06/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bill Clinton's "Macaca" Moment

Yesterday during the rush of news and the initial rollout of a story flew by that Bill Clinton had said some pretty nasty things about Todd Purdum, the author of a Vanity Fair slam piece about him.

This morning, I heard for the first time that:

1. There's audio of his remarks.

2. It was recorded on a rope line after a Bill Clinton campaign event.

3. They didn't allow reporters on the rope lines, to avoid BC getting quoted saying the kind of thing he was quoted saying yesterday (apparently he talks candidly with people on rope lines).

4. The person who recorded his comments was the same person who recorded Barack Obama's controversial comments about poor people in Pennsylvania, a person they identified as a "citizen journalist."

A picture named bc.jpgNow, I hope to get the audio (got it, it's part of the Huffington Post report, below), and I found the reporter's name, Mayhill Fowler, but I had to search for it. In the report this morning on MSNBC, they didn't identify her. I kept waiting for them to say her name, but they never did. I think it's not only disrespectful, it's unethical to cite a source without identifying it, unless there was a prior agreement that the source was off the record. As you can see from the report, the reporter clearly wants credit.

In the next segment Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, argued with passion that HRC lost, at least in part, because of sexism. I thought this was an incredible contrast. Where is the respect? Just because someone isn't a credentialed member of the press corps, she must remain nameless? Why didn't KVH tune into this (Fowler is a woman, in addition to being an amateur reporter).

They talked earlier, on the Morning Joe show about how Bill Clinton is old school and hasn't learned how things have changed since his last campaign in 1996. KVH asked if everyone remembered "macaca"? I do, of course, it's how Jim Webb came to be the Senator from Virginia. Did we ever hear the name of the reporter who videotaped it? I don't recall that I ever did. He not only shot the video, but he was the focus of the story, he was the one who George Allen called "macaca."

This should be a lesson to all handlers and would-be political leaders. You're basically always on the record, unless you're talking with one or two people who have agreed in advance that you're not, and even then you have to be careful. I've learned this in the blogosphere, it's why industry parties are uncomfortable for me. I don't think of myself as a public figure, but every conversation is subject to reporting. I've even had conversations with people who were, without disclosing it, streaming video and audio of it, live to viewers on the net. It first happened when I visited the office of a competitor in the late 90s, believe it or not.

I don't like it, but this is the world we live in. But parts of it I do like. I think we should get behind the facade presented by the comfortable relationship between Washington reporters and the political leaders they cover. There's too much control of the political process by the press, and that's too easily manipulated by the candidates. We'll see that play out in the fall as two favorites of the press, Obama and McCain, compete.

Update: A report on the MSNBC's website by Mark Murray begins: "The same Huffington Post reporter who broke the Obama 'bitter' story got a new scoop yesterday..." Mayhill Fowler's name does not appear in the 8-paragraph report, though they take a swipe at her ethics ("she didn't identify herself as a reporter and said she disliked the article when asking for his reaction.")