There’s been some enjoyable to-and-fro after a Obama campaign donor, Mayhill Fowler, punched the mouth she’s feeding, and made public some unguarded comments uttered by the Presidential hopeful during a fundraiser in San Francisco.
(Brief catchup: read about it all here. Obama said some midwestern voters were “bitter [...] they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them”. This appears to be a controversial thing to say.)
Jay Rosen is the journalism academic behind the section on Huffington Post where Fowler revealed Obama’s comments. He hailed her piece, widely followed-up across the world’s media, as an example of the power of citizen journalism. He also explained why he and editors there left Fowler’s rambling piece unedited, running the good bit right at the end (that was done for context, he said. I do hope the revolution doesn’t continue to be quite this long-winded, even if you accuse me of throwing stones in the glass house that is this blog).
My Guardian colleague Michael Tomasky then weighed in with a thoughtful piece expressing doubts about the ethics of Fowler being present both as a fund raiser and a reporter. A brief excerpt:
“Was she free to write whatever she heard, or was she there with the understanding that she would put the interests of the Obama campaign before the reporting?
If the old rules are fading away, there have to be a few new ones to take their place. There can’t just be anarchy.”
That was guaranteed to raise the ire of another Guardianista, Jeff Jarvis, who blasted back:
“But what happens when you take away the label journalist and just call the person a witness? Does that person have to live by Tomasky’s rules? Or can that person still tell people what she heard and saw? Isn’t that simply put free speech?
I’m rather appalled that Tomasky also thinks that political candidates of all people ought to be able to benefit from the cloak of secrecy enabled by his rules. He makes it a club and if you violate the club’s rules and report what an elected official said, what happens to you? You get ejected?”
Do read both pieces – they’re more nuanced than my quotes imply.
My gut reaction went with Jeff – while I can see the path to the each-for-his-own journalistic chaos to which Michael alludes, it also seems inevitable. 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, then, is less an issue for journalism, more one for political campaigners and masters of spin. Just a few dozen silly words in a campaign of tens of millions of carefully scripted ones can be amplified to a volume far greater than one of those speeches. Thus, tragically, the only logical response is for the candidate to clam up; treat every moment as a moment on Newsnight or Meet The Press.
(There is, of course, another response – to let all the candidate’s prejudices and ill-thought-through half ideas hang out like some kind of… well, blogger – but we, as voters, hardly seem ready to accept such an unvarnished, unairbrushed product.)
The implication of all those could be that, ironically, candor dries up because this is an age when everybody can be a reporter if they want to. Jeff pleads for openness on all sides, yet politicians might move even further in the opposite direction. That’ll be a sad day, and one that will have profound implications for a political reporting machine left with even less to work with.
But, then again, it has long been crazy to imagine that a candidate could push one message to the media, and a less guarded one to semi-public gatherings of friends. This has been the reality for a while now. Call it citizen journalism if you must, but just don’t be surprised a candidate has finally been bitten on the arse by it. I doubt he’ll be the last.