Political pundits moan that video cameras on the campaign trail stifle candidates from saying much of anything, for fear a gaffe will ruin their careers.

That happened to George Allen. At a campaign stop in 2006, the former Senator (R-VA) was caught on tape repeatedly referring to a young man of Indian descent–who was volunteering for Allen’s rival Jim Webb–as “macaca.” Webb won. Allen’s videotaped “macaca moment” may have cost Allen his seat.

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s a shame a political campaign can be won or lost with the single slip of a tongue.

I’m not saying Allen’s “gaffe” wasn’t serious. It was–the term is a racial slur. Especially nowadays, with video cameras rolling at events large and small, from the beginning of a campaign to the end, we should take candidates’ gaffes with a grain of salt. .

However, the ubiquitous video cameras on the campaign trail do more than catch gaffes.

They also show how politicians change their messages in front of different audiences.

Now that’s particularly important, nowadays. Fewer journalists are assigned to trail political candidates, which makes it harder for us to hear how they’re fine tuning their stump speech and talking points as their campaigns progress.

This past electoral season in Colorado, Democrats caught GOP Senate candidate Ken Buck early in his campaign on videotape making statements that arguably later led to his narrow loss to incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet.

But Buck’s statements weren’t slips of the tongue. They were policy positions that appealed to conservative voters in the GOP primary.

Republican primary voters were deciding between Buck and his Republican rival Jane Norton. Norton was viewed as a centrist, while Buck was embraced by Tea Party groups.

With backing from the Republican Party’s far right wing, including social conservatives, Buck narrowly defeated Norton.

But after Buck won the Republican Party primary, videos of Buck’s right-wing statements came back to haunt him.

They were used both by national groups and state campaigns in TV ads that painted Buck as “too extreme” for Colorado.

In assessing his Senate bid after his loss, Buck told The Denver Post that Democratic trackers videotaped him at 600 public appearances and took his words out of context.

A review of his statements, however, shows that videotapes of Buck, shot by both his supporters and opponents, mostly illuminated straight-forward policy positions that voters in the general election, as opposed to conservatives in the GOP primary, found disagreeable.

Buck’s problems weren’t his gaffes but his policies, which may never have come to light had they not been recorded on the campaign trail.

For example, in what turned out to be perhaps the most devastating video clip in the campaign, a Democrat tracker caught Buck on camera telling a Tea Party group during the primary: “I am pro-life, and I’ll answer the next question. I do not believe in the exceptions of rape or incest.”

Other clips showed Buck telling various conservative audiences that Social Security is a “horrible policy,” the Veterans Administration should be privatized, and the Department of Education abolished. He also questioned the federal separation of church and state and the federal student loan program.

So campaign videos, at least in Colorado’s U.S. Senate race, helped bring to light candidates’ policy positions..

That’s a role that journalists used to play in covering a campaign. With their ranks depleted, more of that role is left to individuals, holding small video cameras near candidates in church basements or back-yard picnics.

I’d rather see professional journalists doing this. But at least we’ve got cameras on the candidates–even if some of them are operated by paid political operatives.

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Jason Salzman

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

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