One of the most enduring criticisms of Citizen Journalism is that, because it is done by amateurs, it doesn’t have any editorial standards and is therefor not credible. I know from my own experience with The Uptake and Small World News, this is simply not true. At The Uptake, for instance, citizen journalists are subject to intense editorial guidance by fellow journalists and veteran, professional mentors, ranging from how to organize and coordinate a digital newsroom to how to maintain one’s journalistic integrity and ethical standards. Nevertheless critics of citizen journalism still have a few bad apples to hold up as examples. One of these is Mayhill Fowler, formerly with the Huffington Post‘s OffTheBus program.
Fowler was responsible for some of the 2008 campaign’s most serious and urgent policy debates, like "Does Barack Obama think some people in Pennsylvania are bitter?" and "Hey, I wonder what Bill Clinton thinks about that dude from Vanity Fair." In addition to these claims-to-fame being ridiculous and juvenile, both times she apparently violated journalistic ethics (although I’m much more open minded about the former than I am the latter). But beyond her ethical vertigo, she also has a propensity for violating one of the first and most obvious rules of citizen journalism: write what you know. She’s even proud of it, titling her book "Notes From a Clueless Journalist: Media, Bias and the Great Election of 2008."
Now, it’s never a good sign when the title of your own book says you have no idea what you’re talking about, and then lists a bunch of things you’re about to talk about. But let’s be honest, she’s really just an average hyperpartisan blogger, abusing the tools of new media and convinced that the mainstream media is bias purely because they won’t talk about blank, with blank usually being some obscure, ludicrous conspiracy theory. Think Michelle Malkin. As long as Fowler wants to blog about pathetic and weird topics like President Clinton’s sex life, we can just ignore her. People use the internet to peddle all manners of smut and garbage, who am I to tell her she can’t report on political gossip? But when Fowler turns her focus from gossip to serious policy, her flagrant idiocy ceases to be irrelevant and becomes not only deeply offensive, but very, very dangerous.
Fowler has done just that, crossing the line from gossipy blogger to citizen journalist covering the war in Afghanistan. She’s advocating for a radical policy like military aggression in Afghanistan and Pakistan in complete ignorance. And she admits it!
Let’s start at the beginning, on her blog:
Last Wednesday I interviewed eight of the ten Afghan women diplomats who had been invited by the State Department to Washington, D.C. for a four-day intensive training program at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia. I spoke with the women at the end of their visit, at the Homewood Suites in D.C. (I couldn’t help but think that the State Department had sequestered them there), shortly before their return to Kabul.
So far, so good. Talking with these diplomats would certainly be an interesting perspective to report. But then Fowler shows her clueless trademark:
Aside from language, the other intriguing element of the group, which also I was unable to plumb to my satisfaction, was the ethnic diversity. Two of the women were Hazara; two may have been Tajik. One was more Chinese Uighur than anything else. I had not known that there is such diversity, even at the lower levels where these women work, in the government ministries in Kabul.
Yes, believe it or not, Afghan is not an ethnicity, but is in fact a nationality. Afghans can be from any number of ethnic groups, ain’t that something? I suppose if you’re going to advocate for violent foreign intervention into a multi-dimensional civil war, knowing that there is more than one kind of ethnic identity going on there might be a high priority. Not for Fowler! I’d love to know what grounds she was speculating on. "May have" been Tajik? More "Chinese Uighur" than anything else? How does Fowler judge this? And is the Uighur from China or Afghanistan? Nevermind, let’s just see what her interview with these variegated wonders yielded:
"But we hope that it’s a big concern for the people of America and mostly when I talk with people in Afghanistan, when we talk [about] U.S. troops and international troops leave Afghanistan, what will be done? What will be done? It is a big concern for our people. We do not want to experience it one times more. In terms of human rights, minority rights, women’s rights, we don’t want to lose it."
"This is all our individual–" The translator broke in. Several women nodded.
"That’s what I was asking," I [Mayhill Fowler] said.
"Our individual ideas–"
"Do you have a Plan B?"
"Most of the people of Afghanistan are very poor, so–"
"You’re not poor," I pointed out. It seemed logical to me that a woman who was stepping forward on behalf of the promise of women’s rights in Afghanistan would have a personal Plan B.
The translator interrupted, with some fierceness. "No, we do not have any specific plan, because we hope"–her voice rising–"we are optimistic, something won’t be done like this [an American withdrawal]. We don’t want, we are afraid, we don’t want to experience one times more." Her tone said PERIOD. "Thank. You."
