THE BLOG
06/21/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When Bill Clinton Met Mayhill Fowler on the Rope Line

So you like your citizen journalism by the case? Last week OffTheBus brought you another case with Mayhill Fowler in the middle of it. (See my post, From OffTheBus to Meet the Press, about her first one.) Here is what happened:

...On the final day of an epic primary season, Mayhill Fowler is in Milbank, S.D. on the rope line as Bill Clinton and the crowd make contact. From three directions people are shouting at him to get his attention. He's grabbing hands and accepting well wishes. People are taking pictures as they get close to Clinton and some record the commotion on their cell phones. Fowler means to hand him her business card, which explains who she is and why she might be asking questions, but somehow she fumbles it. As Clinton comes within ear shot she extends her hand and with it asks her question. "My President what do you think about that hatchet job somebody did on you in Vanity Fair...?"

She does not identify herself as a writer for OffTheBus. She does identify herself as someone sympathetic to the target of the Vanity Fair article. (Fowler thought it was bad journalism.) She has a digital tape recorder in her left hand but Clinton doesn't see it. He grips and does not let go of her right hand as he's talking. "I think we can safely say he thought I was a member of the audience," she says later.

Clinton calls the article sleazy and Purdum a "slimy guy." Fowler tells him it is all over cable news. Clinton is foul-mouthed and expansive. Not just Purdum or the press but Trinity Church and preachers on YouTube and the people Obama gets to slime Hillary. Fowler reminds him that Purdum is married to his fomer press secretary, Dee Dee Meyers. "That's alright, he's still a scum bag." He tries to tell Fowler that he isn't worried about the article and she shouldn't be either.

She then writes about the encounter for OffTheBus, which later posts the audio with her account. (You should listen to it.) The story makes a splash and becomes part of the end days narrative for the Clintons....

That's the case. We are now free to argue about it. Indeed, we must. Here is some of what's happened in that argument since the encounter on the rope line.

* As co-publisher and co-founder of OffTheBus, I sent a statement about the episode to the Politico.

Their media beat reporter, Michael Calderone, asked me what the obligations for OffTheBus contributors were.

This wasn't an interview where the former president sat for questions with Mayhill Fowler. It was a shouted question at a rope line with lots of people trying to get his attention, one that Clinton answered... and answered. I'm sure most professional reporters have thrown out a question in a "scrum" situation without first identifying themselves and their employer. This was akin to that, although not exactly the same.

We have guidelines for contributors but they do not cover this situation. We may have to go back and look at them, but I'm not sure we can tell all 1,700 contributors, "you're all reporters for the Huffington Post." That's not really true. Would it have been better if she said, "Mr. President, I'm Mayhill Fowler, a blogger for OffTheBus and I write about the campaign. What did you think of that Vanity Fair article...?" In the interest of full disclosure, I guess it would be. But in the press of the moment I can understand why she didn't.

Professional reporters are going to have to decide whether they want to view citizen journalists as unfair competition, which is one option, or as extending the news net to places that pro reporters can't, won't or don't go, which is another--and I think a better--way to look at it. I can tell you this: Mayhill Fowler won't be whining about the interviews she missed because she's not on the bus or inside the security perimeter.

There is another "press" story here. When Mayhill Fowler hears Bill Clinton fulminate, we make the audio tape available to everyone by posting it at OffTheBus. It becomes part of the public record, and journalists can use it in stories they write. Reporters can't be everywhere all the time. OffTheBus was created to capture parts of the campaign story that they might miss. This is exactly what Mayhill Fowler did.

Actually the total number of contributors is closer to 2,500 now. We have signed up a lot with the McCain News Hunt.

* Calderone, in his post at The Politico, said he found it "disingenuous of Fowler to knock down another reporter's work as a 'hatchet job,' while at the same time not informing a story subject that she's a reporter working on her own story (while taping that subject). Was the 'hatchet job' comment what she really felt about Purdum's work or an attempt to get in Clinton's good graces?"

Well, Michael, are you asking because you want to know? Or are you asking because you think the very question demonstrates why you don't use loaded terms like "hatchet job" in a question? (Instead you say, "some people are calling it a hatchet job, Mr. President..." Then you're fine.) Anyway, if you're asking because you really want to know, she did think the article was kind of sleazy. But here's the point: OffTheBus would never have run the Vanity Fair article. It doesn't meet our standards because it supports damaging allegations with unnamed sources.

