'The whole story came crashing down on me'
Everybody knew this time it would be different. The 2008 United States presidential elections are playing out in the glow of an internet that has come of age, and the impact was always certain to be profound.
Think back to the race just four years ago.
There was no YouTube in 2004. MySpace and Facebook were barely a year old. Websites that now feel as weathered as the hills, such as Politico and Talking Points Memo, did not exist. To twitter was to talk too quickly.
This time, Barack Obama has taken the fundraising and organising skills pioneered by Howard Dean on the web and elevated them to extraordinary heights. There has been an explosion of political videos and viral campaigning. But the most interesting changes have been beyond even a geek’s wildest dreams. For who on earth could possibly have dreamed up Mayhill Fowler?
She came bursting into the centre of the presidential primary race in April, when she broke the news that Obama had talked about the bitterness of working-class Pennsylvanians who “cling to guns or religion” and xenophobia as a way of coping. It was one of the seminal moments of the election so far, and one that is certain to be used by John McCain as ammunition in the battle ahead.
Then on June 2, just six weeks after she unleashed on the world what has come to be known as “bittergate”, lightning struck twice for Fowler. She broke the story that Bill Clinton had marked the final day of his wife’s campaign by ranting about the author of an unflattering Vanity Fair article about him. The words uttered by the former president—“sleazy”, “slimy” and “scumbag”—will surely be remembered long after the race is done.
So who is this phenomenon of the 2008 US election? For a start, she has next to nothing in common with the crowd of specialist reporters who have built careers around the political cycle. She has none of their formal training, is not steeped in journalistic ethics and makes no attempt to detach her political beliefs from her reporting. Nor does she enjoy the healthy salaries that top US political reporters can command. In fact, at the time she broke those two seminal stories she was paid precisely nothing by the news and comment website that she serves, the Huffington Post (another non-existent entity in 2004).
If she has little in common with traditional journalists, she is equally unrepresentative of the class of new media volunteers to which she belongs—citizen journalists as they are called. The stereotype of this group is male, young, urban and nerdy. Fowler is female, lives in the suburbs, tried for years to be a novelist and is 61.
This amateur journalist has become the figurehead of an army of volunteer reporters that has been set loose on this presidential race for the first time. It has shaken up political campaigns and rattled the traditional media that covers them in equal measure. And in the process, it has brought opprobrium down upon Fowler’s head, prompted cries of foul play and even provoked death threats against her.
Fowler is from Tennessee and has a southern pride and vocal drawl. Her family had deep political roots that she has traced back to the 1790s. Her grandfather, Watkins Overton, was mayor of Memphis for 14 years and she can remember campaigning with him when she was nine. Politics was always in her blood though her mother, whom Fowler describes as a “southern matriarch of the old school”, hated the subject and refused to have it discussed at dinner. “All my political DNA was submerged in my mother’s desire to have no truck with it,” Fowler says.
Writing, too, was always a passion. She recalls composing a play aged 13 when she was bed-ridden with the mumps. But then her attentions were deflected, to college in New York state, a postgraduate course in Berkeley, California, marriage and the birth of two daughters, whom she raised in Oakland, where she now lives. It was only when she was 48 that she had the chance to devote herself again to writing, and she did so with the tenacity of one held back from what they desire for many years. “I woke up and realised that I didn’t have the luxury to wait any longer,” she says.
For the next 12 years she spent five hours a day in her study, its big wooden table stacked high with books on Tennessee history. She wrote several novels. One was a thriller called Russia House, that featured the then vice-president Al Gore; another related the adventures of a high-school teenage girl. Latterly, she has written monographs about her mother’s descendants. In all those years she had not a single word published. It must have taken exceptional persistence, to be confronted by successive rejections from publishers and yet to keep on writing.
“Yes, I was persistent,” she says. “But with every project I did, I got carried along. It was a life in itself.”
In the summer of last year that life was overthrown. It started when she began to take an interest in the coming presidential elections. Her submerged political DNA was rising again. She began reading blogs that covered the race in depth, subscribing to the daily briefing from the Huffington Post, the highly influential news and comment site launched in 2005 by the Greek-born progressive millionaire Arianna Huffington.
