It’s become a familiar scene in modern politics: the pol who came up in an era when you could speak off the cuff without being recorded, getting caught by the new Internet panopticon and having his or her embarrassing words or images posted on the Web.
This time, the catch-ee was Bill Clinton, recorded on a rope line calling a Vanity Fair reporter a “scumbag” for a story questioning his post-presidential behavior and personal associations. The audio went up on the Huffington Post, and Clinton ended up apologizing for his word choice.
If the byline on the HuffPo piece seems familiar, it should: Mayhill Fowler is the same “citizen journalist” who attended the closed-door Obama gathering in which the candidate made his now-famous remarks about working-class voters becoming “bitter” over their tough economic situation and “clinging” to totems like religion and guns. And this incident is bound to raise some of the same questions about ethics and the new rules of media engagement.
When Fowler recorded Obama, you’ll recall, she disclosed that she was an Obama supporter and a donor to his campaign. Nonetheless, there was plenty of talk about whether she was a secret Clinton plant—or even a Republican one—who was only out to get Obama. It would seem instead that she’s an equal-opportunity exposer.
Beyond the politics of the story, it will likely raise some of the same questions the Obama story brought up about citizen journalists and journalistic ethics. The Clinton camp has contended that Fowler did not identify herself as a journalist (I wasn’t there, obviously, though I can’t make out an ID on the audio). However the exchange transpired, Fowler certainly phrased her question in a way few campaign reporters would, asking Clinton what he thought of the Vanity Fair “hatchet job”—which it’s fair to say led him to believe he had a friendly audience.
I don’t think these questions are irrelevant, since they lead to the question of whether professional journalists are at a disadvantage if they restrict themselves to antiquated standards of what constitutes fair play. I do think the questions are a little overrated, though. With the Obama story, some journalists complained that, as a contributor, Fowler had access to a meeting a traditional journalist would have been excluded from. But while that may be a big issue for journalists, for the rest of the public it’s kind of a distinction without a difference.
Suppose Fowler had attended the Obama meeting, gotten access to his comments that a journalist would not have had, then called up a reporter and offered him or her the story and the audio. Or say a journalist had cultivated her as a source and wheedled the info out of her. Under the traditional rules of journalism, that would not just be OK—it would be a scoop.
Likewise with Clinton’s rope line comment. Part of journalists’ problem with people like Fowler is ethically important, but part of it, it seems, is just irritation that people are turning themselves from sources into reporters, and cutting out the middleman. The “gotcha” elements of the stories aren’t so much a problem for journalists—who picked up on both stories with gusto—as long aas they are properly laundered through an accredited professional journalist. Yes, I think a “citizen journalist,” like a traditional one, should not use deception to get a story, but that doesn’t mean a reporter—”citizen” or otherwise—has some obligation to Mirandize public figures, the better to help them avoid embarrassing themselves.
In any case, the audiorecording, videotaping beast with a billion eyes is a fact of campaign life, and we’ll only see more of these incidents—especially involving politicians of a certain age who got used to a different set of rules. (Over at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall makes a small but significant point, noting that Clinton’s reference to an online video as a “movie” is symbolic of a politician who has seen the media, and its terminology, change without him.)
We can argue in journalism about whether or not the woman asking a question on a rope line should identify herself as a journalist, whether she can properly be called a journalist and whether she should warn subjects that she has an audio recorder. For politicians, though, this is an increasingly academic point. Because whether she’s packing a recorder or not, the guy standing next to her just might—and the guy next to him, and the guy next to him…