Tuned In

The "Bitter" Story, and Why Disclosure Works

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One of the angles lost in much of the coverage of Barack Obama’s remarks in San Francisco about “bitter” small-town voters and their social beliefs was that the reporter who broke it for The Huffington Post, Mayhill Fowler, was an Obama supporter—and, in fact, an Obama donor. What’s more, her editor, Jay Rosen—who founded HuffPo’s Off the Bus political reporting program—also discloses having voted for Obama. Rosen goes into detail about how the story made it into print in a HuffPo followup. (Off the Bus is a “pro-am” journalism project that taps amateur “citizen journalists,” like Fowler, to contribute coverage of campaigns—including events they have access to as campaign supporters—working with professional editors like Rosen. Update: while Rosen founded and co-publishes Off the Bus, he notes in a comment that he did not edit this piece itself; I’ve corrected accordingly.)

When I wrote a column arguing that journalists writing about politics should disclose who they’re voting for—just like reporters disclose what stocks they own when writing about the company—a lot of people thought it was an unattainable pipe dream that would make political journalism impossible and uncredible.

Now we have a major case of disclosure-journalism in action. And you’d have a hard time claiming that the story helped the reporter and editors’ candidate.

Some of the criticisms I heard about having journalists disclose their votes included: that doing so would make people more mistrustful of the media; that the news would become more polarized between outlets that were “for” specific camps; that the practice would simply excuse biased reporting. All fair criticisms, if largely unprovable. (Just like it’s unprovable for me to claim the practice would make journalism better, until the practice actually is widely adopted.)

But think about how the Obama “bitterness” story would have played out under the usual rules of journalism, in which reporters and editors don’t tell you who they support.

You would not know who the reporter and her editor had voted for in the primaries. But almost certainly, the story would have been written and edited by people who voted for someone in the primaries. (Journalists are educated white-collar professionals, a group with a very high voter turnout.) Because of the volatility and potential effect on the elections, a lot of readers out there would be trying to read between the lines and to guess which candidate the writer and editor supported. And—because of the nature of the scoop—most of them would have guessed wrong.

Instead, what you have is a story that—as had to be obvious before it ever saw print—only hurts the candidate the writer and editor co-publisher (and I) voted for; yet it came out anyway. (Indeed, since the writer had access because she was an Obama supporter, the story very like would never have been broken any other way.) And because of the transparency, this very controversial story came out in such a way that it’s hard, if not impossible, to attack the motivations of the people who broke it.

I mean, I suppose you could argue that they were somehow trying to help Obama in the way they presented the story, but (1) clearly the best way to do that would have been to sit on the story altogether and (2) if that was really their goal, they plainly did a lousy job of it. You could argue that Fowler’s support for Obama threatened to compromise her journalism, since she said she considered not doing the story, but (1) she did decide to do the story and (2) a “real” reporter would not have been in the room in the first place.

Or you could, if you work hard enough, try to politically excommunicate Fowler: call her a traitor to the Obama campaign or—because she also gave money to Clinton and fellow Tennessean Fred Thompson—a covert Hillary or GOP saboteur. But that wouldn’t account for the assistance of her Obama-voting editor publisher. More likely, it seems that the people who broke the story did what, frankly, most journalists do (and what all good journalists do)—they put the information out because their loyalty to the news was greater than their loyalty to any candidate.

Now, I’m not saying this makes the HuffPo’s report a good story or a bad one. You can argue that it was a revealing insight into Obama’s beliefs, or overblown gotcha journalism. The point is, if a story is good or bad, it is good or bad regardless of who the reporter voted for. And now we can look at the HuffPo story and make that judgment, taking into consideration—among many other things—the relevant information of Fowler’s disclosure. And we can do so without the pointless distraction of the I-bet-I-can-figure-out-who-you’re-in-the-tank-for game.

Which is at least better than the reams of follow-up stories and hours of commentary that have followed on the story—produced by journalists who almost certainly support or voted for some candidate, most of whom will never tell you which candidate.

Of course, disclosure is my personal hobbyhorse—so I’m hopelessly biased.