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April 15, 2008

From Off The Bus to Meet the Press

In between there is uncharted territory. Mayhill Fowler's report quoting Barack Obama at a fundraiser ("It's not surprising then they get bitter") was posted at OffTheBus Friday afternoon. By Sunday morning Tim Russert had it top of show. How it happened. Why we did it.

Original appeared April 14 at Huffington Post as The Uncharted. It has 700+ comments. I have made some changes and updated it with additional links and fresh reports. This is the next-day, PressThink version. Scroll down to After Matter for links to the debate over this episode.

When a story goes from OffTheBus to Meet the Press in two days certain things are lost in the velocity. One of these was OffTheBus itself, the site I started with Arianna Huffington last year. I knew the waves from Mayhill Fowler’s on-the-scene story, No Surprise that Hard Pressed Pennsylvanians Turn Bitter, were going to make Tim Russert’s show Sunday. I tuned in to see how he and his panel of insiders would handle.

Would Russert see the novelty of the situation? An Obama supporter and donor, who also wrote regular dispatches for Huffington Post’s pro-am campaign coverage site, OffTheBus, recorded Obama’s words at an April 6th San Francisco fundraiser, and then wrote about what concerned her in them. From there it exploded into campaign space. Pretty good story, as the Guardian recognized, followed by the Times of New York and the Times of LA. Heads up, candidates, your supporters include bloggers and they will exercise their First Amendment rights. Barack Obama found that out this week….

Tim and his staff decided on erasure. You’d have to ask them why. Mayhill Fowler’s Obama quotes were shown on screen, but on a show that is scrupulous for showing you the source of statements on screen, Meet the Press made no mention of her, or OffTheBus, or the Huffington Post. Like most surgeries of this kind it was done with the passive voice:

Last Sunday Barack Obama went to a fundraiser in San Francisco, made some comments. They became public late on Friday afternoon….

They became public because Mayhill Fowler reported them for OffTheBus Friday afternoon. Russert used Mayhill’s quotes again on another story she broke earlier in the week. The Boston Globe was the “source” on that one, a designation wholly fictional.

Uncharted space: descriptions missing

It’s not surprising to me that Tim erased Mayhill. And it’s not a shock that some misguided Obama supporters tried to turn her into an enemy of the regime, which she is not. Or that Jay Newton-Small of Time magazine changed her scoop into a leak from someone inside the campaign to Huff Post. Or that Michael Tomasky of the Guardian thinks we broke the rules, emphasis on “the.” Or that Gawker gawked.

We’re in uncharted territory here. Descriptor languages missing. People get mad when they don’t know what to call things. Mad or daft. Like when Mike Allen of the Politico, listing 12 reasons ‘bitter’ is bad for Obama, couldn’t even find the word “website” to describe the Huffington Post. It became “a liberally oriented organization that was Obama’s outlet of choice when he wanted to release a personal statement distancing himself from some comments by the Rev. Wright.” Sounds like some 527 group.

Citizen journalism isn’t a hypothetical in this campaign. It’s not a beach ball for newsroom curmudgeons, either. It’s Mayhill Fowler, who had been in Pennsylvania with Obama, listening to the candidate talk about Pennsylvanians to supporters in San Francisco, and hearing something that didn’t sound right to her. Who’s Mayhill Fowler? A 61 year-old citizen journalist who supports Obama. (See Katharine Seelye’s story on her in the New York Times.)

When supporters have blogs

When Arianna Huffington and I conceived of OffTheBus in March of 2007, we talked about this possibility: A contributor of ours gets invited to a fundraiser and tells us what the candidate said there. We knew it was likely because we would be opening OffTheBus to people who were active in politics. We decided that if we trusted the writer, we would probably run the piece, after doing what was necessary to verify the words of the candidate. If the campaigns wanted to ban from every gathering of supporters those supporters who had a blog, or a diary at a site like Daily Kos or TPM Cafe, or an affiliation with a project like ours — well, that didn’t seem very practical to us.

We knew there could be problems with this approach, and possible disputes with the campaigns. But we also felt that participants in political life had a right to report on what they saw and heard themselves, not as journalists claiming no attachments but as citizens with attachments who were relinquishing none of their rights. We talked about it, but we never anticipated anything this big, or wave-like.

According to Marc Cooper, editorial director of OffTheBus, Mayhill Fowler’s post on Friday afternoon drew 250,000 page views and over 5,000 comments in 48 hours. The story she told was picked up by Reuters and AP and the national newspapers. It was the top story on Google News for a day, and on Memeorandum for a day and a half. Drudge ran with the Politico’s version. Right and left blogosphere reacted with force. (Definitely see Cooper’s post, Inside the Obama Guns God Bitterness Storm.)