* Alex Koppelman of Salon's War Room blog agreed with Calderone.

"I just can't see him saying what he did if he thought he was on the record with a reporter -- indeed, he didn't say it to any other reporter. You can argue that in the age of the Internet, the ability of so-called 'citizen journalists' to report these kinds of guarded moments is a good thing, and that's an argument I tend to sympathize with, but the lines become really murky when that 'citizen journalist' is someone like Fowler, working with an organization like the Huffington Post. In this case, I think Fowler probably crossed those lines. That's especially true because of the way Fowler prefaced her question, which made her sound like a supporter, not a reporter."

Well, on the question of whether the Purdum article was unfair and kind of sleazy, she was a supporter. Koppelman says it's better if Clinton does not know that. Uh, Alex (I was on a panel with him recently) maybe you would like to explain why...

* ...Or maybe it's time for pro journalists, not to unlearn their prior standards, but to become more ecumenical about the whole ethics deal.

Newsroom people, hear me out. You don't have to leave the moral universe you grew up in. Just admit the possibility of another valid one beyond yours. "Trust me because I mask my true feelings about the matter" is not an inherently better way to journalize or gain cred. "Trust me because I show you what my true feelings on the matter are..." can also work. And in certain settings--blogging, "citizen journalism," pro am projects like OffTheBus--it is a more plausible, more workable and more believeable means of bidding for the user's trust.

* Thus: Neutrality is one way of being trusted, transparency another.

When we admit the validity of both we expand the social space of the press. That is a good thing. If it has pro and amateur wings maybe the press can fly again. If the pros and lots of citizens care about things like "access" maybe that will expand the accessible zone in politics. Dave Winer said it recently: Blow up the Beltway. My formulation is milder: expand the press!

"When you're in the bubble, you cover every story the same way," my co-publisher, Arianna Hufffington, said. "At Off the Bus, because they're not part of the professional gaggle, they can come up with their own views of what's happening, which may be different from what the conventional wisdom is saying." And that expands the press.

* James Rainey, media beat reporter for the Los AngelesTimes, wrote about the episode.

He said it "cemented Fowler's place as the unlikely face of the new-media revolution that is remaking presidential campaigns." (Good point: reporters write about Mayhill Fowler because they need to personify larger forces with which they are trying to grapple. So the way they frame and describe her contains a "we're coping" message within it.) Fowler said the Vanity Fair question just popped into mind; her gambit had been to request an interview with Hillary by handing her card to Bill.

"Next," she said, "I'm going out with McCain."

* Andrew Malcolm of the LA Times Top of the Ticket blog posted on Rainey's profile.

"Politicians' staff are constantly reminding them just before an event that every word, every gesture, every wink or grimace is now being recorded by friend and foe and can, in a matter of minutes, be on the Internet for voters, enemies and these despicable bloggers to write about. Now, every person in a crowd could be a Mayhill Fowler." He called her "the allegedly amateur one," and said she "goes around collecting, and in her case making, news disguised as, well, a citizen. Who just happens to have a tiny tape recorder in her hand."

* The tiny tape recorder and how tiny it might be was the subject of another blog post at the LA Times by Web reporter David Sarno: Mayhill Fowler, how big is your tape recorder?

He wondered, "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?" If so, then "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."

A suggestion: instead of aimlessly asking no one in particular, "golly, are the rules changing that much?" how's about you--David Sarno--take a moment and summarize for the lay public what The Rules were before this moment of disruption, and where you understand the pressure points to be. It might also be helpful to explain how The Rules you beg respect for in your blog post apply to The Hordes of People joining the press game today. Or is it your point that The Hordes should be turned away and downgraded as sources of news because they simply can't follow the rules? If so, please articulate.

* Jacques Steinberg, media beat reporter for the New York Times, came out with a Week in Review piece about the episode.

It ran under the heading "Ideas and Trends." He described the flash point: "The woman, Mayhill Fowler, who calls herself a citizen journalist, wore no credential around her neck and did not identify herself, her intentions or her affiliation as an unpaid contributor to Off the Bus, a section of The Huffington Post."

* Jonathan Alter of Newsweek stood appalled.

"This makes it very difficult for the rest of us to do our jobs," he said. "If you don't have trust, you don't get good stories. If someone comes along and uses deception to shatter that trust, she has hurt the very cause of a free flow of public information that she claims she wants to assist. You identify yourself when you're interviewing somebody," Mr. Alter added. "It's just a form of cheating not to."

