When the news about Mayhill Fowler’s latest act of “citizen journalism” broke, this time catching Bill Clinton calling a reporter names, I was actually disappointed. Fowler, if you recall, was the same HuffPost Off The Bus reporter who caught Obama’s “bitter” comments at a fundraiser. The word “caught” is appropriate, because both times her “reporting” consisted of secretly recording conversations and then writing up the “news” afterwards.
This is disappointing, I thought, because it’s simply too easy. And has nothing to do with “citizen journalism.” Anyone can sneak a recorder into an event — it’s tabloid tactics, at best. While citizen journalism has no clear or single definition, to me, it’s about “my readers know more than I do.” It’s about low cost publishing. And it’s about connecting dots in ways dots have never been able to be connected before, such as TPM and the U.S. Attorney scandal.
The notion that we citizens can catch people off guard isn’t really news — that’s what Gawker Stalker and the paparazzi are all about.
But the other night, I attended a “Participation and Politics” event, part of Internet Week here in NYC, and among the speakers was NYU’s Jay Rosen. Rosen, of course, helped create Off The Bus, and has been a critic of the news media for a long time. During his opening remarks, he mentioned something I think is key to understanding what Fowler did — he suggested citizen journalism is working, in part, because it is “extending the news space to where regular citizens go.” This change is stylistic, moving away from the standard press conferences and campaign tour bus routes (hence, “off the bus”), into spaces where journalism has never ventured, but still matter to ordinary citizens.
In this sense, I better understand what Fowler did, although I am still not sure I completely agree. Because the question remains — where are the limits of these spaces? Are there any? Where does “journalism” end and privacy begin?
In a write-up on this incident, Dave Winer called this Bill Clinton’s “Macaca Moment.” In part, that’s true — the 2008 Democratic campaign, if nothing else, has demonstrated Clinton is out of touch with the age of YouTube politics. Winer wrote:
This should be a lesson to all handlers and would-be political leaders. You’re basically always on the record, unless you’re talking with one or two people who have agreed in advance that you’re not, and even then you have to be careful. I’ve learned this in the blogosphere, it’s why industry parties are uncomfortable for me. I don’t think of myself as a public figure, but every conversation is subject to reporting.
This isn’t limited to “handlers” and politicos, at all, nor is it limited to A-list bloggers. I think the Fowler story is really a signpost, a marker on the way towards our increasing state of publicity. Talking to Professor Rosen afterwards, we briefly discussed Twitter, and the Zuckerberg “backchannel” incident. And it got me thinking — what’s the difference if Fowler had been sending tweets about what Clinton said, rather than recording the audio? It’s essentially the same thing.
The lesson here isn’t about journalism, although I do agree that extending the “news space” is a great, and much needed, idea. As citizens, we have been ill-served by the news media for a long time, and creating a field of citizen journalists to provide a check and balance on the Press, and to contest their power and influence, is a necessary thing.
But what should we give up to see that happen? Is it possible to create such a field of citizen journalism without losing our privacy? Can we create and participate in a public sphere without always having to be “on the record”?
I suspect the answer is, we don’t yet know.