Before she was airbrushed out by Tim Russert and changed into a leaker by Jay-Newton Small, Mayhill was an Obama supporter who sometimes found it necessary to be a critic of the campaign. (And she remains for Obama.) She is also a citizen journalist with a platform: OffTheBus, which resides at the Huffington Post. Now if the term “citizen journalist” drives you nuts, or vaults you onto your high horse, just call her a writer with a page on the web that can reach the rest of the news system.

The point is Mayhill Fowler is a particular kind of Obama loyalist. The kind with a notebook, a tape recorder, some friends in the campaign, a public platform of decent size, plus the faculty of critical intelligence. The campaign doesn’t know what it thinks about such people. But soon the people around the candidates will realize: this is normal.

No conditions attached

The category into which she falls is not an existing one in pro journalism, which generally forbids contributions to candidates and open expressions of support. It is not a familiar category among donors, either: Citizen journalist for a pro-am site who may or may not publish something if you invite her? I asked her what her politics were, and she told me:

I’ve given money to Barack Obama’s campaign since last fall as I’ve been able. Like you, in my private life I am an Obama supporter. I’ve also given money to Hillary Clinton. She is not my choice for president, but we are of the same generation, and for a while I thought “maybe” to the idea of an HRC Presidency. I’ve also given money to Fred Thompson — as a show of solidarity for a fellow Tennessean running. Tennessee has given the country several presidents and is proud of that fact. My mother’s family has been in Tennessee politics from the founding of the state — my four-greats grandfather was Andrew Jackson’s Karl Rove, for example — and I wanted to honor my heritage by supporting Fred Thompson. Not that he was going to go far on my $500. As for my own political leanings, I was born into a yellow dog Democrat family and am a registered Democrat. In practice, however, I am an Independent and have voted for both Republicans and Democrats over the years.

It’s that person with a political life whom Arianna and I wanted to recruit for OffTheBus. The invitation she had acquired to the fundraiser in the Pacific Heights section of San Francisco didn’t say, “Mayhill Fowler, citizen journalist” on it. It didn’t say, “you can’t blog about this” either. There were no conditions attached. She agreed to none. Uncharted territory.

Mayhill was a contributor to Obama who had almost given the maximum, $2300. She was known to mid-level finance officials in the campaign, and known by them to be an active contributor to OffTheBus. She had earlier written about a Hillary Clinton fundraiser in Houston, an Obama fundraiser (with Bill Bradley) in San Francisco, and another Obama event in Oakland and San Francisco with Ted Kennedy. She was not new to this, and the Obama campaign was not new to having her around.

It is important to underline that at no point has the Obama campaign contested her right to report on what happened or questioned the accuracy of her account. James Rainey of the LA Times told me he asked them and they declined. This is to Obama’s credit. As an Obama supporter myself (I haven’t given money, or time, or an endorsement like Lessig did, and I have no contact with the campaign, but I voted for him…) I was proud to publish Mayhill’s account, which is partial but truthful, even though I recognize that it touched off an ordeal for the campaign, a media storm that isn’t over and could hurt Barack Obama’s chances.

“A candidate should never play political scientist”

Mayhill told me about the background to the invitation….

As I now realize, I have had what may have been a unique relationship with the mid-level folks at the Obama Campaign. I’ve written about the campaign critically from my very first Obama piece for OffTheBus and yet I never found any subsequent lack of access. Of course, until last week I had never written anything about Senator Obama particularly newsworthy. And so the Obama folks in California and I had an easy relationship, none of us ever dreaming that one day I would hear something important.

It happened with Obama’s attempt to interpret Pennsylvania voters to California supporters. She called it “problematic.” Reasons for thinking that are explained well by Mark Ambinder of the Atlantic. I agree with E.J. Dionne’s take on it, “A candidate should never play the role of a political scientist or sociologist analyzing a key electoral swing group from afar.”

But was it a public statement? “When he looked out over the packed room, Senator Obama was not speaking to a group of people he knew,” Mayhill Fowler told me. These were not connected people in the existing orbit of the campaign. She had met “professors, housewives, union workers — middle and upper middle class prosperous Californians who believed in Obama and even though they were not rich, gave to his campaign.” Typical of the waves of people being drawn to Obama right now.

He was looking at 350 strangers, many of whom were using cell phones and small video cameras and flips to record the event. Eventually, some of those videos would have made their way to the Internet. At the time, however, since I closely follow the campaign, I was probably one of the few in the room who knew that some of the things Senator Obama said he had not said before.