The HuffPost, to give its diminutive, contacted her as one of its subscribers to invite her to take part in an experimental project in citizen journalism. The website asked her whether she was prepared to volunteer as an amateur reporter, monitoring the primary campaigns in her neighbourhood, specifically that of Obama. That chimed with her. Just a few weeks earlier she had been struck by the oratorical power of the senator for Illinois. She knew little about him until a friend sent her a link to a speech he had made to an evangelical church in southern California. She was transfixed. “It absolutely broke me down. Here for the first time was a Democratic candidate who understood what ordinary people were thinking. I knew then, this guy is the next president of the United States.”
So a year ago she signed up to the HuffPost‘s project, Off The Bus. She found it fascinating, and within days she was devoting most of her time to learning about the Obama campaign in Oakland and reporting on it for the website.
“It all happened so fast,” she says. Between June and December last year her involvement in Off The Bus grew ever deeper. At the same time, she became more and more engaged with supporting Obama, donating close to the legal maximum of $2 300 to his campaign.
After the primaries properly kicked off at the end of the year she flung herself into her new amateur role with vigour. She left Oakland on Boxing Day to report on the Iowa caucuses and, as she puts it, “I haven’t been home very much since.” Eighteen-hour days, with three or four hours sleep, took her from Iowa, back to California on Super Tuesday, and then to Nevada, Texas and Pennsylvania, filing reports for the website at every stop. The whole epic journey—flights, hotels, food—was paid for by herself, with the help of her property lawyer husband.
Ironically, she was back in Oakland on a break from the campaign trail in April when the first bolt of lightning struck. Though she was home for just the weekend, she couldn’t resist the chance of “popping in” to an Obama event in San Francisco. Her ambitions for the event could not have been more modest: “I thought there might be something there that might make part of a piece I wanted to write on Obama’s speeches, even if it ended up as a subordinate clause.”
Significantly, she gained access to the event only because she was a donor to the Obama campaign - journalists were not welcome. It was held in the library of a private mansion in Pacific Heights, with about 300 Obama supporters present. Obama made his fated remark in response to a question. It was unsurprising, he said, that neglected working-class communities in Pennsylvania “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them . . . to explain their frustrations”.
The speech was on Sunday. Fowler wrestled with her conscience for four whole days before she committed what she had heard to computer. It wasn’t so much that she had been in a donors-only event that worried her—there were so many others digitally recording Obama she felt comfortable about that—it was that the minute she replayed his words she knew that what he had said would be devastating for him. “I was really taken aback. As a southerner who grew up in much the same world as Pennsylvanians, I had been fighting for years against those stereotypes of bitterness that he appeared to be reinforcing.”
As a paid-up Obama supporter she was in conflict. She told Amanda Michel, Off the Bus’s director, that she had recorded some newsworthy comments from Obama, but refused to divulge what they were. Michel tried gently over the next four days to persuade her that she couldn’t filter her reporting to avoid hurting the Obama campaign.
“I told her that if she chose to withhold information because it might damage Obama, that put me in an impossible position as her editor,” Michel says.
Fowler later told the New York Times: “There are no standards on journalism on the internet. I’m always second-guessing myself. Is this the right thing to do? Am I being fair?” In the end she decided to do her journalistic duty and filed a long piece on Friday morning. She hoped the piece would be buried and ignored, and she tucked away the controversial remarks in the sixth paragraph of her report. She was delighted when she went into the HuffPost offices that afternoon to find it almost empty and reassuringly quiet.
But she underestimated the ferocious speed and tenacity of the internet. Within an hour of her piece being posted on April 11, Politico had spotted it, stripped out the offending paragraph, and slapped it at the top of its news agenda. From there it was picked up by the Drudge Report. The rest is history.
“It was like the deluge,” Fowler says. “The whole story came crashing down on me, and I was completely unprepared.”
She and her daughter, who shares her name, received hundreds of hate mails accusing Fowler of betraying the Obama cause. Forced to decide between loyalty to journalism and loyalty to him, she should have chosen the latter, they said. A couple threatened to kill her and one read: “You have wrecked the future of the free world.” Her street in Oakland was jammed with TV trucks and her house surrounded by mainstream reporters. “It was a lot to take in for someone who had been a private person for so many years,” she says.
It was a lot, too, to take in for those who had conceived Off the Bus and launched it with a budget of $200 000 for the duration of the election. The idea had emerged out of conversation between Huffington herself and Jay Rosen, a new media guru at New York University. Rosen has been a caustic critic of the cosy insiders’ relationship between political reporters and presidential candidates for the past 20 years, and was excited about the idea of using citizen journalism to challenge it. “As soon as we found the name Off the Bus it all fell in place. That was the whole idea—to get off the bus, get out of the old routine, start from a different place,” he says.
