IT’S NOT TRUE THAT THE INTERNET has changed everything, and one thing it surely hasn’t changed is the disposition of True Believers of the Right and Left toward the media — neither group much liked the Old Media — always ready to blame them for not giving their failing pet causes and candidates what they believed to be a fair shake. So why would anyone think blind-faith followers would have any more benign a view of the New Media?
So what if the Web offers greater participation by ordinary people, expands the flow of information horizontally instead of vertically, erodes the unilateral power of elite gatekeepers and radically democratizes information? Nope. We don’t want any of that goo-goo if it means we’re going to have to hear or read things we don’t like.
We got a vivid example of that sort of backlash this week, when all sorts of reactionaries — and I mean that in the quite fundamentalist sense — piled up on one Mayhill Fowler, a 61-year-old writer who has the temerity to call herself a “citizen journalist” and who broke the now-infamous Obama “Bittergate” story. After she recorded Obama’s remarks at a Bay Area fund-raiser that was closed to the traditional press, her story was posted on OffTheBus, a citizen-reporting Web site I help edit on the Huffington Post. From there, it mushroomed out into the rest of the national media and smack-dab into the center of the presidential race.
Didn’t matter, by the way, that Fowler was an Obama supporter and donor. The moment she published anything even slightly critical of him, she was publicly tarred (by self-proclaimed progressives, no less) as an agent for Hillary, a McCain operative, a Fred Thompson plant. These same liberal voices attacked her for not being a credentialed reporter, for not playing by some artificial rules set up by campaign staff, for violating some imaginary ground rules that were never and could have never been established in an event attended by 400 people — many of them armed with digicams, cell-phone cams and — like Mayhill — digital voice recorders.
Needless to say, these same critics who so ruthlessly trashed Fowler would have been no less than ecstatic and laudatory if she had committed the same sort of act of journalism against a John McCain or a George Bush. If that had happened, they would have been yammering all day and night about the wonders of citizen reporting instead of damning it.
Fowler, of course, broke absolutely no rules. Not only was she invited into the Obama event by a campaign staffer, she did only what anyone else there could have done (and we found later that some did): She posted what she experienced. Video blogger Dan Manatt put this all in the proper context, writing on TechPresident.com that campaign managers should remind candidates of what he called their “digital Miranda rights”:
“You have the right to be recorded — and should expect you are being videotaped and recorded 24/7. Anything you say can and will be used against you by your opponents. Beware that something that sounds OK in one setting may be a gaffe in another setting.”
The healthiest response to last week’s political/media melodrama came, rather ironically, from the Obama campaign itself. The candidate calmly and assuredly explained — again and again — the fuller context of his mangled remarks about God, guns and embittered small towns. And on Tuesday, a tad belatedly but quite significantly, Obama’s campaign spokesman Bill Burton said publicly that while the San Francisco fund-raiser was closed to traditional media, it was not off the record. “Burton said there’s an expectation now — even at private events — that everything will be recorded and posted,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle. Indeed. He’s got that clear — much clearer than some of the campaign’s more zealous grassroots cyber-bombardiers.
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Obama’s mature response also sharply contrasted with those of his two increasingly hard-to-distinguish opponents. Unable to contain her enthusiasm toward Obama’s troubles, the $109 million Hillary Clinton sweetly strutted into a local bar, called in the cameras, swilled some cheap, blended whiskey and reminisced about her childhood shooting at ducks and, presumably, drag-racing hot-wired Chevys.
Meanwhile, John McCain — son of a U.S. Navy admiral and husband of the heiress to and chairwoman of a $300-million-a-year Anheuser-Busch subsidiary — took the occasion to sanctimoniously sputter and putter across the national stage to offer his own condemnations of elitism. Hey, look up Little Guy in the dictionary, and there’s a picture of Johnny Mack — and his daddy’s fleet.
Only in America, folks. Just as the DailyKos’ers and the other cyber-bullies used the Web to denounce a Web reporter who published some uncomfortable words, two of the most elite figures in national politics shimmied and fulminated about the supposed snobbery of a black man, raised by a single white mom, who worked his way into Harvard and into a national candidacy.
As the dust settled this week, the scorecard came in. As we write, post-Bittergate, the Gallup daily tracking poll shows Obama ahead of Clinton nationally by a solid 10 points. And Obama besting McCain in a theoretical matchup by at least five points. Who’s bitter now?