By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Kennedy versus Rosen

I’m debating Jay Rosen on the controversy over Mayhill Fowler, the citizen journalist who quoted Barack Obama on “bitter” white people who “cling” to religion and guns and, more recently, who prodded Bill Clinton into going off on Vanity Fair writer Todd Purdum.

The question: Are citizen journalists bound by the same ethical rules as mainstream reporters? Read the set-up, then see the comments. Feel free to weigh in.

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  1. Peter Porcupine

    DK – for more than a dozen years, Charley Manning has been telling GOP candidates and activists that there IS no off-the-record, ad nauseum. That anything you say, you should expect to see printed. I’ve never agreed with him, due mainly to the charity of reporters who were kind enough not to quote me directly, but I think he may be onto something.I like the Semi-Pro/Citizen Journo classification. ANY schmuck can have a blog, and many do. Thanks to Google and Technorati, there ARE no ‘obscure’ blogs anymore.I cannot tell you how much I admire Maybelle Fowler, because she DOES take her access so seriously. If I ever DO have a ‘scoop’ like hers, I hope I’ll have the honesty to report it like she does, instead of gussying a remark up with sympathetic editing/writing.Rosen doesn’t seem to grasp that the Obama event was closed to TRADITIONAL MEDIA, but that NON-TRADITIONAL were welcomed, and the event per se was ON the record.

  2. Dan Kennedy

    PP: I think Rosen does grasp that point. It’s I (me?) who has a problem with that.I ask you the same question I keep asking Jay: In what meaningful sense is the Huffington Post not part of the “traditional” media?

  3. Peter Porcupine

    DK – as varied politicos define traditional media, dead tree media. MSM.THEY – until Maybelle – had a romantic idea of bloggers, as BMG-like cheerleaders. Now, politicos are becoming a little more wary, and properly so.That’s how something could be closed to media and on the record at the same time.

  4. Steve

    Isn’t The Huffington Post mainstream yet?

  5. Dan Kennedy

    PP: The problem is that Mayhill (not Maybelle) waltzed in telling herself, “Well, I’m not part of the media. I only write for the biggest online newspaper on the planet.”

  6. Don, American

    A journalist is a degreed professional. There is no such thing as a citizen journalist, any more than there is a citizen doctor or a citizen lawyer. I am a citizen who observes the news and comments on it in my blog, in letters to the editor, and on the email section of my local TV station. I am not a journalist, whose only job is the report the news exactly as it happened — the 5-Ws. I am somewhat of a editorialist, a subset of journalist, who should appear only on opinion pages, never within the news.

  7. Dan Kennedy

    Don: A journalist most certainly does not need a degree, and he is a professional only in the sense that he is paid. This state of affairs is guaranteed by the First Amendment.

  8. Michael Pahre

    Since your setup is the Bill Clinton audio obtained by Mayhill Fowler along a rope line at a campaign event, I’ll offer up a hypothetical scenario. (And violate your word limit.)Let’s say that Clinton walked up to the rope line, thinking that it was only composed of the non-press public. People in the crowd these days are always photographing the public figure with their cameras and cell phones. Everybody knows in advance that people will take pictures.Now, let’s say Clinton walked up to the same rope line wearing an offensive or vulgar image on his cheek (e.g., a swastika). People would snap pictures of him, and some of those people would send the pictures around to friends, put it on flickr and their blogs, email copies to the media, etc., because they would be offended by the image on his cheek. All the subsequent coverage would be 100% fair game and we wouldn’t question journalistic ethics either in obtaining or disseminating the images.Now what if Clinton instead walked up to the same rope line and started mouthing vulgarities out of his mouth, whether unprovoked or responding to a question. If somebody recorded the soliloquy — even surreptitiously — I think it should be equally 100% fair game. It doesn’t matter if it’s an image on his cheek or the cheekiness of the words coming out of his mouth. (Clinton, by the way, has since apologized for the vulgar language he used that Fowler recorded.)I don’t believe that Fowler was required to identify herself as a journalist in a public setting at a public campaign appearance. Clinton the public figure knows that whenever he goes out in public he has to carry himself with decorum. Remember the questions asked of Chelsea Clinton at college campus events? At least one was asked by a student journalist. Nobody questioned his ethics in posing a question (without identifying his apprentice profession); instead, everyone questioned either his badly-worded question or whether or not the topic he raised was in poor taste or off-limits.Even if Fowler were trying to set-up Clinton by asking a question with biased wording, he was at a public appearance and therefore should know not to take the bait. If he does, he can’t blame anyone but himself.On the other hand, if Fowler were to approach Clinton while he selected grapefruits in the supermarket, it’s obvious that she should identify herself as a journalist before asking a direct question. In the supermarket, Clinton is in a public location but not engaged in a public appearance. Clinton should therefore be afforded a modicum of privacy in that setting.

  9. Dan Kennedy

    Michael: What word count?There’s more good sense in what you’ve written than in anything Rosen and I managed all day. But I’m only 98 percent of the way with you.If a mainstream journalist with an unfamiliar face had removed her credential, hung out on the rope line and tossed a question at Clinton for the benefit of, say, the Dallas Morning News, everyone would be apoplectic.Mayhill Fowler, unfamiliar to Clinton, with no credential, tossed a question at Clinton not for her blog, not for a student newspaper, but for perhaps the biggest online-only newspaper on the planet.Perhaps the rules are stupid, but we can’t have two sets of rules for “professional” and “citizen” journalists, especially when they’re doing pretty much the same thing. Can we?Your serve.

