Dotcom Journalists


Case studies in new ethical challenges in online journalism

‘Bittergate’: Is there such a thing as off the record?

By Jasmine Linabary, Dotcom Journalists

Mayhill Fowler, 61, was much like the others at an invite-only fundraiser for presidential candidate Barack Obama in April 2008 in San Francisco – she was an avid support living in the Bay Area, having contributed nearly the maximum allowed, $2,300, and was holding a recorder. What made her different was that she was also a citizen journalist – a regular contributor to OffTheBus, a blog maintained by a network of 1,800 writers created by the Huffington Post to cover the the campaign (Seelye, 2008).

Fowler had secured an invite to the event because she was known to many mid-level finance officers in the campaign from her contributions (Rosen, 2008). The New York Times reported that she had not initially been invited but asked a friend if she could go and was put on the list for the last of four campaign events, a fundraiser event at a mansion in Pacific Heights. Her active contributions to OffTheBus where also well known, as she had previously written about other fundraiser events of both the Hillary Clinton and Obama campaigns (Rosen).

The fundraiser was closed to the press and Fowler was not labeled as a citizen journalist, but neither were there specifications not to blog about the event or conditions attached to the invitation (Rosen). More than 350 people were in attendance that day in California, many recording Obama’s speech using cell phones, small video cameras and flips. Even though it was a “closed-door fundraiser”, Fowler said there was an assumption that since there was an open use of recorders and an invitation to a known citizen journalist that the event was blogable (Rosen).

Fowler held her recorder out openly as Obama spoke. Initially, she recognized that he was giving his “stump” speech, one that she had heard on several occasions before, and contemplated leaving. She stayed, hoping to catch something new. And she did.

A man in the crowd said he was going to Pennsylvania that week to knock on doors for the campaign and asked what he should expect and know before he arrived. Obama had recently been through Pennsylvania on part of his “Road to Change” bus tour, his first visit to the state and its people (Fowler, 2008).

Obama started by giving talking points Fowler recognized as his typical speech about the working class, but then he switched gears:

“You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them,” Obama said. “And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations” (Fowler).

It was the last part of that statement that rubbed Fowler the wrong way. Fowler was dismayed that Obama was confirming to wealthier Californians stereotypes of the working class and thought his comments showed bad judgment and elitist tendencies, she later said.

After the event, she was conflicted. She feared that reporting on the comments could lead to a media frenzy or be distorted and used against Obama. He had made other news during the speech about the kind of person he would pick for vice president and that he had been to Pakistan before during college. These comments Fowler posted the next day.

She thought about what to do about the comments for several days and eventually, after a conversation with project director Amanda Michel, decided it was part of her duty in covering the campaign to report on them. This was not the first time Fowler had been critical of the campaign or Obama, as her previous posts on OffTheBus had demonstrated (Rosen).

She wrote the post in a half an hour and unlike her previous posts about this fundraiser which had been in more of a hard news style, she wrote this one in a ruminating style that she would later be known by (Seelye). Fowler was concerned about contextualizing the quotes. She started the post on the campaign trail in Pennsylvania and the quotes appeared late in the story, not the way a traditional journalist would have written it, but a traditional journalist wouldn’t have gotten the story either, Rosen later wrote.

Four days later, her post “No Surprise that Hard Pressed Pennsylvanians Turn Bitter” appeared online. Fowler thought posting it on a Friday would mean less people would see it. This did not turn out to be the case.

The post drew 250,000 page views and 5,000 comments within 48 hours (Rosen). The story was picked up by AP, Reuters, and national newspapers and was the top story on Google News for a day (Rosen). The blogosphere also reacted.

The incident came to be known as “Bittergate.” Obama would soon have to justify his comments publically and Clinton responded to them, hoping they would help her in the polls against him in Pennsylvania a little over a week later. This tipped off a debate in the campaigns about the Second Amendment (Seelye).

Fowler said the Obama campaign never contested her right to report on what happened or its accuracy, though the New York Times reported that the person who sent her an invite called her after the incident and said fundraisers are always off the record. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said that while the event was closed to traditional media, it was not off the record. He said there’s an expectation now that even at private events everything will be recorded and posted (Garofoli).

Fowler was debated both as an Obama supporter and a journalist. Other supporters doubted her support for Obama, accused her of damaging his campaign and suggested she was actually a Clinton supporter (Seelye).

The heated question in journalistic circles became over whether citizen journalists have the same responsibilities as journalists or simply rights as citizens (Rosen).

Some, like Michael Tomasky at the Guardian, argued that citizen journalists ought to have a responsibility, same as journalists, to seek followup and clarification and that there should be some rules that need to be followed in reporting.

Others like Jeff Jarvis, blogger and associated professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, suggested that citizens are less beholden than journalists and that that’s a good thing.

Marc Cooper, editorial director of OffTheBus, defended Fowler on his personal blog, highlighting that the conversation should have been directed at the political implications of what Obama said rather than attacks at the reporter, or blogger, who broke the story.

Clinton ended up beating Obama in the Pennsylvania primaries, but Obama went on to take the presidential nomination for the party and eventually the White House and Fowler continued to cover his trail.


Works cited

Cooper, Marc. (2008, April 16). Closed to press — not off the record. Retrieved Feb. 12, 2009, from

Fowler, M. (2008, April 11). Obama: No surprise that hard-pressed Pennsylvanians turn bitter. Huffington Post’s OfftheBus. Retrieved Feb. 12, 2009, from

Garofoli, J. (2008, April 16). Blogger at fundraiser part of new journalism. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved Feb. 12, 2009, from

Jarvis, J. (2008, April 17). Journalism as a control point. Buzz Machine. Retrieved Feb. 12, 2009, from

Rosen, J. (2008, April 15). From Off the Bus to Meet the Press. PressThink. Retrieved Feb. 12, 2009, from

Seelye, K. (2008, April 14). Blogger is surprised by uproar over Obama story, but not bitter. New York Times. Retrieved Feb. 12, 2009, from

Tomasky, M. (2008, April 15). Citizen-journalism’s rulebook. Comment is free. Retrieved Feb. 12, 2009, from


Filed under: Online Journalism Ethics, , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses

  1. […] Keeping Stock added an interesting post today on ‘Bittergate’: Is there such a thing as off the record?Here’s a small readingFowler had secured an invite to the event because she was known to many mid-level Bfinance/B officers in the campaign from her contributions… […]

  2. Ginny says:

    Wow. Great sourcing on this one.

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