Mayhill Fowler goes from new media star to old news
What does it mean to be the most famous citizen journalist in the world? Mayhill Fowler has discovered it can be a rough ride.
Fowler uncovered Barack Obama’s biggest stumble in campaign 2008, turning her into a star. She was pursued as a new-media seer, jetting off to journalism conferences and sending her digital tape recorder for exhibit at the Newseum in Washington D.C.
Yet many mainstream journalists disdained her as a poseur. Her former editors, after the campaign ended, unfriended her on Facebook and moved on. Nobody is much interested now in paying her to pursue her new craft.
But Fowler still tells me: “I fell in love with journalism. I feel like I’m not alive if I’m not doing it.”
The homemaker and unpublished novelist who rocked a presidential campaign -- revealing what candidate Obama thought about poor, “bitter” voters -- could be the poster child for citizen journalism.
Except citizen journalism -- a crazy quilt of disruptive technologies and emerging voices -- defies poster children. Just because you took one star turn doesn’t earn you a place on the marquee.
Fowler, 63, has just published a book about her 2008 campaign odyssey. “Notes From a Clueless Journalist: Media, Bias and the Great Election of 2008" is as quirky as Fowler’s rambling posts for OffTheBus, the Web operation that got novices to write campaign dispatches that were posted on the Huffington Post.
The self-published e-book (available on lulu.com and Amazon for Kindle readers) reaches for a grand account of a historic presidential race. But the result tells us more about Fowler -- a committed partisan coming to terms with being a journalist and a media rookie discovering the power and limits of her outsider status.
It’s a rueful irony for Fowler that she won acclaim -- but also an in-box brimming with anger and derision -- for something she didn’t really value, catching politicians in unguarded moments.
Fowler had signed on in 2007 as one of thousands of volunteers for OffTheBus. She intended to focus mostly on Obama, convinced he would become the next president.
In April 2008, she went to an Obama fundraiser in San Francisco (one of many she’d been to) doubting there would be much to report. She brought her digital recorder only out of habit.
But then Obama got talking about downtrodden voters in Pennsylvania. “It’s not surprising, then, that they get bitter,” the candidate said, “and they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.”
Fowler knew the words could be devastating if they reached the outside world. But she didn’t include the impolitic statement in her first report, planning to give Obama “a pass.” The fledgling reporter changed her mind after a prolonged conversation with OffTheBus director Amanda Michel, deciding she had a duty to disclose everything she heard.
The story dogged Obama for the remainder of the campaign. Fowler became an object of loathing among some partisans. They called her a stooge for Hillary Rodham Clinton. And worse. Some journalists resented the idea that an amateur could get information from an event that had been closed to them.
But in my view, Fowler did nothing wrong. Journalists, professional and amateur alike, should be in the business of pulling back the facades that candidates so artfully construct.
A few months after “bittergate,” as the nomination season neared its end, Fowler notched another scoop by approaching President Clinton after an event in South Dakota. Lingering with a crowd on a rope line, she lured Clinton into a rant about a Vanity Fair writer (“dishonest . . . a scum bag”) who had trashed him in a profile.
Fowler recounts how she had another bout of conscience about her role, because she had failed to tell Clinton she was a reporter. And her book reveals another oddity -- that she had her digital recorder “stashed” in her bra during the interview. (She said she had her hands filled with cameras.)
Fowler concedes in her book that if anyone pressed her about whether the former president knew he was being recorded she would resort to Clinton- esque parsing. “I was holding my recorder visible in plain sight,” she resolved to tell anyone who asked.
I’m one of the reporters Fowler fed that line to and I suppose I should be miffed that she didn’t come clean about introducing lingerie-recording to presidential politics.
But it’s hard to work up much indignation or sympathy for a fuming, fulminating Bill Clinton. Politicians deserve some zone of privacy but, as OffTheBus editorial director Marc Cooper said to me this week, former presidents shouldn’t assume that extends to meetings with citizens at public events.
“Throw me in journalistic jail if I’m wrong,” Cooper added.
On her long sojourn around America, Fowler’s opinion of her big media counterparts swung sharply. She admired and sought the counsel of some reporters, yet would dismissively write that most of the national press “could care less about the average Joe.”
The writer, married to a successful corporate lawyer and with two daughters in graduate school, admits now that she at times sank into the sort of elitism she loathed in others. She complained she wasn’t getting enough attention from overseers at Huffington Post. Yet at the end of the campaign, the website treated her as a star, paying expenses that she said one month reached $15,000.
“I was becoming more than a prima donna,” Fowler writes, “in some surreal twist of circumstance I was turning into what I had once mocked.”
Almost two years removed from her first turn in the spotlight, Fowler is writing for her own website (mayhillfowler.com) and for the Huffington Post. When I asked, she honestly didn’t seem to have a clue whether anyone was buying her book. (She checked and found it had sold, at best, a few dozen copies.)
This weekend, she’s hobnobbing with tech and creative scenesters at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. She might tweet or blog a bit, if the spirit moves her.
“I’m just curious,” she said. “Hopefully, curiosity won’t kill the cat.”