  10. Michael Pahre

    Thanks for the compliment.I believe that you are narrowing down your objections solely to the issue: (1) that Fowler asked the question herself.If Fowler were standing there and a random person asked the same question — and Fowler recorded the audio the whole time — I think a lot of what you are saying that she could then legitimately broadcast the audio and/or write a story. If I’ve accurately described your argument, then what matters is only who asked the question.But I think that, in the process, you have also made two more arguments which are more questionable: (2) that Fowler was wrong for entering the venue in the first place (since it was a no-media event); and (3) that she took any information (audio, visual, text) away from the event.I believe this argument #3 to be wrong, unless everyone who entered agreed to the condition of data-free attendance — which I doubt. People were probably taking pictures. The campaign staffers were unlikely grabbing cameras and deleting images. Nor were they zapping people with that memory eraser from Men in Black. What was to prevent people from walking away from the event and then writing down what they heard? And then calling an official journalist with their affidavit? If someone insists repeatedly upon people agreeing to condition #3, then they ought not to be running for office; if they do run, they probably won’t get elected. In this country, at least.Argument #2 is one of these fundamental problems that is rising to the fore with the new brand of citizen journalists (of which I guess I’m one). We don’t carry credentials; we don’t even know what to write on them other than our name, home address, and URL, and kid’s baby pictures. We show up at public events as members of the public, but sometimes end up reporting on what we see or heard. Camera-phone anyone? The new media is blurring the line between credentialed reporters and non-credentialed ones.When I know I want a statement for the record, I tell the person — or later ask permission after-the-fact. But if I were an ordinary member of the public at a public event or location at which a local elected official had a non-linear meltdown, I very well might write about it. (For example, if I were shopping for curling irons in Watertown and witnessed a projectile, I would write the story. It would be fun, too.)But I wouldn’t write the story if I had caused the meltdown myself. Which brings me back to #1 — what I think is the crux of your objection to Fowler’s case, that she asked the question herself.So, let me pose a new hypothetical scenario: Fowler enters the event having decided that she intends to be a member of the public today. Everyone has that right, even journalists. (That didn’t come out right.) She goes to the rope line, the lady next to her asks the question of President Clinton, and he spouts off all manner of craziness. Fowler walks out of the event area and grabs a person or two who were standing next to her. They write down what they heard, word-for-word, either independently or together. Now she decides she wants to write about the craziness what she heard.I think that in this scenario she is justified to write the story. No one pledged her to secrecy a priori nor did they insist that the event was fully off-the-record.If you agree, then I think you are agreeing that argument #1 is the key reason (that she didn’t personally ask the question in this hypothetical scenario of a no-press event) as well as her intention upon entering the event. But if you really want to base your judgment on what was her intention, then you have drawn a potentially fuzzy line. And that is the fuzzy line that I would argue is inherent in the process of citizen journalism. It just doesn’t fit into the strict dimensions of journalism as you learned in journalism school or now teach. Citizen journalists wander back-and-forth across that fuzzy (or frayed) rope line.

  11. Dan Kennedy

    Michael: I think the Obama and Clinton incidents are very different, and raise completely different issues.Clinton first. Fowler was standing where any member of the public might reasonably be standing. Anything she sees or hears is fair game. Thus, you’re right, in that case, the entire issue comes down to the fact that she asked Clinton a question without identifying herself as a journalist. Caveats and qualifications aside, she was covering the campaign for the Huffington Post.Obama is quite a different issue. She got in there as an Obama supporter and then decided a few days later that, well, I’m a journalist. Even though she’s not with the “traditional media,” I can almost guarantee you that if she’d been wearing a HuffPost (or even an Off the Bus) credential around her neck, she would have been barred entry.As for whether someone else inside might have written it up on a personal blog or posted something on YouTube, I guess my response is that Fowler was reporting for HuffPost and they weren’t. It’s only the biggest online-only newspaper in the world, for crying out loud.I think Jay and I had our most useful exchange at the very end of the day. Start here if you’re interested.

  12. Peter Porcupine

    DK – I think you’re wrong about Fowler being barred entry if she had on a HuffPo credential The Obama campaign stated the event was off-limits to TRADITIONAL media, but open to othr media, and was NOT off the record. As I said before, politicians think that bloggers will be mindless cheerleaders and disseminators of their talking points for free.Then, they get to know us.THEN, they bitterly complain.And when I write about or videotape anyone (I have a new Flip camcorder – iPod-esque controls, great audio too) I ASK them if I can disseminate, and TELL them I am going to quote them. No objections so far.

  13. Dan Kennedy

    PP: It all comes down to what “traditional” means. Circa 2008, I thnk it’s safe to say that HuffPost is a lot more like the New York Times than a lone blogger. Its coverage of the presidential campaign is more influential than all but a tiny handful of media outlets. I say she would have been barred at the door.

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