Four years ago it was another presidential fundraiser and another secret recording. Candidate Barack Obama thought he was speaking privately to a group of Democratic funders at a function that was closed to the press. And he was. But one of those funders was a double.
Her name was Mayhill Fowler, and although she had given thousands of dollars to the Obama campaign, she was also a citizen blogger working for the Huffington Post. When she heard Obama say that people under stress tended to cling to their religion and their guns, she had a big story. Soon, Obama's comments at a private fundraiser in San Francisco were being flashed around the world.
His words became a story because Fowler was able to enter that room as a funder but leave it as a journalist. The distinction troubled a few people at the time, but not many and not for long. Obama's campaign didn't try to deny what he'd said or raise a stink about the state of journalistic ethics at the Huffington Post. So the coverage focused on Obama's comments and not on how the media got their hands on them.
Today's story is similar. The candidate is Mitt Romney instead of Obama, the funders are Republicans instead of Democrats, the media organization is Mother Jones instead of the Huffington Post. And instead of Mayhill Fowler, we have ... who? Mother Jones won't say who leaked the video, but it appears to have been shot by someone who needed to keep his head down and couldn't afford to be picky about camera angles. And as Obama did four years ago, Romney is accepting responsibility for his comments.
But what about the rest of us? Are we willing to accept the responsibility for what we're helping to create?
We love stories like these. As consumers, we love to read and listen to them. As journalists, we love to cover the controversies that result from them. Will this be the gaffe that decides the election? Details at 10.
If anybody is troubled by the feeling that they're eavesdropping on what was supposed to be a private meeting, media observers are quick to point out that there is no such thing as a private meeting anymore. Not during a national campaign. The candidates should know better.
And sure, they probably should know better. Saying that, though, lets journalists off the hook. Are we really willing to misrepresent ourselves to get a story? Do we have no problem at all with bugging a meeting room? And if we're willing to do that, what's to stop us from hacking into somebody's phone?
After Obama was elected, I met the editor who worked with Mayhill Fowler on the God-and-guns story. He spoke proudly and colorfully about the role he'd played — not only in breaking a huge story, but in helping tear down the wall between citizen journalism and regular journalism. I could quote him here, but he wasn't speaking for publication. I'd be taking him out of context. It wouldn't be right.