On April 11, sixty-year-old Mayhill Fowler sent a blog post to “Off the Bus,” a citizen journalism project of the Huffington Post. The post, among other things, reported remarks Barack Obama made at a private California fundraiser suggesting that small-towners in the Midwest are bitter at their economic state and turn to guns and religion and anti-immigrant sentiment out of frustration. The comments Fowler reported have since spawned questions about Obama’s attitude toward working-class Americans—and the semi-scandal now known as “BitterGate.” Jordan Michael Smith spoke with Fowler about her role in the controversy.
Jordan Michael Smith: Why did you go to the Obama fundraiser?
Mayhill Fowler: Just to enjoy myself. I had come back home for a few days, from following the Obama campaign around Pennsylvania. My husband and I had gone to other events—the ballet and the theatre—and this was one more vaguely pleasurable, somewhat boring event in that light. In fact, I almost didn’t take my tape recorder. I left my tape recorder upstairs and thought, ‘Oh, should I go back up and get it?’ I did go upstairs and get it, but that’s why when I went to the event.
JMS: Why did you record Obama’s words there?
MF: A lot of the things I go to I never write up. If there isn’t anything interesting to me, I don’t write it up. A lot of things just become background. I never in a million years thought there would be anything probative in this event, because I’ve been to a number of fundraisers, and except for a human interest/amusing kind of piece, there’s never anything newsworthy there. The idea that candidates huddle with donors and tell lots of secrets is some sort of paranoid fantasy, I just don’t think that’s true. But having followed Obama around, when he started speaking, I realized instantly that these were new sentences and phrases, so I started paying attention and recording it.
JMS: After the fundraiser, did you know you had a big story on your hands? That Obama had said something that could get him into a lot of trouble?
MF: I didn’t know if there any other traditional media or internet media people there. There was no way of knowing. When I was in the room, I was really taken back by what he said. And so on Monday night I went back and thought, ‘Did he really say what I thought he said?’ I went back and listened to it and sure enough he had. And at that moment I knew it was absolutely devastating. I showed it to my husband, and he thought it was nothing. And I sort of thought, well maybe my husband is right. But I also thought other people might think like me, might find it very offensive. If you read my piece, which few people have actually have, my criticism of the ‘bitter’ remarks occur in the context of, ‘Your whole campaign is about ending divisiveness in our political culture, bringing people together, you can’t just talk about one group of people to another in totally negative terms.’ I thought the piece was highly complimentary of Senator Obama.
JMS: Some critics have said this was a private affair and it was assumed supposed to be off the record.
MF: I followed the California Obama campaign since June at the grassroots and the fundraising level. They had never denied me any access, and it was not the first Obama fundraiser I had written about and covered for the Huffington Post. Also, I certainly knew that mainstream media are not allowed to contribute to political campaigns, in a direct way. But my experience in internet media has been: there are no rules. I’ve had to make them up myself. I’ve passed up a number of stories, feeling that they have been unethical to cover. There’s the code of the road for the traveling press, but they too are very naïve about the whole new dimension of the internet, of blogging, what it means to the media campaign.
I have a number of copies of the invitations to the four events that day. None of them say ‘closed to media.’ I’ve given this a lot of thought. I don’t think either the Obama campaign or I ever dreamed I would ever see or hear anything that would be newsworthy. If you go back to the first thing I wrote for the Huffington Post, it was very critical piece, about the head of the Obama campaign. But when I saw him after, he came up to me and said, ‘Oh you were hard on me.’ He came up and hugged me and threw his arms around me. It was in the context of, ‘She’s never going to see or hear anything important.’ I didn’t think so either. If I thought of myself as anything, it was as a political humorist.
JMS: Did you have any reservations about publishing the piece?
MF: Oh, yes. I had already told my East Coast editor Amanda Michel that there was more on the tape besides what I wrote immediately after, online. I told her there might be one more piece about what Obama had to say about Pennsylvania, and that it was pretty damning. We had a long conversation and she was talking about how if you’re really going to be a journalist, you have to be willing to report on what you see, what you hear, regardless of your political opinions. Already ‘Off the Bus’ had too many bloggers who are pro-Obama and therefore present everything from an Obama slant. And I thought about that for a while and at some point I realized on Monday that she was right. And on Tuesday, the piece was just in my head suddenly, I wasn’t thinking about it but the entire piece was suddenly there and at that moment I knew I was going to do it, and I had a sense of peace about it.
JMS: When did you realize the piece was having impact?
MF: Well. I thought Amanda was right but I knew the classic thing with news was to bury it on Friday. So I told Amanda, you can’t have it until Friday night. We ended up going for coffee together and we took a look at the statistics. By 2:30 there were 5,000-something hits. We came back two hours later and there had been 89,000 hits. And at 5:00 the Lou Dobbs show was yammering for me to be on the show.
JMS: Did you hear or pay any attention to the backlash against the piece?
MF: When I started posting on Huffington, I would read all my comments. I’m a very bossy person. You can throw out the ones you don’t want to be there, so I would do that. But once I started covering the campaign in Iowa, I just didn’t have time to read comments and since then, I haven’t read any. I’ve been too busy. There are over 5,000 comments so I wouldn’t even have the time. I had no idea, as I say, there had been a fatwa issued against me in the blogosphere.
I have a daughter who has my exact same name. She was easy to find because she’s a graduate student in Princeton. That’s been really hard. Plus another blogger who was furious about the piece had put out my email address. So I was getting hate email and eventually I got a couple of death threats. Now, there’s two things to say. First, there’s a lot of crazy people out there. Secondly, people figured, ‘Oh my god, what has she done?’ They love and have placed—rightly, I think—so much hope for the future in Senator Obama and people thought I had done that in. In the blogosphere people don’t think about what they do. I’m sure if I met a lot of these people, I’d like them. They’d be great, decent people.
JMS: How did you start writing for the Huffington Post?
MF: I was in the Middle East last spring, and when I got back, I wanted to keep up with the news there, and while I was at it, I thought the election was coming up. I got a mass mailing saying there was going to be this Obama canvas, this application online. I went, ‘What the hell’ and I went out to this canvas and I wrote 500 words and within a week I got a phone call from editor Amanda Michel. I was in the right place at the right time having had some training. I had always wanted to be a writer. For the last 10 years I have been perusing writing fairly assiduously. I’ve never had anything published, but almost published. Basically, I’d been honing the craft for over 10 years. I’d written a couple of books. I’ve never been interested in journalism in the least, that’s the funny thing. One was a thriller, one was a mystery, one was a book about nursing my mother-in-law until she died, and a lot of nonfiction pieces, and short stories.
JMS: Where do you want to go from here? Do you want to be a professional journalist?
MF: I don’t know how it’s going to be play out, I can’t even begin to speculate. I never thought I’d be getting a reputation as a political journalist. It’s been a very difficult past couple of days, yesterday such a low point because I’d become the bone that the media, like a pack of rabid wild dogs, were trying to fight over. Everyone wanted a piece of me. The only reason I’m doing this interview is because I thought, ‘Maybe there’s something someone can learn from this.’ I plan to cover all of election 2008, at this point I keep doing what I’ve been doing, cover it was as I planned. In July I plan to really bone up on John McCain so I can cover him. I have no idea who my persona is now and so to the extent that that has changed, I’ll have to see what that is, and then see what my options are. Now that I’m sixty, I realize that truth is very important, truth eventually prevails. I feel like it’s just pointless to be a partisan blogger—it doesn’t advance the knowledge of what’s really going on, which is really nuanced.