video ambushing of Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C. As you may recall, Etheridge ended up manhandling a college-age kid who stuck a video camera in his face and asked, “Do you fully support the Obama agenda?” Etheridge apologized for getting physical, and as I write his race is still too close to call.

In the old days, when somebody mugged you with a video camera, it was almost a foregone conclusion it was 60 Minutesand you’d turned down their invitation to be interviewed. But as cameras got cheaper and lighter, the technique spread to even Podunk local stations. TMZ still delights in ambushing, as does Bill O’Reilly, who dispatches Jesse Watters to interview subjects who won’t appear on The O’Reilly Factor. Here’s Watters grilling NPR CEO Vivian Schiller on a Georgetown street at O’Reilly’s behest.

Today, when even the lowliest smartphone can capture decent video, a target has no idea who is recording him—or even whether they are recording him. Ubiquitous video devices make politicians permanent residents of a modern Panopticon, the ultimate surveillance machine philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed for the housing of prisoners. During the campaign, Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del.; Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa.; Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill.; and others took similar amateur—some would say “citizen”—beatings on YouTube. While not as revealing as the Allen Macaca video or as embarrassing as Etheridge’s YouTube encounter, they deny the candidates the authority a sit-down TV-news interview is crafted to supply.

The video guerrilla’s ascendancy was first prophesied in 1971 in Michael Shamberg’s book Guerrilla Television, which preached the DIY gospel that the Sony Portapak, the first affordable, mobile video set-up, was about to revolutionize drama and the documentary. That revolution never came—or rather, the revolution didn’t have a chance until YouTube and its siblings provided a distribution platform for the junk and jewelry recorded by civilians. Suddenly, Shamberg’s crazed ravings about the power of paraprofessional, decentralized media became real, as the video bushwhacking of ACORN by James O’Keefe illustrates. Every time the guerrilla videographers score, the cable broadcasters, starved for “content” as they are, will happily amplify the “gotcha” messages.

Hollywood celebrities have long known that they’re “on” every minute, but in the last decade the video paparazzi have forced them to improve their game. They know that a trip to the supermarket or the drycleaner while under the weather or under the influence could result in something as damaging as a Michael “Kramer” Richards video moment.

How will politicians adjust to the assault of the political paparazzi? Any politician can stay on message and manage his demeanor to generate the five-minute fakery a brief TV interview requires. Of course, some politicians can’t conceal their true faces when tested by the conventional media, as Joe Miller, Carl Paladino, and Charles B. Rangel proved in recent months. But those were exceptional moments. What politician possesses the discipline to stay on message every time he leaves his home- and office-cocoons? Terrified that any given public moment could become a political one if some wise guy shows up with a Flip, will politicians crack under the pressure? Will they start seeing cameras and conspirators everywhere? Or will they normalize the video threat and keep the TV-news face on 24/7?

I’m banking on normalization, although the scrutiny may push some members of Congress into Lindsay Lohan territory. Just as politicians keep scripts in their heads for conventional TV-news interviews, learning to nod with the question, use the interviewer’s first name, and say “Wellllllll” to buy time when an unforeseen question hits them, they’ll find coping mechanisms for the video guerrillas.

First, they’ll learn to give an instinctive smile whenever they sense a video ambush. It’s hard to make a video ass out of somebody who is smiling, even if he happens to be butchering small children at the time. Combined with the friendly wave of the hand and an enthusiastically delivered boilerplate invitation to, “Contact my office, I’d love to talk to you!” even the average short-tempered politician like Bob Etheridge will easily neutralize the ambushers. (This disingenuous technique works just as well when the camera isn’t running. The next time your officemate asks whether you can help him move into his new apartment, smile and wave your hand and say, “I’d really like to help, but I can’t!” Just don’t recommend that he call your office.)

The true test of a politician’s resistance to Panopticon surveillance will come at public events, at the airport after his flight has been canceled three times, at restaurants where his reservation isn’t being honored, or anywhere he has to stand in a long, slow-moving line. Beaten down by boredom and betrayed by his lack of self-control, the politician will inevitably speak what is coursing through his limbic mind. By their guttural utterances, we shall finally know them.


Before I turn off the camera, a little more Oscar Wilde, please: “The fact is, that the public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands. In centuries before ours the public nailed the ears of journalists to the pump. That was quite hideous. In this century journalists have nailed their own ears to the keyhole.” Get wild with me in e-mail: Monitor my most private thoughts on Twitter. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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