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CAMPAIGN '08: THE DEMOCRATS

'Citizen journalist' broke Obama story

Her online report on his remarks about small-town Americans put him -- and her -- into a tempest.

April 15, 2008|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

Mayhill Fowler grew up with a mother who didn't like her talking politics in the home. As an adult, she faced publishers who wouldn't put her writing in print.

She found an outlet for her twin passions of writing and politics last year on the liberal Huffington Post website.

Fowler concedes that her early reports from the Democratic presidential campaign trail didn't produce anything particularly newsworthy.

But that all changed Friday, when her report on Barack Obama's statements about small-town Americans -- that job losses cause them to become "bitter" and to "cling to guns or religion" or other views -- thrust the 61-year-old Oakland woman into a political storm that continued to rage Monday.

Her article caused his election opponents to charge him with elitism, and it exposed the neophyte "citizen journalist" to waves of vitriol.

The furor is the latest reminder of how untraditional reporters and news outlets have changed the nature of journalism and politics. Fowler, a contributor to Obama's campaign, gained access to an event deemed "closed" to mainstream journalists, and the resulting story forced big news outlets to take notice.

"We have entered new territory and the rules are not all clear," said Larry Pryor, a USC journalism professor. "You have to assume that everything is on the record. There's no getting around that anymore."

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.

She said she was concerned enough about the angry response to her story that she did not want to reveal exactly where she would be reporting in Pennsylvania in advance of next week's primary. Fowler does, however, intend to continue covering the race. "But with some caution," she said.

Fowler, who is married to a lawyer and has two daughters in graduate school, said she began writing at 50. She has written a thriller, a mystery novel and a nonfiction account of caring for her ailing mother-in-law -- all unpublished.

Then last year, the Huffington Post put out a call to its readers to become citizen journalists, covering the campaign for its new Off the Bus feature. Fowler became one of the project's more prolific contributors.

She attended the Pacific Heights fundraiser after asking an Obama official she knew for an invitation. Although the event had been designated "closed press" by the campaign, she said she openly recorded the candidate's remarks. Others videotaped the session, as evidenced by clips on YouTube.

Obama attempted to account for the many disappointments Midwesterners have experienced from the government. "You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them," he said, in just part of his lengthy response.

"And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Fowler said she thought the comment was condescending, even elitist. "I was thinking to myself, 'Oh my God, he is confirming to my fellow Californians the worst stereotypes they have of small-town America.' I was just dismayed."

But Fowler was not sure she would report the statements because, she said, she was not sure she could capture their proper context. Then, she said, Off the Bus project director Amanda Michel told her: "If you are going to be a journalist, you can't favor one candidate over another."

"I thought about that for a while," said Fowler. "But it took a while for me to apply it to myself and . . . to find a way to do [the story] the right way."

Huffington Post editors said they confirmed that Fowler had reported Obama's statements precisely and that their citizen reporter had conducted herself properly.

Marc Cooper, editorial director of Off the Bus, said he and others who reviewed the story were convinced that it was "ethically sound."

Obama campaign officials have not publicly criticized the story or complained about Fowler, who had given nearly the $2,300 maximum to his campaign for the Democratic nomination. They declined to comment Monday.

The story was reviewed up the website's editorial ladder all the way to founder Arianna Huffington. Vacationing on a yacht in Tahiti, Huffington gave her assent.

Critics doubted that Fowler really wanted Obama to be president, noting that she called Obama "vain" in one posting and, in another, accused him of "cockiness."

Fowler said she thought the candidate had made occasional missteps but she continued to admire him.

"I remember the day last June I said, 'My God, this man is the next president of the United States,' " Fowler said. "And I still believe that."

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

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