Earlier today, I had occasion to discuss the strange and flexible ground rules that govern the gossipy coprophagic grime that is Game Change, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. In the book, attribution is a mystery, rumor underpins wide swaths of narrative, and unnamed sources are given free reign to shit-talk to their heart's content, in a consequence-free environment.
And then there's the matter of them apparently screwing Harry Reid, by using a quote of his that was not intended for attribution.
Naturally, that got me thinking about the people who are often depicted, by the clutchers of holy credentials and elite status, as the true journalistic bottom-feeders on the media landscape: the bloggers and other new-media types.
Would someone with nothing more than their own online shingle be able to get away with what Halperin and Heilemann have done without facing a storm of criticism and excoriation? The truth is, bloggers have been burned for far less.
On June 2, 2008, the Huffington Post's Mayhill Fowler encountered Bill Clinton at a ropeline in Milbank, South Dakota, and that encounter resulted in this report, which documented the "salty stream of epithets" that Clinton used "to describe former New York Times reporter and current Vanity Fair writer Todd Purdum, calling him 'sleazy,' 'dishonest,' 'slimy' and a 'scumbag.'" The story was published as a part of HuffPost's "Off The Bus" series of citizen-journalist-enabled campaign coverage, and in very short order, the entire journalistic world just came unglued.
The furor that ensued has been thoroughly documented by Jay Rosen. To summarize, critics from all quarters questioned Fowler's journalism. Did she present herself appropriately? Were Clinton's remarks fair game? Are citizen journalists "real" journalists? Was it fair for Fowler to slag Purdum's article as a hatchet job, in order to garner a response from Clinton? Did Fowler deploy a sort of "deception" that would coarsen journalism?
All of these questions were strangely muted, by the way, whilst everyone was dining out on the "Bittergate" scoop, that Fowler had previously furnished!
One reporter, the Los Angeles Times's David Sarno, even took issue with the size of Fowler's tape recorder.
James Rainey's article about the "gotcha" perpetrated against Bill Clinton by amateur journalist Mayhill Fowler says the tape recorder Fowler used to capture Clinton calling writer Todd Purdum a scumbag was "candy-bar-sized."
If it's true that Fowler's recorder is about the size of, say, a medium Snickers, it might make you think Clinton is pretty un-savvy about just whom he shares his invectives with.
Even if Fowler didn't identify herself as a reporter, the presence of a Snickers-sized recording device ought to be enough to signal Clinton--a man who's been dealing with worldwide media for decades--that he wasn't talking to an interested housewife.
But what if Fowler's tape recorder was, as she says in this post from last September, more like the size of a "Band-Aid?" An object that small would be much more difficult to spot, especially if you're in a busy crowd.
Maybe Ms. Fowler can send along a photo of her recorder to settle the question?
But this was all just rhetorical flourish, framing what Sarno imagined to be the larger meta-point:
But have the rules changed so much that there's no such thing as "off the record" anymore? Where anything you say to anyone, anywhere, any time can be used to skewer you, whether you think you're in "public" or not? Let's face it, we've all got recording devices of some kind, and more embarrassing moments of all kinds are going to be caught on tape. Trying to fight that tide is a fool's errand.
And that's all well and good, it just means that from now on, whenever a person of interest talks, they're going to be offering a message that is tailored to everyone, to offend no one. Which human being can reasonably talk like that all the time? So it'll be sayonara nuance, adios personal touch, and hello talking points.
Ha! Maybe Sarno can send along a copy of the article he wrote, asking the same questions of Halperin and Heilemann!