Re-thinking Mayhill Fowler

Yesterday, while blogging about bittergate (on a slightly different note, my favourite comment on any message board so far during this whole saga was something along the lines of: "why do we persist in adding "gate" to every little problem facing a politician. It's a frickin' hotel, for godsake!") I made an observation about the role of the Huffington Post Citizen journalist Mayhill Fowler:

[T]he whole sequence of events illustrates a problem for modern campaigns - Mayhill Fowler is not a Washington press corp reporter. She is a private citizen, a mother, a retired teacher who gave up work to bring up her family. In short: no campaign is ever going to see her coming or know if there is a Mayhill Fowler in the room. She simply bought a ticket for the fundraiser and recorded it.

Actually, it seems that wasn't true at all, and is hardly a fair characterisation of the relationship which Fowler had with the Obama campaign. The truth is rather more interesting, and raises some really interesting questions about the role citizen journalists could (or should) play in political campaigns and how the fruits of their labours should be understood by readers. According to a great article on Realclearpolitics, Obama campaign workers freely admit that they were blind-sided by Fowler writing the story and they certainly didn't suspect that she would be taping the fundraiser. However, the reason for this wasn't because she had crept in off the street while no one was looking.

The campaign is wisely staying out of the business of publicly expressing dismay about an activist blogger supporter publishing material on a very high-profile new media news and opinion outlet that is taken from a private event to which the press was not allowed. (I asked to attend the event and was told it was "private, off the record, and closed to the press.") But Obama campaign sources say privately that they are furious with the situation.

They had a different expectation of Fowler. For the past year, the 61-year old Vassar graduate, wife of a wealthy Bay Area attorney, has hung around with people in the Obama campaign and traveled to several states, blogging all the while about her experiences and perceptions of the campaign and candidate. She was seen as an opinionated activist blogger, a supporter, someone who had a tendency at times to lecture the campaign in her copy but was ultimately an enthusiast. She was not viewed as a journalist.

So exactly what was Fowler? A journalist? An activist? An interested citizen? This isn't to say she shouldn't have reported what she did (in fact, I think it would have been rather less morally justifiable had the story been spiked by a long term Obama supporter who has given his campaign a lot of money to boot). However, it is quite clearly the case that there are, as a perceptive article in today's Guardian by Michael Tomasky notes, huge tensions between the notions of the citizen and of the journalist.

The end result of this tension - and the scandals it will surely continue to generate - may well mean that the access bloggers have to come to enjoy becomes far more restricted in the future.