There were others recording, and the campaign made no attempt to stop them, just as Mayhill made no attempt to conceal her tape recorder. So was this a “closed-door fund-raiser ” as the New York Times reported? Or was it “blog-able if you got in,” as the open use of recorders and the invitation to a known blogger would seem to indicate? Uncharted. Undecided. Fowler on the unspoken rules:

I know, from a phone conversation with the person who issued me an invitation (after my first post about Obama’s comments on choosing a running mate went up on Monday), that the assumption was, even though the campaign knew I was a “citizen journalist,” I would always put the campaign before the reporting.

This assumption — implicit, never fully articulated — was strained by what Mayhill heard from Obama as he tried to talk to Californians about people in the small towns of Pennsylvania. “I was thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, he is confirming to my fellow Californians the worst stereotypes they have of small-town America.’ I was just dismayed,” she told Rainey.

Citizen journalism doesn’t work by force

She knew it was newsworthy speech because she had heard his “standard” speech many times. She felt it showed bad judgment by her chosen candidate. She also knew it was likely to be distorted and used against Obama, which worried her. Touching off a media frenzy worried her a lot. Her friends and contacts in the Obama campaign were giving her grief (and worse) after her first report from the fundraiser, suggesting Obama was getting too cocky. OffTheBus project director Amanda Michel knew she couldn’t force Mayhill to write anything more because we weren’t paying her anything. Citizen journalism doesn’t work by force and there is no rule book for it yet.

The decision that Michel and Mayhill arrived at: only when she had worked out a solid and truthful way to contextualize Obama’s most explosive quotes (“it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them”) would she feel comfortable reporting on them. When her piece arrived, it started the story in Pennsylvania, and approached Obama’s comments in California cautiously.

Her argument: This isn’t how someone who is uniting voters across the country talks when people in one part of the coalition ask him about other people who aren’t there yet. As Dionne said, you don’t put on your political scientist’s cap when you are running for president because the voters you dissect may feel disrespected.

Mayhill Fowler was there and she heard that. Others who were there did not, but this is why god gave us blogging. Instead of turning her item into a blaring news report with scare quotes, Cooper left it as a simple blog post.

It was anything but a traditional approach to news. Indeed, the explosive quotes from Obama appeared very late in the story and were not broken out at the top nor particularly highlighted (though they did shape the headline that I wrote).

Along with Amanda and Roy Sekoff, editor of the HuffPost, I made the decision that after a copy edit and some light rewording here and there we would run the piece in the form in which it came in.

Except for the headline, this is not how a professional newsgathering operation would handle the story. But a professional newsgathering operation would never put itself in the position that we bargained for when we started OffTheBus. Journalists, the pro kind, aren’t allowed to be loyalists. But loyalists, because they’re allowed to write for OffTheBus, may find that loyalty to what really happened trumps all. And that’s when they start to commit journalism.

A state of mutual chartlessness

After asking Mayhill Fowler a lot of questions, I told her “let me see if I grasp what you are saying…”

So they knew you were not hostile to the campaign and shared many beliefs with them, and they knew you were a citizen journalist, and they knew you might write about this fundraiser, and they knew that through OTB and the front page of the Huffington Post you could “reach” the wider world quite easily, and they knew you would never set out to harm the campaign, or feel indifferent to its fortunes, and they knew you would never make something up, but they had not considered that as a friendly who is also a contributor to Obama, and a citizen journalist with some access to the campaign and good access to the media, you might write something that would in the events after “do” harm and yet still be the act of a supporter… Is that right?

Yes, she said. But I can’t speak for them. Chartlessness on both sides was her clear impression.

* * *

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

In the April 16th print edition of the New York Times, which also quotes from this post, an Obama aide (nameless) tells Katharine Q. Seelye that the campaign recognized how “from time to time, people do blog from events closed to the media.” (Haven’t found a link to that yet.) And in the San Francisco Chronicle same day there is this from reporter Joe Garofoli:

Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said Tuesday that while the San Francisco event was closed to traditional media, it was not off the record. The campaign has not denied or challenged Fowler’s version of the event. Burton said there’s an expectation now - even at private events - that everything will be recorded and posted.

In other words, they know this is becoming the norm.

So does Robert Niles at Online Journalism Review: There’s no such thing as ‘off the record’ anymore. His counsel: “Instead of unleashing your id 24/7, communicate with intent.”

Palo Alto resident and blogger Glennia Campbell posted some video and a full transcript of Obama’s remarks at the fundraiser. One thing I do wish Mayhill had included: The question Obama was asked that led to “they get bitter.”

