Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The brave (and brutish) new world

There once was a time when presidential candidates could utter an awkward unscripted remark, or a crude joke, or a loaded phrase, and conceivably get away with it - particularly when the press was barred at the door.

But today, thanks to the democratization of technology, there is no place to hide. There are no private moments, even at an ostensibly private event such as a fundraiser in suburban San Francisco. There is no such thing as "off the record" anymore, because anything and everything shall be recorded and ruled admissable for use in the tumultuous public square.

Which brings us to the manner in which Barack Obama was outed for riffing so inartfully about the plight of small-town America. It's a classic example of how the political/media culture has been so profoundly altered during the first decade of the new century.

Amidst the political fallout, this issue has been largely overlooked. If you watched Meet the Press on Sunday, you might easily have assumed that Obama's words were transcribed the old-fashioned way, by reporters scribbling in notebooks or hoisting their digital recorders. As Tim Russert phrased it, "Obama went to a fundraiser in San Francisco, made some comments. They became public on Friday afternoon..."

But no. Obama was outed by a new breed of watchdog, the "citizen journalist," somebody without the traditional press credentials, in this case an Obama supporter named Mayhill Fowler. Unlike the working journalists, she had a ticket to the private fundraiser in Marin County. She also had an audio recorder. She also had a relationship with Off the Bus, a subsidiary of The Huffington Post, one of those blogosphere outlets where citizens can break news of their own without filtering it through the traditional media.

Fowler doesn't fit any of the old press categories. As journalism professor Jay Rosen, an Off the Bus founder, wrote the other day, Fowler "is a particular kind of Obama loyalist...the kind with a notebook, a tape recorder, friends in the campaign, a public platform of decent size, plus the faculty of critical intelligence." And her editor, Marc Cooper, wrote that Fowler "employs a highly personalized, reflective narrative style (that) almost violates all of the conventions of traditional reporting."

The faculty of critical intelligence, indeed. At the fundraiser, she heard Obama make some remarks that struck her as problematical or worse, so she posted a piece (screened by an editor) on Friday afternoon. It was a long, discursive exercise, with much of the news buried within. Yet in less than 48 hours, the political-fallout story was on page one of The New York Times. As Cooper puts it, "citizen journalism can do many, many things still inaccessible to the MSM (mainstream media). It's also quite a bit of fun to see how a report like hers can actually set the agenda for the entire national press."

So it's a brave new world - and arguably more brutish. Anybody who crosses a candidate's path is now a potential auteur with the power to rewrite the narrative of a campaign. We will long be debating whether this technological development is a boon to our civic dialogue - perhaps reinvogorating democracy by giving average citizens an enhanced opportunity to hold politicians accountable - or whether this is just the latest treacherous form of political blood sport, as well as one more reason why many sane and qualified public servants would prefer not to seek the presidency.

It's probably all of the above. Risks aside, it's indisputable, in this particular case, that Fowler latched onto a good story. Obama's poor phrasing suggested any number of things, none of them particularly complimentary to him - a tin ear, a desire to curry favor with an affluent California audience, cluelessness about the nuances of small-town life, or simply inexperience. And it's also worth noting that his initial response, early last weekend, was defiant, as if he couldn't grasp why his remarks were troublesome. All these factors are worthy of discussion, because many Americans are still scavenging for meaningful clues to the man's character - in part because he's still so new to the national scene.

The downside, of course, is the enhanced potential for brutish behavior among those who inevitably seek to exploit the information unearthed by citizen auteurs. Case in point, yesterday, was Connecticut Senator Joe McCarthy....excuse me, I meant to say Joe Lieberman. Asked by his friends on Fox News whether Obama's recent remarks suggest that he might be a Marxist, Lieberman replied: "Well, you know, I must say that’s a good question....I’d hesitate to say he’s a Marxist, but he’s got some positions that are far to the left of me and I think mainstream America."

With respect to our new YouTube culture, let's recall that one potential presidential candidate, Republican George Allen, was virtually destroyed in 2006 after an audience auteur, working for the opposition and armed with video, caught the Virginia senator uttering "macaca," a common slur word aimed at immigrants. Allen lost his Senate race in part because the state's burgeoning immigrant electorate perceived that his moment of spontaneity - as forever enshrined on YouTube - was a revealing clue to his true character, and they voted thumbs down. Barack Obama must now seek to ensure that New Media misadventure does not become a Macaca Moment.


Two undisputed Pennsylvania political gurus, Terry Madonna and Michael Young, now believe that Obama has screwed up, big time: "Obama's words are likely to do serious damage to his campaign in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania working class voters constitute about 40 percent of the Democratic vote. Obama's claim to understand and to identify with them has been dealt a serious blow after a largely successful two-week surge in the state. The Clinton campaign is already capitalizing on the controversy. It may be enough to propel her to that big victory that seemed so unlikely only a few days ago."

On the other hand, a new survey from the Quinnipiac pollsters shows Hillary Clinton up by only six points in Pennsylvania. Another, sponsored by Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times, has her up by only five. I suspect that Obama would be relieved to lose by either margin.


I had other thoughts about the Obama incident this morning on Philadelphia NPR, joined by David Paul Kuhn of Politico.com. The link is here.

I had yet other thoughts about the Obama incident while guesting last night on "The Charlie Rose Show," on PBS. The link is here. As well as here.