NEWS- Need to impede: Allen aides block new Macaca
Since Senator George Allen's "Macaca" scandal broke in late August, it has become common knowledge that political campaigns in high-profile races send "trackers" to follow the opposition with video cameras, hoping to record any gaffe that can be broadcast for the whole wide world to see. Now, it appears, when it comes to camera-toting volunteers sent by Democratic opponent Jim Webb, Allen volunteers have not only learned the opposition's playbook, but are starting to play defense.
At an October 4 Allen campaign stop at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport, an event that included former Delegate Paul Harris, Albemarle GOP chair Keith Drake was observed intentionally blocking the Webb tracker's camera lens. During a question-and-answer session following the stump speech, Drake held his digital camera about an inch from the tracker's lens and also made a point of using his significant height advantage to stand directly in front of the tracker.
Asked why he felt the need to impede, an unrepentant Drake said, "She wasn't being respectful. People were excited about George Allen and excited to talk about him; but she began shushing them, and that was disrespectful."
The tracker declined comment on her attempt to "shush" at least one conversation and would identify herself to the Hook only as Joan. "I'm not supposed to talk to the press," said Joan, "but do feel free to write about what you've observed."
But apparently Joan's gag rule does not extend to the Internet. The next day, "joanvt" posted a two-minute and twenty-second edited account of her CHO experience at video hosting site YouTube.com.
In a piece she titles "Tracker Torture - Day 2," Joan narrates her footage with such self-described "snarky" asides as, "They're double-teaming me! I hope next time Allen isn't going to call in the Washington Redskins!" and "I doubt that [Allen volunteer's] mother would be proud of her son's manners here."
Oddly enough, the confrontation with Drake did not make the final cut.
In the first installment of "Tracker Torture," Joan's main beef was with an anonymous Allen volunteer whom she dubs "doofus." Chronicling her time at an event in Weyers Cave, she shows how someone from the Allen campaign repeatedly obscured her shots of the senator chatting with supporters. So, as retribution, she concludes the segment by zooming in on what she describes as "doofus' bald spot."
The YouTube profile for "joanvt" reveals that the mystery videographer is Joan Van Tassel of Vienna and that she's no stranger to capturing newsmakers on tape. According to joanvantassel.com, the personal website to which Van Tassel links her profile, she has traveled everywhere from Baghdad to Los Angeles while producing work for ABC News' Nightline, 20/20, and Good Morning America and even won an Emmy nomination for her documentary Land of the Free, Home of the Rich for L.A.'s KABC-TV.
Webb campaign spokesperson Kristian Denny Todd confirms that Van Tassel is indeed working for the Webb campaign and has been instructed not to talk to reporters.
"She's there to do her job, and we ask that she just blend in and not stand out in any way," she says. "Because she's there to do a job, we ask that she not speak to the media."
As for Van Tassel's YouTube postings, Todd says that Webb officials have final approval over video clips and can be considered official communications of the Webb campaign.
While he refused to discuss specific campaign strategy, Shawn Smith of the Republican Party of Virginia, the body responsible for the volunteers tracking Webb's every move, says, "It's particularly important that the Republican party track the Democrats since the Democrat statewide candidates have a habit of making promises in one part of Virginia and then wholly denying that same promise in another part of Virginia."
Matthew Smyth of the Univeristy of Virginia Center for Politics, says Van Tassel's clips represent a strategic move by the Webb campaign. "These clips seem to be specifically assembled so that the tracker is perceived simply as an ordinary person who's trying to get some footage of the opposing candidate," he says.
Asked if he believes Van Tassel's sarcastic narrative undermines her point, Smyth says, "Nowadays, sarcasm is a more acceptable means of conveying a message, but you've got a very clear visual message of people getting in front of the camera, and it's tough to mess that up."
What impact, if any, these video trackers have on the campaign won't be known until the votes are counted on November 7, but it's safe to say that in the post-"Macaca" world, Internet video is an undeniable force in Virginia politics.
Jim Webb campaign volunteer Joan Van Tassel tries her best to film Senator George Allen while Albemarle GOP chair Keith Drake intentionally obstructs her shot.
PHOTO BY LINDSAY BARNES
Senator Allen rallied supporters at an October 4 event at Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport.
PHOTO BY WILLIAM WALKER