Deception? I think this is a case of insufficient transparency in the chaotic motion of a live event. But: Since we are relying on the "err on the side of disclosure" method to generate trust, this insufficiency is important. It concerns me. As I told Jacques Steinberg and The Politico, it would have been better if she had identified herself. Mayhill Fowler agrees with that.

* Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake was having none of what Alter served, both in the Times article and in a short blog post she wrote about it.

She said the burden is on Clinton to understand where he is speaking and to whom-- before he unloads. That "journalists consider their first loyalty to be to their subjects, and not to the people they're reporting for," was one of their problems, she said. She added that "the rules" as they exist right now are a way to "protect this clubby group of journalists and their high-ranking political subjects." Reporters are trying to "keep access to themselves," so they define their means of access as the only legitimate kind.

* The state of the art in campaigning, 2008 is to assume that people are taping your words.

The Obama campaign explicitly said that in April. "There's an expectation now - even at private events - that everything will be recorded and posted." Anyone who's been on the campaign trail knows this. "The rules of the game have been redefined by technology," Marc Cooper told the Times. (He's the editorial director of OffTheBus and a professsor of journalism at USC.) "We're merely the instrument of that."

The reason we're an instrument is that we're trying to empower people to report on the campaign from wherever they are in politics. Passionately committed? You can still report on the campaign.

* Does that mean there are no rules? No. It means you don't know what they are.

That is, we don't, until we look calmly at the situation, make some key distinctions and study cases.

* The Poynter Institiute tries to stay right in the middle of professional opinion in journalism-- not too far ahead, never behind. Significant that Kelly McBride, head of their ethics group, was of two minds.

"On the one hand, when political candidates are so polished and put together, with their images so crafted for the rest of the universe, I think it's good for democracy that it's harder for them to maintain that because of citizen journalism," McBride said. "But I also worry that as citizens take on the role of journalists, the amount of trickery will escalate -- the sort of baiting of people and egging them on."

Trickery cannot be the way to trust.

* Howard Kurtz, media beat reporter for the Washington Post, published his own profile of Fowler today.

It has a good description of OffTheBus. "The idea is to unleash ordinary folks on the presidential campaign and give them a technology-powered megaphone." It reveals the role of project director Amanda Michel in prodding and guiding Fowler. And it includes this, showing how accidental the whole thing was.

When Clinton reached across the rope line to shake Fowler's hand, she dropped the business card intended for his wife. Instead, still clutching her digital tape recorder, Fowler blurted out the question about the Vanity Fair piece. She did not identify herself as a blogger. "If it hadn't been such a chaotic scene, of course I would have," she says. "But there wasn't a chance to."

Kurtz decided to go back to what is now (lamely) called "Bittergate" and bring Fowler's story forward from there.

* David Folkenflik, media beat reporter for NPR, said Clinton had a point.

"Readers, listeners, viewers, should pay especially close attention anytime allegations about politicians are made by mainstream media organizations relying on unnamed sources. And that probably goes double for accusations about personal behavior that are often tough to prove." He points to Jack Shafer's column in Slate which documents "Purdum's extravagant reliance on unnamed sources."

* Tracy Thompson, a journalist and featured contributor to the Committee of Concerned Journalists site, had a suggestion more practical than aimless wondering if "the rules" had changed.

Here is what she e-mailed to me:

Understandably, bloggers see the standard journalist self-identification as a way of telegraphing to public persons that they are "in the club." And that's true. Journalists see the failure to self-identify as sneaky, and it is. Even public people do not completely lose their privacy; we don't follow them into the bathroom. The question is, where to draw the line? And whose responsibility is it to draw?

I say it's the questioner's responsibility. Has to be.

So how about this: when a candidate is working a rope line, and the situation can evolve in only seconds, the standard salutation should be simple: "On mike." Or: "On tape."

That tells the candidate he/she may wind up on You Tube, yet it avoids the problem of differentiating between an unknown blogger and a reporter for a mainstream publication. Candidates will always know some reporters by sight, but still: an acceptable compromise? A rule even bloggers could live with?

I like the ecumenical spirit of it. I can see how it might help. Thanks, Tracy. But I don't get what is "private" about shaking hands with citizens in a rope line at a campaign event as you talk politics with them? Is that really like being in the bathroom? Is it an intimate moment? To me it is highly public situation. (Thompson elaborates here.)

* Most journalists don't seem to realize--I know Steinberg didn't until I explained it to him--that "off the record" and "closed to the press" now have to be separated, conceptually.

