Obama’s fundraiser, Mayhill Fowler, and the “supporter/reporter” question

Here’s a fascinating story from Jay Rosen about the Off the Bus blogger who first reported on Obama’s “bitter in Pennsylvania” comments.

It turns out, as so many important stories do, to be far more complex and nuanced than anything you’re likely to have heard on TV or in the papers, which mostly preferred not to name the story’s source: Mayhill Fowler, an Obama supporter who has been blogging for Off the Bus (a collaboration between Huffington Post and Rosen’s NewAssignment, for which I have served as an adviser in the past).

Fowler attended Obama’s San Francisco fundraiser. Traditionally, the press has not reported on what candidates say at private fundraisers. Fowler seemed blur the roles of “supporter” and “reporter” well enough that she got access to the event without ever being asked not to cover it.

Rosen talks about how “uncharted” the campaign terrain is today, with no clear boundaries separating those participating in the campaign from those covering the campaign. In the New York Times, Katherine Seelye asks, “Is it possible to straddle the line between reporter and supporter?”

Fowler’s story answers that question pretty definitively. Of course it’s possible. The fixed roles of the old campaign drama are dissolving. Everyone’s improvising. The bad news is that a lot of people are confused. The good news is that a lot more people can participate — and hear what’s said behind previously closed doors.

If you are a politician speaking to a crowd — any crowd — you should pretty much assume that everything you say can and will be broadcast to the world. That’s the lesson that George Allen learned, and it’s one Obama should know, too.

Apparently some Obama supporters feel that bloggers should be understood to be “activists” not “journalists,” and that Fowler betrayed their cause:

Bloggers are viewed as activists, not journalists. It’ s why some campaigns have blogger conference calls and press conference calls. The blogger calls are to pump up the base. The press calls are to do spin and answer arguably tough questions. She was admitted to the private San Francisco fund-raiser as an activist blogger and then functioned as a journalist.

This strikes me as one of those distinctions that is untenable. Some bloggers are activists, some are journalists; some are diarists, some are businesspeople. Saying you’re “a blogger” doesn’t make you an activist or a journalist or anything else; all it means is that you’re someone who posts stuff on the Web. Since the Web is public, this practice has a natural slope, a gravitational pull; things roll naturally from the private to the public.

So, yes, on the Web the “line between supporter and reporter” has been smudged out. One result, this week, is that Obama’s campaign has suffered a setback — and as an Obama supporter, I might be mildly disappointed. But, far more importantly, as a journalist I’m happy to see more and more of the previously curtained elements of our election process brought forth into view. Ultimately, it’s better for everyone to know what Obama said at his fundraiser.

But now we’ve only heard from one of three candidates. Next, let’s turn on the mikes in the rooms where Hillary Clinton is talking to her backers. And let’s listen in on John McCain wooing those wary evangelicals!

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  1. Vanderleun

    Scott, you really have to get over the evangelical boogyman meme. It’s so, well, 20th century.

  2. SMonica

    Nobody even comments here. Why do you think anyone’s reading you?

    Seriously: a guy who can’t engage readers ON HIS OWN BLOG is going to write a book about blogging? Based on your clear lack of success with this one-way blather, shouldn’t you drop this pretension of being a forward-looking tech writer and see if Parade magazine is hiring instead?

    Do you even know many reciprocal links do you have coming into this site? GOOG says about 1,160. That’s anemic, son!

  3. Hi Scott

    Earlier in life I did some newspaper and magazine writing.

    I never played gotcha. I can’t conceive of any good that comes from playing gotcha.

    Gotcha is all about focusing attention on the reporter, building the reporter’s career. It is NOT about transmitting useful information about the subject at hand.

    Mayhill played gotcha. She’s a fraud, a hypocrite, and a poor imitation of the worst of Maureen Dowd.

    Rosen was SO WRONG on this whole episode. I look forward to either his future mea culpa.

    — stan


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