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Fear And Loathing In Milbank

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If only Hunter S. Thompson could weigh in on the debate surrounding Mayhill Fowler's latest news piece, "Bill Clinton: Todd Purdum's a "Sleazy" "Slimy" "Scumbag." Imagine Thompson, both pleasantly and belligerently drunk, cursing in some chatroom on the Internets. He would likely dole out his characteristic candor and call this conversation about journalistic procedure "a pompous contradiction in terms." Thompson decided that conventional journalism was just that and broke the "rules." Countless other publications that today we identify as the "mainstream" got their start much the same way -- the Associated Press and the New Yorker, for example. Thompson inaugurated his role by naming it: "gonzo journalism" -- a far better label than "citizen journalism," if you ask me. But instead of pegging Thompson as a traitor to the principles of journalism, observers, analysts, colleagues and fans made him one of the profession's greatest icons.

The point of introducing Thompson into this debate isn't to equate him with Mayhill (sorry, Mayhill, I mean no disrespect). It's that Thompson is just another example of how journalism changed, and should continue to change. The challenges presented by the digital age are numerous and huge, and reflection on Thompson's career forces us to get some perspective about the current debate over "rule breaking." His genius lay, in part, in personality, but also in his ability to slice through a scene and reveal its ethical, political, and personal layers using a novel approach. Journalism isn't and hasn't been a monolithic craft. The profession has a rich and varied history that often gets lost in defensive justifications of the status quo. We'd be foolish to think the rules being offered us have been indispensable and timeless.

When Mayhill Fowler pushed her way to the ropeline to ask former President Bill Clinton a question, she didn't have any radical intentions. And what she did, for all practical purposes, wasn't radical at all: a lot of people still felt the need to vet the presidential candidate who Bill Clinton was representing out on the trail. Nor did Mayhill's actions break any rules, not even journalism's rules.

For better or worse, as a well-dressed 60-year-old white woman, Mayhill looked like the average Hillary Clinton supporter. And Bill Clinton mistook her as such. Because of her appearance, Bill Clinton took the liberty of unleashing his characteristic -- and widely reported -- bad temper. Firmly grasping Mayhill's hand as we've seen him do with countless other would-be-voters over the last sixteen years, Bill let loose his vitriol about yet another public embarrassment. Though his ability to connect with voters in the past has made him one of the most popular and powerful presidents of the 20th century, during this primary season it has only made him seem more vulnerable and more desperate.

Less than an hour later, hundreds of thousands of people read Clinton's remarks at OffTheBus, a citizen-produced campaign news site here at the Huffington Post. Fowler transcribed his rage with the aid of a recorder. She did exactly what we ask of our "citizen journalists," and perhaps more importantly, what I'd like to think we expect from ourselves as citizens.

Events like Bill Clinton's rally serve an important purpose; they are opportunities for us to meet our leaders and to ask questions and get answers. This particular event served an equally important goal: Bill Clinton played the role of Sen. Hillary Clinton's surrogate; he was the trail representative.

It's important to remember that the former president staged this rally as a press event. He -- and Sen. Clinton's campaign -- orchestrated and stage-managed the rally to get out a pre-fabricated message. But just think of all the attendees over the years who found themselves the poster children for campaigns and politicians simply because a campaign photographer liked how they looked. Maybe, just maybe, the digital age is leveling the playing field.

So, if the media, and the citizen media, actually show up and Bill starts talking, there's no debate. Any journalist who overheard Clinton answer Mayhill's question could have posted this news item. Anyone else could have trained his/her recorder, videocamera, or cellphone on him for those two minutes. And why shouldn't they? It was a public event hosted by a former president and, for all practical purposes, EVERYTHING was on the record. Where Clinton stood -- at the ropeline or on stage -- should make no difference. Who asked him the question -- a member of the press or of the public -- should make no difference. And who reported what he said -- the public or press -- should make no difference.