The two founders knew that the only thing they could expect was the unexpected. “We thought things would happen, but we didn’t know what,” says Huffington. “You might have thought it would be a young kid who would have made waves, and it turned out to be a 61-year-old woman who changed her life to follow Obama and Clinton around the country. But that was the whole point—to allow people not on the bus to have a voice.”
Fowler’s frenzied activity on the campaign trail is a tiny part of the Off the Bus experiment. Altogether, 2,500 volunteers have signed up. Within that group 300 are writers, and of those just 12, Fowler included, are regular columnists.
Under the direction of Michel, who cut her teeth as an internet organiser when she managed Generation Dean, Howard Dean’s 2004 youth outreach campaign, Off the Bus has applied its huge collective energy to go to places that traditional media cannot reach. It has been used to profile the super-delegates who held the balance of power in the Democratic race, review media bias towards McCain and, as of this week, track the progress of both the McCain and Obama campaigns in states across the country. Michel says the motives of the troops vary. “For some people it’s a passion, a hobby; for others a labour of love.”
But those involved with Off the Bus have entered uncharted territory, and lived with some painful consequences, not least Fowler. After the shock of bittergate, she threw herself back into 18-hour days on the campaign trail. “If it had been my choice I would have hoped to disappear from the public eye for good. This attention doesn’t suit my personality,” she says.
It was on the final day of primary campaigning that lightning struck for the second time. She was following the Clintons in South Dakota and being the last day, she wanted to see all three of them, Chelsea included. She caught Bill at three separate rallies. In Milbank she found herself on the rope line among a crowd of Clinton supporters as the former president came glad-handing.
He stretched out his hand to shake hers—presumably mistaking Fowler, with her neatly trimmed grey hair and middle American looks, for just another fan. She had intended to present him her business card in the hope of securing an interview with Hillary, but she dropped it, and in a mild panic asked him instead the first thing that came into her head: “Mr President, what do you think about that hatchet job somebody did on you in Vanity Fair?”
“He’s sleazy,” Clinton replied, referring to the author of the profile, Todd Purdum. “He’s a really dishonest reporter.” And he spouted on in similar bilious vein, gripping her tightly by the hand, for the next three minutes.
Fowler’s reporting of the incident prompted an apology from Clinton for inappropriate use of language. It also prompted another round of heated argument about Off the Bus and its ethical values. Some commentators from mainstream news outlets complained that Fowler had broken a cardinal rule by failing to introduce herself to Clinton as a journalist—a violation that would make it more difficult for all reporters to do their jobs. Others argued that her use of the phrase “hatchet job” was a leading question that lured Clinton into going off on one, though she insists she worded it in that way because she had read Vanity Fair and that’s what she thought of it.
But doubts remain. As Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor in Boston, puts it: “If a traditional news reporter had done what she did, there would have been a huge outcry. If ethical guidelines mean anything, I’m not sure why she should be exempt.”
The debate rages on over both the Fowler stories. They have raised big questions about the limits of the press. Where does the line now lie between public interest and individual privacy? They have thrown in the air the journalistic rule book, and nobody knows exactly what has landed. And they have brought to the surface huge issues about the interaction between traditional media and politics. Is the relationship an essential part of democracy, or a buddy system verging on the corrupt?
At least in the case of bittergate there has been resolution of sorts. Obama’s campaign has announced that, in future, all fundraising events will be open, accepting that it is no longer tenable in the digital age to operate behind closed doors.
As for Fowler, she’s gearing up for Obama vs McCain with plans to travel all over America for a ringside seat. HuffPost recently agreed to pay her a small stipend, though she’ll continue to fork out for all her flights. She plans to write a book about her escapades, partly to redeem her costs. It would be a miracle if her luck didn’t turn this time.
She says that, despite the knocks, it’s been an incredible few months. “Oh, the serendipity of life! I would never have expected to be doing this or to be finding it so gripping.”
But being the person that she is, she has no trouble keeping it all in perspective. “I’m going to be 62 this summer and I know what’s important. Being a mother, that’s important. Nursing your own mother until the day she died, that was important. Being a minor footnote in the 2008 election—that’s really not.” - guardian.co.uk