Man in the crowd: “I’m going to Pennsylvania this week to knock on doors for you. What should I expect? What should I know before I go there?”

Ken Silverstein at Harpers, Bloggers and Double Standards.

Fowler, whose presence at the fundraiser was known to Obama’s staff, did nothing other than report what she saw and heard. Would those now attacking her be doing the same if she’d reported controversial remarks made by John McCain at one of his fundraisers? And do we really want to accept the principle that candidates for the president should be able to block public scrutiny of their fundraising events?

Fowler did the right thing, no matter how dumb the debate that ensued.

Michael Tomasky at Comment is Free:

Citizen-journalists ought to have the responsibility, when the circumstances merit it, of seeking follow-up comment from the other side (or, in the case above, giving Obama aides the standard chance to clarify). That’s the tough part of journalism. Any idiot can run a tape recorder.

So fine - let’s change the rules. But let’s at least have some.

Jeff Jarvis answers back: Journalism as a control point.

Citizens can listen. Citizens can talk. Citizens can share. Citizens can publish. When they hear something newsworthy, citizens don’t need to go running to flacks to make sure it’s OK to repeat what they heard. In that case, I’d prefer to have citizens telling me what happens. They are less beholden than journalists. They don’t care about the rules. They care about the news. That’s what happened in Off the Bus’s story.

More! April 24: Jeff Jarvis v Michael Tomasky, Round Two. “Should the internet’s new breed of ‘citizen journalists’ have the responsibilities of journalists or the rights of citizens?” Tomasky thinks Mayhill Folwer cheated. Jarvis thinks that’s nuts.

Trust me, this is related: I asked Time Magazine’s Jay Newton-Small why she called Mayhill Fowler’s report a leak. To me it’s a report from someone who was there. I just thought it was a strange way to talk about the post, reducing it to a “leaked” tape. So she wrote about it at Swampland. (Now that’s blogging: thanks, Jay):

The situation puts the Obama campaign in an awkward position because, frankly, if the major news organizations knew the campaign was knowingly letting in bloggers to these events they would demand open press access – after all they are the ones paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to travel with the campaigns: why should some blogger get access that their reporters don’t?

As for my usage of the term leak – I did not mean it in a derogatory way. Indeed, leaks to my mind are often a hallmark of good reporting. If I gave Jay or Mayhill offense, I apologize. I used the term in the literal sense: “To permit the escape, entry, or passage of something through a breach or flaw,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary. The campaign did not intend those comments for mass consumption or they would’ve invited the media and deemed the event “open press.” The fact that the comments leaked out is a good thing for journalism even as it forces us to question access and coverage in this new digital age.

Gothcha. So… If, as an OffTheBus blogger, I go to an on-the-record event that is not accessible to the press, then the report I file is a leak. Whereas if the press goes to an on-the-record event that is not accessible to me, the report filed is just a report. Can that be right? Yup. Read it yourself. And don’t miss this comment.

Robert Cox, head of the Media Bloggers Assocation (I’m a founding member of that group): The First Amendment and blogs.

The reaction to Fowler’s blog post then is just another bump in the inexorable sorting out of what the First Amendment means in a society where every person with Internet access has his or her own global broadcasting and publishing facility. The issue is less the distinction between “citizen” and “journalist” and more whether the Founding Fathers ever contemplated such a distinction in the first place.

A close reading of the First Amendment and centuries of legal precedent says “no.”

On April 18, the Huffington Post published and front-paged an article by freelance journalist Celeste Fremon reporting comments Hillary Clinton made at a private fundraiser. It too had a tape. It too made Meet the Press, this time with credit to Huff Post. “Clinton Slams Democratic Activists At Private Fundraiser” was the headline.

Then on April 20th, a post by Paul Lukasiak at Taylor Marsh’s site suggested that OffTheBus wanted to “disassociate” itself from the Fremon piece, which ran as a Huffington Post news item, not an OffTheBus piece. To clarify what happened I asked Marc Cooper, editorial director of OffTheBus, for a re-cap. Here’s his note:

Celeste Fremon is a professional journalist who has contributed a half-dozen posts to OffTheBus over the last handful of months. Last week she approached OTB and said she was trying to develop the story on Hillary Clinton that was eventually published. OTB expressed a keen interest in the story and asked her to continue trying to secure and verify the source material. Fremon did not finish gathering and confirming all of the source material including reaction and verification from the Clinton campaign until mid-day Friday. With most if its small staff at that time dispersed geographically, OTB made the decision to rely on support from The Huffington Post. The larger infrastructure of HuffPost was needed for technical, audio, editorial and additional reporting support in order for the piece to be published at a reasonable hour before the weekend. The piece bore the imprimatur of the HuffPost template because it was processed through the channels of the Huffpost.

