Thursday, March 18, 2010

Citizen what?

Mayhill Fowler has been called a poster child for citizen journalism….may God help us all. Fowler wrote entries for OffTheBus, a forum on HuffPo for amateur journalists who followed the 2008 presidential campaign. And I mean literally followed – she traveled around the country on buses covering her man Obama during 2007 and 2008.

Fowler heard Obama’s “bitter” Pennsylvania voter comment at a San Francisco campaign event in 2008 - an event to which mainstream media did not have access. Of course, the mainstream outlets were pissed that they didn’t get that info for themselves. To that I say: Suck it up kids. Like it or not, that’s the nature of new media. And to anyone running for any kind of public office I say: Just because an event is closed to the “media”, does not mean that something you say at said event will not go viral...really fast.

Of course, now, two years removed from the fracas, no one wants anything to do with Fowler. And that could be (one of) the ugly flip side(s) to citizen journalism. She had her 15 minutes of fame, and got burned for it – accusations of being in cahoots with Hillary were predictably thrown around after she posted the quote. And that’s fine on a personal level. If you’re going to walk into the fire, you have to be prepared. Honestly, I don’t really care if Fowler ever gets paid to write. I’m more interested in what her story as a citizen journo means for the bigger picture.

A few days ago, the LA Times reported on an interesting caveat to the San Fran story of which I was not aware. Fowler almost didn’t include Obama’s bitter comment in her post about the evening knowing how damaging it could be to the candidate. She only decided to include it after an OffTheBus director encouraged her to disclose all she had heard. What I find so troubling about the heat Fowler caught for including the quote in her post was the fact that as a “journalist”, she absolutely should have included it. In fact, she was - dare I say - ethically obligated to include it. That’s not the kind of comment that a candidate should get away with at a public event.

The fact that the mainstream was pissed to be scooped by Fowler proves that they wished they had gotten the quote themselves. I mean, that’s good stuff, whether or not you’re in the tank for someone. If you are running to be the POTUS and you say something dumb, you should be quoted on it as eagerly as when you say something smart. That’s a journalist’s job.

Now OffTheBus was not a one-time phenomenon. There are citizen journalism sites popping up all the time. Demotix, for example, reviews content and image entries from international Joe Schmos all day. The ones that are up to snuff get pushed to the U.K.-based company’s news feed. The major outlets can then buy them, allowing Schmo to get published in The New York Times if he gets lucky. Demotix gets a 50% cut and the writer or photojournalist gets 50%.

The great thing about Demotix is that it offers hyper local news from around the world, written or filmed by natives from the area – not an old white dude working for the BBC. The down side is that I don’t yet see how this model works to fill the most important role of journalists – investigative reporting. Not that Demotix claims to do this. The site knows its place as an event-based news outlet.

It could be that with the simple passage of time citizen journalism and maybe crowd sourcing will yield powerful insights into the most troubling aspects of society. (Just consider how much a news story written by lawmakers about their initiatives might differ from a collaborative story written by a cross-section of constituents about how the initiative would affect their everyday lives.) Journalists often work with a similar handicap – trying to capture the sentiments of Everyman by speaking with three of them.

But alas, considering how the craft of investigative reporting has been languishing even in traditional media, I have a hard time believing that it will flourish among people who woke up this morning and decided to change the world. Of course I’m wildly oversimplifying the concept, but I feel good about the point I’m trying to make.

The founder of Demotix, Turi Munthe, says that his idea for the site came out of the belief that when a society is open and enjoys free speech, its propensity towards radicalizing decreases. I’m all for that. I’m just leery of a future where the onus for real journalism is placed on a system that is incapable of supplying it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Game Change" plays by the rules

As a reporter, I’ve had plenty of off-the-record conversations. Some juicy, some not so much. I have never, however, had the delicious pleasure of interviewing on the basis of “deep background”. This is the reporting method used by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann in their new book “Game Change”.

Basically, operating on the understanding that all sources are providing deep background means that the authors do not have to reveal any of their sources in the finished product. It is an ideal method of gathering a huge amount of information and creating a sweeping omniscient narrative.

I have not read the book yet, only an excerpt in New York magazine. (As a result of reading that excerpt I cannot wait to get my hands on it.) In this instance, writing a book from an omniscient point of view is akin to the reader being transported back in time to be a fly on the wall in some of the most fascinating, infuriating, disastrous, and amazing meetings and gatherings that occurred during the 2008 presidential election. Who wouldn’t love to take that ride?!

The beautiful thing about the crafting of “Game Change” is that the authors got everyone to dish post-election under the agreement that their name would never appear in print…not exactly what the average reporter can promise. As a result, they got the dirt. Some say it’s too dirty – that the authors may have let angry ex- aides and staffers have free reign. The authors rebuttal is that they were very careful with sources and never relied on one person to shape the telling of an event.

Once I do finally meet all imminent work-related deadlines and get the bookstore to buy this gem, I am anticipating a riveting read. I’ve always been a big fan of the omniscient point of view in all kinds of literature. And surely this, of all books, will be intriguing considering that all of the characters are so well-known and have (or had) such carefully crafted public personas.

Now I have to confess, something that has always irked me is “journalism” that is an endless parade of information gathered from unnamed sources. I think there is without a doubt a need for off-the-record conversations, but when they overwhelm an article it begins to read like a flimsy, disposable set of quasi-might-not-actually-be-facts. Writing like this makes my skin crawl. Unfortunately, I’m seeing more and more of it all the time.

“Game Change”, I suppose the argument could be made, is one of these wannabe pieces – full of “facts”, but no substance to back it up. But in this case, that argument does not hold water. I think writing the book in this way was a necessary evil if Halperin and Heilemann wanted to tell the raw, uncensored, gritty truth. And is it really the truth? Do the authors know for sure that everything in the book is completely accurate? I don’t think they have any way of knowing that, but I am convinced that neither of them have any reason to believe that anything in the book is false.

So when all the fuss got kicked up over the Harry Reid comments, I did not find it to be completely unseemly. Some did. But not only did Reid’s staff admit that Reid made the comment to the authors, Halperin and Heilemann probably verified Reid’s feelings through another source as well. Now, should they have written the comment as a direct quote? Well, Reid’s people also never attacked the authors alleging that they violated their sourcing agreement, so it looks as if they didn’t actually do anything wrong.

The excerpt I read from New York magazine was about John and St. Elizabeth Edwards. What I found so fascinating about that part of the story is that no one knew anything about it during the campaign. Stories of John McCain aides being frustrated by Sarah Palin’s lack of intellectual rigor were swirling while the campaign was still going on. Not so with the Edwardses. They fairy tale was definitely unraveling well before Edwards conceded, but the extent of the turmoil reported in the book is staggering – mostly because there was no hint of it in the mainstream media at the time.

Did the Edwards camp just have that tight a grip on what got out to the press? Was the staff so deluded by the promises of their candidate that when he morphed into a woman-crazed narcissistic lunatic, they didn’t have the heart to blow the whistle? Did they actually feel bad for an ill Elizabeth even though she’s portrayed as a raving banshee? So many questions! If the rest of “Game Change” is as good as the excerpt, and lives up to all the hype, I’m in for one awesome winter read.