Mayhill Fowler: Occupying a Moral Grey Area

Citizen journalism witnessed new recognition in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. The Huffington Post’s Mayhill Fowler made national headlines on two occasions: publishing Obama’s so-called “elitist” comments when he said Americans in the heartland “cling to guns and religion” and publishing Bill Clinton’s comments in which he called a vanity fair reporter a “scumbag.” 

These revelations changed the course of public opinion surrounding both Obama and Clinton, but it also opened the floodgates to questions of Fowler’s ethical framework. Many have denounced Fowler for having “no professional training.” In the case of president Obama’s comments, Fowler went into a “closed” campaign event as an Obama campaign donor but then published comments that portrayed him in a bad light. This received a lot of backlash from the liberal blog community.  James Rainey of the LA Times elaborates:

Fowler said Monday that she had received about 200 e-mail messages that ranged from “creepy to threatening,” including a few death threats from purported Obama supporters. She said about 25 e-mails praised her.

Writers on the liberal website Daily Kos took up the complaints, accusing Fowler of intentionally undermining Obama and feigning support for the candidate to gain access to the San Francisco fundraiser where he made the controversial remarks April 6.

“It’s like the liberal blogosphere has issued a fatwa against me,” Fowler said in a telephone interview.

 Does the fact that Fowler gained access as a campaign donor rather than a reporter compromise her credibility? I wouldn’t say so, because in the end Obama did actually make these comments, and whether the liberal blogosphere likes it or not, he made them when he thought no reporters were present. I think that speaks mounds to the state of politics in this country, as well as the need for citizen journalists like Fowler to gain access to events that mainstream reporters cannot. However, this ethical dilemma gains more traction when looked at through the scope of the Clinton comments.

On Clinton, Fowler writes:

Tightly gripping this reporter’s hand and refusing to let go, Clinton heatedly denounced the writer, who is currently married to former Clinton White House Press Secretary, Dee Dee Myers.

“[He’s] sleazy,” he said referring to Purdum. “He’s a really dishonest reporter. And one of our guys talked to him . . . And I haven’t read [the article]. But he told me there’s five or six just blatant lies in there. But he’s a real slimy guy,” the former president said.

When I reminded him that Purdum was married to his former press spokesperson Myers, Clinton was undeterred.

Clinton’s commentary was heated, the sort of material that any journalist would leap at the opportunity to publish, but Clinton did not know that his comments were on the record. Salon staff writer Alex Koppelman writes:

Mayhill Fowler, who writes for the Huffington Post’s Off the Bus project, got the quotes from Clinton after she told him she thought it was a “hatchet job,” and never identified herself as a reporter. Most journalists wouldn’t consider that sort of thing ethically pure…

Indeed, I had some ethical qualms with this method. Not only did Fowler ask Clinton a leading question to gain a heated response, but she didn’t identify herself as a reporter. Obviously, had Clinton known his words might have been published, he would have phrased his rhetoric differently. But, would the story have had the same impact if Clinton had given a rehearsed response?

I wouldn’t be too quick to sympathize with Clinton on this one, either. In another piece by Rainey in the LA Times he writes:

Fowler, at one point, interjected that Purdum, the author, is married to onetime Clinton Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers. Clinton retorted: “Yeah, that’s all right. He’s still a scumbag.”

A man on the rope line tried to distract Clinton with a personal appeal. “I grew up in Hope too,” the fan said. “Hope, North Dakota.”

Clinton wouldn’t be distracted. He continued on about the magazine and Purdum: “Let me tell you, he’s one of the guys, he’s one of the guys that propagated all those lies . . . ” Clinton ended the harangue by assuring, unpersuasively: “It didn’t bother me. It shouldn’t bother you.”

Whether or not Fowler identified herself as a reporter: Clinton had the opportunity to stop himself and blatantly ignored it. The aforementioned quote demonstrates this: both Fowler and another attendee gave Clinton ample opportunity to stop and rephrase his rhetoric but the tirade continued. Isn’t that worth reporting?

I have trouble picking a definite side on this issue. It’s so important to me that Fowler was able to gain access to information that a mainstream reporter couldn’t have gotten. I think both stories were very much worth knowing, but I still question Fowler’s ethics. I’ve learned countless times that disclosure is key in maintaining accountability, and Fowler really didn’t disclose much. That being said, I’m glad she reported what she did.

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