Mayhill Fowler and “Acting Independently”

A few weeks ago in my Independent Media class we discussed how one issue with bloggers is lack of credentials: some bloggers struggle with being blocked from, say, a closed city hall session because they aren’t defined as “press.”

However, there is also a flip-side: some ordinary citizens can gain access to places where the media is not allowed to go. We saw this in the 2008 election when a “citizen journalist” who worked for the Huffington Post’s “Off the Bus” coverage recorded Barack Obama’s comments about how “bitter” small-town Americans “cling to guns or religion.” The controversial statement was made in an event that was “closed” to the press; however, the blogger was allowed access because she was not a part of the mainstream press.

After reporting on the statement, mainstream news outlets picked up the story and it caused a lot of controversy—almost derailing Obama’s campaign. After releasing the story, the blogger, Mayhill Fowler, received hundreds of angry emails from Pro-Obama supporters, some including death threats, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. 

What is interesting about it is that Fowler was an Obama supporter—and remained an Obama supporter throughout the whole incident. Unlike the people accusing her via email of trying to smear Obama, Fowler had been actively transparent in admitting her support for him. Fowler even was hesitant to publish the story, she said, because she didn’t want to quote him out of context (which is why she made the decision to publish the whole transcript along with the article—one great advantage of online journalism is you can’t ever run out of column space.)

According to the Los Angeles Times article I linked to above, Fowler’s project manager Amanda Michel gave her this advice: “‘If you are going to be a journalist, you can’t favor one candidate over another.'” It’s advice straight out of the SPJ code of ethics: “Act Independently.” This case is also an example of how transparency shouldn’t effect journalists’ objectivity (see my last blog post about objectivity). If a political leader is being a hypocrite, that is exactly what the public needs to know, despite one’s political alignment, and Fowler is a good example of bias not getting in the way of objectivity. It’s what separates journalism from activism, and I think even though online independent media in some ways is merging those two, that distinction of challenging leaders and holding them accountable despite one’s advocacy for certain political or social issues is an important one to draw.

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