Friday, June 06, 2008

How Mayhill Fowler got online scoops on Obama and Bill Clinton

Fowler, an amateur Web journalist for the Huffington Post, recorded two of the bigger campaign stories this season. She credits her persistence, some luck, and not following the old rules.


By James Rainey
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
June 6, 2008

Tim Russert, Katie Couric or Larry King eventually may deliver knockouts of their own, but score Round 1 in the contest to extract the most provocative presidential campaign quotes to . . . Mayhill Fowler?

The 61-year-old, self-described "failed writer" and amateur Web journalist helped create two of the most unexpected moments in the 2008 election so far -- most recently on Monday when she recorded former President Clinton's fiery denunciation ("slimy," "dishonest") of Vanity Fair writer Todd Purdum.

That scoop came six weeks after Fowler rocked the Democratic race for president by reporting (from a "closed press" fundraiser in San Francisco) Barack Obama's now infamous critique of "bitter" small-town Americans, who "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them."

The latest incident cemented Fowler's place as the unlikely face of the new media renaissance that is remaking presidential campaigns. Online videos can dominate the evening news. An unpublished novelist "with absolutely no journalism training whatsoever" can remake the national political debate.

In her first interview on President Clinton's explosion, Fowler attributed her success to persistence, serendipity and an acknowledged flouting of the old rules of mainstream journalism.

"Of course he had no idea I was a journalist," Fowler said by phone from her Oakland, Calif., home, recalling her close encounter with Clinton as a "citizen journalist" for the Huffington Post website. "He just thought we were all average, ordinary Americans who had come out to see him. And, of course, in one sense, that is what I am."

Fowler said she felt empathy for Clinton before and after he shattered the "elegiac" final hours of Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign with his furious statements about the Vanity Fair article and what he called the extreme bias of the news media.

"He is exhausted. It's the end of the road. He realizes it might be his last day campaigning," Fowler said in explaining Clinton's three-minute eruption. "He does not have the impulse control he once had. And, at that time at least, he still could not understand or appreciate why Barack Obama is so popular."

The Clinton swing through South Dakota before one of the last primaries began like many others for Fowler -- with long days scrambling to chase the campaign bus in her rent-a-car and prolonged nights filing dispatches "in my pajamas and pashmina in the business center of some Hilton Garden Inn."

She was on hand when Clinton addressed several hundred voters in Milbank, where he waxed about what he said "may be the last day I'm ever involved in a campaign of this kind."

Fowler left after the rally, only turning back on the long-shot hope that she might be able to slip the former president her business card and request an interview with Hillary Clinton, who was just days away from ending her campaign.

In the jostling crowd surrounding Clinton, however, Fowler dropped the business card. She only managed a handshake and went blank -- her mind suddenly empty of any worthwhile question.

"I missed my moment," Fowler thought, discouraged. But Clinton, ever the ebullient retail politician, reached out a second time. Fowler's mind flashed to the Vanity Fair profile she had just read, which accused Clinton of dirtying his legacy by running with unsavory friends and business associates.

"Mr. President," Fowler asked, "what do you think of that hatchet job somebody did on you in Vanity Fair?" She would say later the question represented her true feelings, even if it lacked the dispassion of mainstream journalism.

A tape of the incident has Clinton describing the magazine piece with escalating anger, even as admirers seemed to grow uncomfortable and tried to steer the conversation to lighter ground.

Fowler, at one point, interjected that Purdum, the author, is married to one-time Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers. Clinton retorted: "Yeah, that's all right. He's still a scumbag."

A man on the rope line tried to distract Clinton with a personal appeal. "I grew up in Hope, too," the fan said, laughing hopefully. "Hope, North Dakota."

Clinton wouldn't be distracted. He continued on about the magazine and Purdum, "Lemme tell you, he's one, he's one of the guys who propagated all those lies . . ." and about "the most rigged press coverage in modern history."

Clinton ended the screed by assuring, unpersuasively: "It didn't bother me. It shouldn't bother you."

Fowler captured the whole thing on her candy-bar-sized digital recorder. She rushed to download the audio to Huffington Post, slowed on her way to her hotel only by a state trooper in front of her who insisted on "going 78. I would have been going a lot faster than that."

Minutes after the news went online, calls began to pour in from "the ravenous beast" of cable television, as Fowler called it. Producers for Keith Olbermann and Anderson Cooper hoped for exclusives.

Jay Carson, a Clinton spokesman, noted that traditional reporters would have identified themselves before asking a question. But politicians, he agreed, now must recognize that "everything is on the record and will be on YouTube in two seconds."

"In the past, journalists would have three, four or eight hours to reflect about whether something really was newsworthy and to put it in context," Carson added. "I think that removes some of the necessary reflection time. But, it is what it is."

Although Fowler's fame has been earned with a pair of "gotcha" moments, she hopes more readers will discover the long essays from the campaign trail that are her specialty -- extended ruminations on the state of politics, chock full of the kind of ordinary Americans she grew up with in Tennessee. (One grandfather was the long-time mayor of Memphis.)

She has spent about a year reporting from the field for the Huffington Post's "Off the Bus" project, which was designed to offer outsiders the chance to write about the candidates and their campaigns.

Fowler had no interest in blogs but wanted to find an audience for her writing, which began to take shape when she earned a master's degree in English at UC Berkeley. (That followed a bachelor's degree at Vassar.)

She had become excited about Obama, so filed her first dispatches from campaign stops of the senator from Illinois. Unlike traditional journalists, who try to shroud their political preferences, she openly reported her preference for Obama (even as she occasionally tweaked him for arrogance or elitism).

Some Obama supporters became so angry over her posting of the "bitter" comments and the problems that were created that they accused Fowler of being a Clinton operative. She received hundreds of angry e-mails and, she says, a couple of death threats.

Nonetheless, she said she will "certainly" vote for Obama in November, even though she now sees him as more flawed, like all candidates. "I don't think I'm dazzled any more."

And fair warning to another candidate who might soon discover a tiny, unassuming woman waiting with a question on the rope line. "Next," Fowler said. "I'm going out with McCain."