OTB was and is proud to be part of Celeste’s piece and that is one reason why it was made clear from the beginning that the story was indeed generated in cooperation between OTB and HuffPost. OTB also proudly placed Fremon’s piece on its own home page. Clearly stating such cooperation in the footer of the piece is hardly a disassociation with a story we fully support and stand by and that would not have happened without incubation by OTB. We look forward to more contributions from Celeste and we think that this sort of editorial cooperation with HuffPost is not only desirable but also a natural partnership that should be deepened.

Mark Jurkowitz, formerly of the Boston Globe, quoted in the Washington Times: “Mayhill Fowler had access to that fundraiser because they thought she was a supporter, not a journalist. This situation suggests that people who care about blogging and its accuracy and credibility need to think about the rules that define the line between citizen and journalist.”

Well, Mark: Mayhill Fowler’s report was accurate. Since it was critical and came from an Obama supporter, it was also credible. Think about the rules? I thought I was doing that when I said, “we’re in uncharted territory.” This notion that if you follow “the” rules of journalism you are defined as credible, and if you don’t then it’s… got no credibility, man… is crude, outdated, ready for the scrap heap.

Christine at Momocrats, where moms who are Democrats write about politics: On citizen journalists and the validity of accounts. “The value in the citizen journalist’s account is that, unlike the paid reporter, they work for free. They are beholden to no one but themselves. And therefore, they are under no obligation to write, cover or opine about subjects but from their own unique perspective.”

The Flack takes a crack
at the PR lessons in the episode.

Stephanie Salter of the The Tribune-Star newspaper in Indiana: What’s a two-word term for ‘opinionated’? Citizen journalism. She aced this part:

As so often happens in this era of 24-hour news and downsized newsrooms, the first reporting by the MSM — blogger for “mainstream media” — was shallow and sound-bitten. The reporting followed a traditional MSM breaking-news formula that has become a loaded weapon in today’s world of instant feedback and judgment:

This happened. This side says it’s an outrage. This side is explaining or spinning. These three people interviewed at random on the street think such and such about the subject. And these dozens of talking heads will shout about it for the next 48 hours.

The rest of Obama’s talk, the whole of his answer to the Pennsylvania-bound folks, were lost to the ether. One person’s highly subjective reaction — “For the first time, I realized he is an elitist,” Fowler wrote — was transformed into a “fact” to be dealt with or exploited.

Bitter suite. Blogger Heywood isn’t happy with Rosen and OffTheBus. Writes like blogger should…

How did we come to this, and why does the coastal elite media enable it so? I’ve said it a million times, but it bears repeating — if Bobo Brooks and Tweety Matthews and the rest of these bozos like the heartland so much, then fucking move there. Don’t hide your lights under the DC/Hamptons bushels, ladies, grab your overalls and get your farm on. Let us know how that works for y’all.

See my reply to his “Questions for Rosen.”

James Poniewozik at his Time blog: The “Bitter” Story, and Why Disclosure Works.

Mindy McAdams: Who are you calling a journalist? “Naming who is a journalist — and who is not — is a dangerous, dangerous course to follow.”

From PressThink: An Introduction (first post, Sep. 1, 2003.)

Press thinking is under pressure today and more in motion. No one knows where the next wave is supposed to come from. Key symbols are up for grabs. And “who is a journalist?” is asked with a vengeance— especially online.

USA Today, April 22: “Barack Obama has widened his lead nationally for the Democratic presidential nomination despite a furor over his comments about small-town Americans, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds.”

Thomas Frank in the Wall Street Journal, Obama’s Touch of Class.

(April 29) Mark Binker, Greensboro, NC News & Record:

Reporters were not invited to the event in Greensboro, which was a fundraiser. Still, we covered the action anyway.


We bought a ticket and walked in.

Marc Cooper, editorial director of OffTheBus, at his personal blog:

What we should have have been discussing —primarily— was the political impact of what Obama said. Or the lack of impact. His acuity or his denseness. The media’s frenetic response — or was it a measured reaction. Those sort of things.

Instead, we witnessed pretty much a horrid gang rape of the the reporter who broke the story. Oh, excuse me, the blogger. Simply killing the messenger would have been, by contrast, an act of mercy compared to the dump-truck of innuendo, insinuation and outright slander piled onto her.

John Tomasic: OffTheBus On Bittergate: A Roundup of Initial Responses.

Oh, and Mayhill Fowler is back on the campaign trail, reporting from Pennsyvania.

Posted by Jay Rosen at April 15, 2008 2:14 PM