Reporters are hard wired to see the two as identical, but they're wrong. We know this because the Obama campaign, after the candidate's "they get bitter" comments, said (on the record) that the fundraiser Fowler attended was not off the record, even though it was closed to the press. From the San Francisco Chronicle report, April 16: "Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said Tuesday that while the San Francisco event was closed to traditional media, it was not off the record."

If Obama's campaign can grasp that, why can't the press?

* Q: If, generally speaking as a candidate for public office, I say what I mean and mean what I say--to groups of 300 or groups of three--then is it a great burden on me that people are taping my words and distributing them on their own?

It could even be to my advantage. Does there have to be down time for pols? YES, there does.

* Jeff Jarvis, in a post about how late the New York Times was to de-segregate the newsroom, critiized The Politico's Calderone for behaving in a "clubby way" when he complained "that the great outsider, Mayhill Fowler, dared to criticize another reporter's story."

There followed an episode in sock puppetry from The Politico that you will want to check out. Essentially, a Politico staffer thinks there's nothing wrong with using a fake name in the comments to defend her colleague Calderone. "If you want to disagree with what I say, great. But at least have the balls I do and say it under your own name," writes Jarvis. John Harris, boss at the Politico, thinks it's no big deal.

Other reactions of note:

* OffTheBus project director Amanda Michel reflected on the incident in a post published today: "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."

* Marc Cooper and Joel Bellman, ethics chair of the Society of Professional Journalists, LA chapter and also a communications aide to an LA county supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, duke it out over the rules of access to public figures at Kevin Roderick's LA Observed. Bellman to Cooper: Would it be reductionist to summarize your position as, "In 2008, for public figures there is functionally no longer any such thing as 'off the record?'" Cooper to Bellman: No, it wouldn't..

* Ankush Khardori at his blog: "But it's hard for me to shake the feeling that a lot of what's driving the criticism of Fowler from professional journalists is some annoyance (conscious or not) that they're being cut out of the process. No longer does someone have to come to you with their story and hope you write it up."

* I think this post by Portfolio's Jeff Bercovici will do for handy illustration of the guild mentality in the press. We are told that if Huffington Post wants to have any credibility it should learn to play by the rules. We hear, "'Citizen Journalists' Don't Get a Pass on Ethics" and other plain speak. He responds to my statement at the Politico. Jay Rosen thinks its just fine for citizen journalists to have no ethics whatsoever, would be his translation. That's pathetic.

* Bercovici's colleague at Conde Nast's Portfolio, Mr. Felix Salmon, gives an interesting reply. He says Huff Post and OffTheBus are doing exactly what they should do; it's a different game than the traditional "access" game. And he agrees with me: Bercovici offers handy illustration of the guild mentality in the press.

* Bercovici posts back at us--The Ethics of Citizen Journalism, Pt. 2--saying that, yes, his paraphrase of what I said was pathetic (actually "truncated" was all he would cop to) and also making the curious point that he couldn't have a guild mentality. He never went to J-School, and practically his whole career has been gigs on the Net! He says his real point was: if you want access, you play by the rules. Jeff, little puzzler for you: why do you think they call it Off the Bus?

* At Buzzmachine (June 10) Jarvis is hunting club again. "And shouldn't we be happy [now] that there is more reporting and more sunshine from more witnesses now empowered? Shouldn't that added journalism be welcomed by journalists? Of course, it should -- unless the journalists want to protect their club, which is no longer a tenable position.... Keep in mind that as more and more journalists get laid off and become bloggers, they'll find themselves on the other side of that rope, off the bus, out of the club."

* Atrios chimes in: "Acceptable to journalists: quoting anonymous source describing private conversation at which journalist was not present. Unacceptable to journalists: 'citizen journalist' bypassing actual journalists and using her own platform to tell the world what happened at public campaign event."

* Audio: I discussed this case on Seatttle's public radio station, KUOW. It's less than 15 minutes. Listen here.

* Finally, the Independent in the UK ran an account by their New York correspondent, Stephen Foley, that went against the guild grain. "Without the borders of a printed page, or the constraints of the next ad break, online news and analysis can be richer, deeper, more trivial, more fun - in short, more engaging. Many of the journalists working online are also optimistic that this election is disproving one of the big fears about the new era, namely that readers - unguided by an editor - will head towards partisan silos and voices of misinformation."

Disproven fears (like that one) disempower newsroom curmudgeons.