That Bill Clinton talked out of both sides of his mouth, telling two tales to two audiences reveals a lot about him as a man and as a leader. Perhaps more to the point, his confidence in his ability to read the situation reveals more about how our media, politicians, and democracy operate. Evidently Clinton never considered that Mayhill could be a Democrat, perhaps a supporter of Hillary, as well as an engaged and critical citizen simultaneously. It's the possibility of a similar combination of traits that made the controversy over an earlier Mayhill story -- the controversy now known as "Bittergate" -- a bitter pill for many to swallow. Mayhill is an Obama supporter. She has been from the beginning and has never hidden that fact. The questions many asked and the comments many made after she wrote the "Bittergate" story were variations on: "How could an Obama supporter report comments by the candidate that could hurt him?" "She MUST be a covert Clinton campaign operative!" Claims like these demand that we ask ourselves when and why the primary process became about unfailing declarations of political loyalty instead of an opportunity to consistently and persistently test potential leaders. (**see update clarification below)

But the debate about Mayhill's reporting continues. Some journalists don't think Mayhill should be able to have it both ways. She can't be both a citizen and a journalist. And that's why they insist she broke some rule.

Another lingering question is whether Mayhill should have identified herself as a reporter before asking any question of Bill Clinton. If she did identify herself that way, the former president probably would have used different words -- not "sleazy" "slimy" and "scumbag." Ironically, reporters have always maintained that they have special access to the truth that the public needs. And this is true. They can ask questions directly of the U.S. president, members of Congress and state leaders, and celebrities. But this situation demonstrates the opposite principle is at play. As a unique breed of citizen journalists emerge, the public actually has access to the information that the conventional reporters and the codified gaggle attached to the Washington echo chamber do not. Thank God.

Other OffTheBus correspondents are carving out this genre. M.S. Bellows, Jr. dials into the McCain and Obama campaign press calls and reports on the ensuing dialectic between press and spinmeisters. Christine Escobar goes national with news from Illinois and analyzes the impact Obama's campaign has made on local politics. Perhaps the only gonzo citizen journalist we've got, Chip Collis, is journaling his experiences as a father and Obama campaign fellow who relocates to Ohio for a summer. Unlike Thompson, Chip's smoking only cigars -- as far as I know.

The lessons we learn from Hunter Thompson is that journalism evolves, sometimes because people doing it break the rules. Calling foul when there's no infraction is not the way to transition us to the digital age. And holding the press to different standards than the public isn't either. (To the reporter at Politico who found herself in a "compromising position":

"This was the first time I've ever commented on a blog and I ended up embarrassed at work as a result, which leaves me questioning whether it's worth it to join in on the great democratization of media.

Now that I realize anything I say can be escalated to my boss -- without any obligation to contact me first -- I think I'll be staying off the Interwebs for a while."

No one else has succeeded at finding the ends of the earth! Good luck to you!) Our best understanding of the Clinton rally actually may come from juxtaposing Mayhill Fowler's take on the Clinton rally in Milbank to that of the AP reporter at the event. What we get are two different views of the former president.

If I were working at a traditional news outlet, say the New York Times or the Des Moines Register, as a managing editor, I'd ask myself, "What can we do so that the Mayhill Fowlers of the world call us?" After all, Mayhill didn't have to turn her story over to OffTheBus. She could have published it on her blog. Or sold it. But she chose to call us, and professional editors were ready and available to analyze the situation and edit her story.

If you're one of the Mayhills of the world and happen to see or hear something you believe the public has a right to know, just call (646) 274-2450 or email campaigntrail@huffingtonpost.com. Or, join the team and start reporting from the trail.

**Update: I think "Bittergate" raises really important questions about the future of reporting. It's a different case than the Bill Clinton / Milbank story. In bringing it up here, I'm only paralleling peoples' tendency to treat Mayhill as a "traitor." I'm not saying that the questions raised by Bittergate aren't worthy of debate.