How John Tierney’s Tracker Became a Story

Video of an operative sent to film Rep. John Tierney drew more attention to the presence of 'trackers' than to the politician himself.

A “controversy” over a raw video of Rep. John Tierney gave voters a reminder of an odd omnipresence in today’s politics: that of the political tracker, or a paid operative sent by the opposition to film politicians in public in the hopes of catching them in a lie or gaffe.

The video showed Tierney complaining about the presence of a “tracker,” an operative sent by the state Republican party to film him at a party.

“Tracker? You got to be kidding. In here?” Tierney said at the event. Then, according to Republicans, he added, “We ought to get the troops and stomp him.” Tierney’s campaign says he said, “We ought to get the troops and stop him.” (Emphasis ours.) The video yielded local stories about the disagreement, and (surprise!) an incensed Breitbart News headline reading, “DEMOCRAT REP. JOHN TIERNEY CALLS FOR ‘TROOPS’ TO ‘STOMP’ GOP TRACKER.”

While this might outrage some voters, the video is probably just confusing to those who don’t know that both parties regularly employ trackers to keep video cameras trained on politicians when they make public appearances. It is a simple fact of life for those seeking or holding office that their every word is frequently being recorded at close range. If they slip up, or even say something that could be edited to make it seem like they slipped up, they can look forward to having the footage sent out to the media and put in TV ads. At its best, this tactic can be devastatingly effective. In politics, there is nothing more damning than letting voters see embarrassing words come from the politician’s mouth, and trackers have caused politicians a lot of embarrassment over the years.

It is not surprising that tensions involving trackers often arise. The co-mingling of a hostile videographer and a politician’s staff and supporters isn’t a recipe for cordiality. In 2012, Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren got into a back and forth accusing the other’s campaign of mistreating trackers. The Brown campaign sent out vide of a driver for Warren knocking the camera out of the hand of a tracker and yelling at him. Democrats responded with video of Brown aide forcibly removing a Warren campaign tracker from an event.

That fight, like this controversy, wasn’t a particularly effective one for either side.  he fact is, trackers aren’t particularly beloved bastions of the political process. When they are noticed at all, they come off like an invasive sect of paparazzi. The tracking strategy usually works best when voters aren’t thinking about who is holding the camera. In order to decide whether Tierney said something offensive, we need to know to whom he was speaking. And that means figuring out why the state Republicans asked a videographer to tail him. This is not where either party wants the focus to be. Trackers are sent to catch politicians in a controversy. But in cases like this one, they become the controversy instead.