That seems pretty devastating if you care about women’s rights at all. How could we withdraw from Afghanistan and abandon these poor women? But let’s look at the context of these statements, and compare them with another set of Afghan interviews, as reported by Gareth Porter:
WASHINGTON, Apr 18, 2010 (IPS) – An opinion survey of Afghanistan’s Kandahar province funded by the U.S. Army has revealed that 94 percent of respondents support negotiating with the Taliban over military confrontation with the insurgent group and 85 percent regard the Taliban as "our Afghan brothers".
The survey, conducted by a private U.S. contractor last December, covered Kandahar City and other districts in the province into which Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal is planning to introduce more troops in the biggest operation of the entire war. Those districts include Arghandab, Zhari, rural Kandahar and Panjwayi.
Afghan interviewers conducted the survey only in areas which were not under Taliban control.
So what we have here is two sets of data-
- 94% of Afghans, ostensibly under "democratic" Kabul government control, interviewed by Afghans, want peace talks with the Taliban instead of the bloody and expensive American assault.
- 100% of wealthy, elite, Western-backed Afghan diplomats on a State Department visit to Washington, DC, interviewed by an American journalist, agree with the US propaganda on women’s rights and want more war.
Hmm. If you were any other self-respecting citizen journalist, or even just a concerned citizen looking for reliable news, you might think to check your soundbites from official sources against actual, empirical data. But we’re talking about Mayhill Fowler here, the self-proclaimed Clueless Journalist. She can’t be bothered to screen her own work for government propaganda on women’s rights. And she’s had plenty of time to do some research, she’s been prognosticating about foreign policy for a while. She wrote this last fall:
What would happen if we pulled out of Afghanistan? The proxy war between India and Pakistan there would go on. India would continue with its money and construction teams for buildings and roads to support Kabul. Helping the countryside insurgencies, Pakistan would continue to supply the Afghan Taliban. Afghanistan would settle into what it has always been: a geography of tribal loyalties and rivalries punctuated by the occasional city-state (Kabul, Kandahar, Herat) that historically has never wielded much power beyond its walls. Possibly, China would encroach, pushing over its short Afghan border, both to protect its considerable copper interests in Afghanistan and to counter Indian influence to the South. Over time, Iran would move, bringing Persian Herat into its sphere. From an American point of view, could we not live with these consequences? Yes, our prestige as a great power would take a considerable hit — but that happened when we withdrew from Vietnam, and yet we survived. Meanwhile we would not be expending blood and treasure on a people who do not want us in their midst.
Here is the problem with that scenario. Pakistan. A large country with explosive growth — already the second-largest Muslim population in the world — that teeters on the verge of violent political change. If Pakistan falls to fundamentalist Islamic forces, then American national security is threatened.
India and Pakistan? That’s happening now. ISI supporting terrorists? Happening now. Rivalries between city-states? Check. So basically that reads as "What would happen if we pulled out of Afghanistan? Nothing!" But then she truly takes us into crazy land. Iranians taking Herat? Chinese copper wars? And America would lose prestige not for committing an outrageous act of aggression, but for ending it?! What the hell is she talking about? And what’s with the weird racism about Pakistan being "already the second-largest" Muslim country, like that’s some sort of ominous Rubicon crossing? Oh noes, so many Muslims, we should be bombing them! Well, that’s our Mayhill!
Oops. It’s a little harder to press for horrific military assaults in the name of women’s rights once you actually see the Kafkaesque brutality Afghan women undergo as a direct result of the US invasion. But again, this is Mayhill Fowler, so we’re looking at maximum ignorance. She doesn’t care that these diplomats are regurgitating pan-administration White House talking points, she cares about making her point.
Despite this, politicians, military leaders, and sadly even some misguided American feminist groups continue to use the plight of women in Afghanistan to justify more spending, more troops and more war. People who care for the people of Afghanistan have got to see this for what it is. Women never benefit from bombs and bullets.
And that cuts directly to the point of why Mayhill Fowler’s reporting is so dangerous. She’s no longer writing about nonsense like "bittergate" and sleazy gossip about President Clinton, she’s talking about killing human beings. It’s outrageous that she would use her position as a citizen journalism to push for violence against other countries. These are real people whose lives are unimaginably devastated every single day this war goes on. They are not our pawns in some imperialist masturbatory fantasy about Chinese copper wars and Iranian colonialism.
Obviously I have no problem with citizen journalists reporting on the war on Afghanistan, and certainly I don’t have a problem with her taking a side on the issue. But she clearly has no earthly idea what she’s talking about. She didn’t know Afghanistan was diverse? She didn’t know these diplomats would give her talking points? She didn’t know the gruesome war she finds so necessary for freedom and human rights is actually obliterating entire generations of Afghan families? That’s not clueless, that’s a monster.
Had enough? Join us on Rethink Afghanistan’s Facebook Page and link up with the tens of thousands of others actually working to help the women of Afghanistan by bringing this war to an end.