As the field of journalism moves from a predominately print based medium, to one that is mostly distributed online, the concept of objective reporting has spurred a heated debate between traditional journalists who advocate non-opinionated reporting and Internet blogging journalists who are aggressive proponents of declaring one’s own philosophical underpinnings.
However, the move from print to online has affected the field of journalism in more ways than one. In addition, to questioning the once sacred ideal of objectivity, the rise of online journalism has greatly increased the presence of citizen journalists. These are reporters with little to no journalistic training, who are nevertheless, currently covering events once monopolized by professional writers.
As everyday citizens take on the roles traditionally held by journalists the line between the two, which once existed begins to disintegrate, hampering the ability of politicians to make off the record remarks as the debate surrounding what citizen journalists can ethically publish is thrust into a state of flux.
“We have entered new territory, and the rules are not all clear…you have to assume that everything is on the record,” said Larry Pryor, a journalism professor from the University of Southern California, in an article from the Los Angeles Times.
The Huffington Post, a revolutionary blog in its own right, was at the forefront of harnessing the power of citizen journalism with its Off The Bus program during the 2008 presidential primaries. Off The Bus utilized Huffington Post’s vast readership, using citizen journalists to cover the primaries in states throughout the nation.
One of these citizen journalists for Off The Bus, Mayhill Fowler, created a significant amount of controversy following two incidents wherein she did not clearly identify herself as a reporter and subsequently gleaned damning stories about Senator Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton.
Fowler, was thrust into a storm of controversy after she published Obama’s remarks regarding bitter small-town Americans who cling to their guns and religion. The controversy surrounding Fowler occurred due to the fact that the remarks were made by the future president at a “closed” fundraiser that was supposed to be bereft of journalists. Fowler, the 61 year-old Oakland native was a donor to the Obama campaign, and thus given access to the private event.
For her actions Fowler faced a hail of criticism and even a few death threats from Obama supporters, accusing her of being a Clinton operative attempting to torpedo Obama’s bid for the democratic nomination. However, Fowler stood her ground as an Obama supporter, who made light of the remarks only after consulting with editors at The Huffington Post and deciding for herself that the remarks were elitist and condescending, a side of Obama the voters deserved to see before election day.
Surprisingly, the “guns and religion” incident was not Fowler’s last hurrah into the national spotlight during the heated 2008 democratic primaries. Traveling all the way to Milbank, South Dakota, the California native asked former President Bill Clinton his opinion on a less than positive article in Vanity Fair, concerning his conduct and uncanny ability to bring negative attention to his wife’s (Hillary Rodham Clinton’s) bid for the democratic presidential nomination.
Unsurprisingly, the 42nd president was not pleased with the article and went on a rant, parts of which declared the author of the article, Todd Purdum, to be a, “sleazy,” “dishonest,” “slimy,” “scumbag.”
Notably, Bill Clinton’s unbecoming rant against Vanity Fair was baited by Fowler, who lured in Clinton by referring to the unbecoming article as a “hatchet job.”
On the other hand, Fowler claims she held her tape-recorder in plain sight as Clinton departed the event in rural South Dakota. However, she did not identify herself as a reporter, and it is doubtful that a one-time Commander-in-Chief, would have made such candid and boorish remarks to a member of the fourth-estate, had he known they belonged to the fourth-estate.
Both of Fowler’s incidents concern the debate surrounding the role of citizen journalists in 21st century journalism and what admissions from public officials these citizen journalist, who blend in with the rest of the plebeian masses, can construe as on-the record remarks.
In contemporary society Politicians must always be on guard and tactful with remarks, even to devout supporters, in an age where inflammatory sound-bytes and quotes spread like wildfire throughout the World Wide Web.
It is my opinion that this development is a good thing. The rise of citizen journalism has brought an end to an age where politicians cozied up with beat reporters and vice-versa. Throughout the 20th century politicians and public figures could clearly see the differentiation between on-the record and off-the record remarks. Now in the 21st century this differentiation is gone, all records can and will be considered on the record. Politicians can no longer hide behind friendly writers and can at any time be caught in less than desirable circumstances, circumstances that cannot be fixed by a press secretary and circumstances where prominent officials are accountable to explain to the public any number of unbecoming transgressions.
The ability of citizen journalists to blend in with the public and catch public officials in acts usually missed or ignored by contemporary journalists increases the access of American constituents to those members of the nation who are supposed to be representing them. Any time officials of the Republic are unable to distance themselves from the denizens of the Republic, the spirit of democracy is advanced; even if it is at the cost of personal privacy.