Monday, June 16, 2008

Four ways of looking at Mayhill Fowler

You know Mayhill Fowler. She's the Bay Area woman who notoriously splashed Barack Obama's private "bitter" voters comments across the Huffington Post's "Off the Bus" blog -- setting off a furor in journalism circles about on-the-record and off-the-record quotes and about the long-held rule of identifying oneself as a journalist. People in traditional journalism might have thought Fowler "learned her lesson" after the incident, given the vitriol and diatribe launched her way by professional commentators. But apparently she didn't. Or, alternatively, perhaps she didn't believe there actually was a lesson to be learned. Because two months later, she was at it again.

Fowler is the person who launched Bill Clinton's evisceration of Todd Purdum and his
Vanity Fair article on the former prez into cyberspace. You know, the audio of Clinton calling Purdum "sleazy", "slimy", and a "scumbag." The comments quickly made it into the mainstream media, provoking yet further examination and excoriation of Fowler's methods.

Those in the traditional media were outraged that Fowler wasn't "playing by the rules." She didn't identify herself as a reporter. She reported comments a source might reasonably have thought were off-the-record. One NPR journalist even asked whether what she was doing was "fair."

But this is the wrong way to think about Fowler and what she did.

These are the kinds of comments made by people who can't see how the world has changed. The're tantamount to GM asking whether it's fair that Toyota isn't using oil to power its vehicles.

So how should we think about Fowler's behavior?

-- If you're a politician: There is no off-the-record anymore
"Off the record" was an informal agreement between those who spoke and those who had the capability to publish or broadcast what was spoken. Now that anyone has the ability to broadcast anything, no one -- not only politicans, but also ex-husbands, former bosses, dubious retailers -- can be sure that their questionable behavior will not be thrown up on the Web for millions, from Auburn to Zimbabwe, to view. They used to say, "Don't put anything in email that you wouldn't want displayed on the jumbo monitors in Times Square." The new rule might be -- for politicians and private citizens alike: Don't do or say anything, anywhere that you wouldn't want showing up on YouTube.

This isn't a sign of anything that's changed in journalism. It's a sign of how the larger world has changed. When anyone can publish or broadcast anything to the world, nothing can be guaranteed to be kept out of the public sphere.

-- If you're a professional journalist: This is a good thing
Stop thinking about Fowler's posts as "bad journalism," and start thinking about them more like leaked documents. As a journalist, you're not allowed to go into a company or government office and steal documents. But it's kosher if an employee gives them to you. Similarly, if someone with access to a publishing platform posts useful information that you, as a professional, could not have ethically obtained, it's fair game.

Don't compare Fowler to yourself and berate her because she doesn't follow the same rules as you. She's an amateur, not a professional. So think of her more the way you'd think of a private blogger who wrote on their public blog that a veep in their company was embezzeling millions. If their revelations can be substantiated, all the better that this stuff comes to light.

-- If you're a professional journalist: You still need to follow the rules
Just because a blogger is operating by other rules doesn't mean the old rules go out the door for the professionals. In fact, not only is it all the more important for the professionals to adhere to them, they also become a competitive advantage. Subjects will increasingly evaluate individual reporters based on their personal reputations and will increasingly choose to do business with the ones who have proven themselves to be fair and ethical.

-- If you're Jay Rosen: Stop trying to defend Mayhill Fowler's work
NYU J-school professor (and author of one of our favorite blogs, PressThink) Jay Rosen directs HuffPo's Off the Bus project. Per Rosen, Off the Bus has 2,500 contributors, which Rosen calls "citizen journalists." I eschew the term; it's flopped around so much it doesn't mean anything. I call the people contributing to "Off the Bus": "Random people who happen to be places, see or hear interesting things, and are motivated to share them with the world in text, audio, and/or video via the 'Off the Bus' site."

The above description is not meant to disparage. I don't mean to imply that, just because someone is not a capital-J "journalist," that what they have to share isn't newsworthy, that their observations aren't interesting, or that they can't produce compelling copy, audio, and/or video. But I do think we need to be precise about the phenomenon. Calling them "journalists" confuses the issue because we do have certain attributes we associate with journalists, and these people are not necessarily exhibiting those attributes. So call them contributors; I'm good with that. But not journalists. Not yet, at least.

Similarly, Rosen should stop trying to defend Fowler as if she were an actual journalist. He should stop because he simply doesn't need to. Let me back up a second. After the Clinton broo-ha-ha, Rosen wrote the following to Politico's Michael Calderone:

“This wasn't an interview where the former president sat for questions with Mayhill Fowler. It was a shouted question at a rope line.... Would it have been better if she said, 'Mr. President, I'm Mayhill Fowler, a blogger for OffTheBus and I write about the campaign...'? 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.”

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this explanation feels disingenous. What Off the Bus is doing is an experiment, an experiment in gathering news in new ways. Let me be clear: I'm not suggesting I think Off the Bus tells its contributors not to identify themselves. Rather, when you're working with 2,500 amateurs in the fast-paced world of a presidential campaign, you can't possibly expect that they're going to master traditional journalism practices and then follow them to-the-letter, even if you do have guidelines you've asked them to follow (which Off the Bus does, per Rosen's email to Calderone).

If I were Rosen, I'd simply say the following: "Off the Bus is an experiment in gathering news using 2,500 motivated amateurs. We do our best to instruct them in traditional journalistic practices, but we don't necessarily use their adherence to those practices as a criteria for deciding whether to publish their reports. At this point, we believe we are performing a greater public service by sharing the valuable facts, quotes, and insights they are gathering than in withholding material because it wasn't obtained according to traditional journalistic standards. In the long term, we will use the learnings from this experiment to innovate new ways of newsgathering that hopefully will strengthen the practice of journalism."

I'm fine with that. I don't think it's a big deal that Off the Bus is prioritizing scoops over traditional journalistic practices. It's the Wild West out there. We're all trying to figure out the future. But transparency is key. Just tell us what you're doing, why, and how, and we'll be good with it. And that's why Rosen really should simply call it like it is, rather than trying to shoehorn the new stuff they're doing into the old frameworks.

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