On The Road Again, With Begging Bowl And Stick

Yesterday, wearing my finest Jordanian textiles and therefore looking a bit out-of-place in midtown Manhattan at noon, I walked to the Reuters Building on Times Square, where Meenakshi Ravi of Al Jazeera's "The Listening Post" had arranged to speak with me via satellite feed. Meena had emailed me her questions in advance -- certainly a different custom -- or should I say courtesy? -- from what we know here. Miked and wired by the sound engineer, I was left alone in a dim, quiet room facing a camera eye that inclined towards me inscrutably but gently from the height of its flat square face. It was Meena murmuring softly in my ear, but I felt like I was talking to WALL-E.

2008-06-03-otb_onthetrail_v2.jpgMost reporters ask the same questions; Meena was different. She returned several times to the idea of citizen journalism. What is it like? How do I do go about it? For the first time I realized what is most obvious about the work other OffTheBus correspondents and I do. We are citizens, first. As Americans, moreover, we have the right any time any day any year to step out of our homes to inquire and to investigate. The inclination to do so, which Meena found fascinating, is certainly not exclusively American; but it is quintessentially American. Sitting in the Reuters studio on Times Square, I was proud, most proud, to be a citizen journalist.

Earlier in the week, speaking at the Personal Democracy Forum conference elsewhere in Manhattan had been an opportunity to think long and hard about the journalist part of the equation. In all the time I've been out on the road covering the campaigns for OffTheBus, I have never considered myself a journalist, partly because I have no training or background in journalism, but more importantly because I've always been more comfortable sitting "out there" with the crowd than "in there" with the press. I've always felt the cuckoo in the nest of the press compound at campaign events. At the PDF conference and for months before, there had been the questions: Who does she think she is? What does she think she's doing? What kind of reporter is she? Where are her ethics? As I tried to answer these questions, for myself as much as anyone, I no longer enjoyed the pretense, as I sometimes tentatively had in the past, that I was part of what Jay Rosen calls "the press tribe." Indeed, on our panel the first day at PDF, I said to Jay that I was the wayfarer he and the tribe had picked up at the side of the road.

Then there was a moment on the second day of the PDF Conference. I was standing in the atrium during a break between panels and talking with a member of the fourth estate. "Look around," he said, gesturing toward his peers in the room. "They're not so happy with Barack Obama anymore." And he nodded sideways at a famous columnist and his acolytes near us. And just for a moment I thought, I'm the only journalist here. It's been a long time since I've been an Obama partisan. I am neither a liberal nor a conservative. I have no agenda. I don't twitter friends on campaign staffs; I don't have friends on campaign staffs. During the run-up to the Texas primary, I had realized I had grown too close to a few people in the Obama Campaign; I put distance between us. Over time, I've become more dispassionate. Detached. What the press in the atrium at 60th and Broadway were experiencing I had gone through long before.

Standing there, I realized that covering the elections over the past year for OffTheBus has been a kind of a Buddhist journey. I have shed many illusions along the way, and I know less than when I started. The more Obama talks about economic policy, the less I hear. The more he avers support for Israel and details an agenda for the Americas, the less certain I am of his foreign policy. Skeptical while trying to resist cynicism, inquiring while accepting of a few basic realities about politicians, more empty of dogma and firm beliefs about the course ahead now than ever before, I have perhaps become a journalist.

It is in that spirit that I go out now to explore the general election. It is in that spirit that I will embark on the trail of John McCain. I'm not out "to get McCain," as some with relish have anticipated, even some in the fourth estate. On the contrary, particularly because The Huffington Post tends toward the partisan, I am going to try my best to be fair. Whichever senator I'm observing, I'll call it like I see it, for better or worse, striving to get to the truth of the matter. One thing has not changed since I headed forth last June. I've always thought the best way to support a candidate, or a future president, is to call him or her to a better self, to hold him or her to the highest standards. If that entails a lot of criticism, so be it. Thankfully, there is often a lot of humor, too. So if you are game, if you are interested in tagging along with a knows-little journalist and non-partisan blogger, humbled by her mistakes but still juiced with inquisitiveness, then come along with me, fellow citizens, as we share the rest of the ever-surprising, twisting and turning, absorbing and compelling great story of the Presidential Election of 2008.

Tomorrow: Clinton and Obama in Unity, N.H.