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The Uncharted: From Off The Bus to Meet the Press

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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 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 it.

Would Russert pick up on the novelty of the situation? An Obama supporter and donor, who also wrote regular dispatches for Huffington Post's pro-am campaign news 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. Pretty good story! (As the Guardian recognized today.) Plus, it would allow Russert to sound a savvy warning: "Heads up, candidates, your supporters include bloggers and they 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 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 became the "source" on that one, a designation wholly fictional.

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 the Huffington Post.

We're in uncharted territory here. There are languages missing. People get mad when they don't know what to call things. So much so that Mike Allen of the Politico in 12 reasons 'bitter' is bad for Obama couldn't even find the word "website" to describe the Huffington Post, which became in his tortured rendering, "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 a shadowy 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. (See Katharine Seelye's account in the New York Times.)

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 try 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 politics 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 all 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. (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 Fowler was an Obama supporter who sometimes found it necessary to be a critic of the campaign. 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 gets you up on your high horse, then call her a writer with a page on the Web that can reach the rest of the news system. The point is Fowler is a particular kind of Obama loyalist, a particular kind of contributor to his campaign. The kind with a notebook, a tape recorder, 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.

The category into which she fits is not an existing one in 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 this:

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 was that person with a political life whom Arianna and I wanted to write for OffTheBus. The invitation she had to the Pacific Heights fundraiser on April 6 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 publicly contested her right to report on what happened or questioned the accuracy of her account. 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.

Mayhill described 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. The problems he created for himself are explained well by Mark Ambinder of the Atlantic. 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," she told me. These were not connected people. 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."

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 the event, 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:

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 tested by what Mayhill heard from Obama as he tried to talk to Californians about people in the small towns of Pennsylvania. She knew it was newsworthy. She felt it showed bad judgment by her candidate. She also knew it was likely to be distorted and used against Obama, which worried her. Touching off a media frenzy worried her too. Her friends and contacts in the Obama campaign were giving her grief (and worse) after her first report from the fundraiser, suggesting Obama was 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. Instead of turning it 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.

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 you 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.

UPDATE: 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." 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. Indeed, Palo Alto resident and blogger Glennia Campbell posted some video and a full transcript of Obama's remarks at the fundraiser.

For lots of other reactions and debate--with links--see the PressThink version of this post. (Scroll down to After Matter and you will see them.)