Mayhill Fowler and “citizen journalism”

by Mathew on June 7, 2008 · 8 comments

There’s a great piece in the Los Angeles Times about Mayhill Fowler, the 61-year-old “citizen journalist” who has become a lightning rod for critics of the practice, after not one but two somewhat embarrassing scoops from the U.S. campaign trail, the first of which involved Barack Obama and the second of which — just last week — involved former president Bill Clinton. Fowler is one of dozens of amateur reporters covering the campaign as part of the Off The Bus project, a joint venture between Huffington Post and Jay Rosen’s New Assignment venture.

Much of the fuss centers around how Fowler got the quotes that sent shock waves through both the Obama camp (after the candidate dismissed some voters as “bitter and obsessed with guns and religion”) and the Clinton camp (after the former president called a Vanity Fair writer a “scumbag” among other things). In both cases, it wasn’t clear that she was a reporter — in the first case, she was at a fundraiser for Obama supporters, and in the second she was in a lineup of Clinton fans and didn’t identify herself, or say that she had a tape recorder. In his response to the Obama incident, Jay Rosen wrote:

“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.

We knew there could be problems with this approach, and possible disputes with the campaigns. But we also felt that participants in political life 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.”

Jay has also responded in comments to Politico writer Michael Calderone about the Clinton incident, in which he said that it might have been better if Fowler had taken the time to identify herself to Clinton, but that he could see why in the heat of the moment she might not have. (Update: The New York Times has a piece about Fowler as well, with some comments from Jay and from a political reporter at Newsweek who thinks what she did makes it harder for “real journalists” to do their jobs). I think Neil McIntosh of The Guardian put it best in a post called “Who’s a Journalist, Who’s Not and Why It Doesn’t Matter Anyway,” saying:

I’m not sure how traditional journalistic rules of engagement (off the record, on the record, scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours) can be enforced when everyone has a camcorder in their pocket, and an easy way to reach millions via WordPress and some Googlejuice. In the reporting of public, or semi-public, or even private events where there are more than a few present, the only battle left is over who does the story best, and gets it up first.

This isn’t that new, really (just Google the term “macaca” if you don’t believe me). The category of people known as “journalists” is becoming more fluid than it has been in the past, that much is for sure. Some will argue that it’s a good thing — that it will prevent cozy journalists from missing stories like Kennedy’s philandering or Nixon’s alcoholism or the Bush government’s rigging of data supporting the war — and others will argue that it’s bad. But it is happening nonetheless, and we’d better get used to it. For what it’s worth, I think it’s good.

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