Friday, 15 March 2013

The rising impact of citizen journalism; why at least 47% of the population should be like Scott Prouty

Scott Prouty, the man behind Mitt Romney's 47% video,
 on MSNBC's The Ed Show, March 14th 2013
If pressed to identify just one of what proved to be an array of pivotal moments during the 2012 Presidential Election season, many would find it difficult to overlook Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s now-infamous remarks at a May 2012 private fundraiser. Speaking at a $50,000-per-plate dinner event in Boca Raton, FL, Romney was secretly videotaped claiming “it was not his job to worry about the 47% of Americans who pay no income tax and believe that they are victims.” You can see the quote below, or watch the full video on YouTube.

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. These are people who pay no income tax.... My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. - Mitt Romney at the Florida fundraiser, May 2012. Source: New York Times

That Mr Romney was speaking off-the-record at a private event did not stop his comments from being recorded by an unidentified onlooker, and when the footage was published online by magazine Mother Jones on September 17th it spread like wildfire around the internet and the nation’s major media outlets. This week, the previously unknown identity of the individual responsible for the “47 percent” video was revealed as Scott Prouty, a Boston-born registered Independent voter who was working behind the bar at Romney’s Florida fundraiser.

Speaking exclusively to MSNBC’s Ed Schultz, Prouty described himself as a “blue-collar, regular, middle class, hard-working guy, with a good moral compass and a core."

“I felt an obligation, for all the people who couldn’t afford to be there”, he told Schultz. Stating that the American voter “shouldn’t have to pay $50,000 to hear what a candidate really thinks”, Prouty made it clear that he feels there is a lack of transparency surrounding modern politics. 

Romney would later go on to brand his "47%" comments
"just completely wrong"
It’s not the first time that a politician has come unstuck by knowingly or unknowingly confusing on-the-record and off-the-record. In 2008, whilst still at this point a Presidential candidate, Barack Obama at his own San Francisco private fundraiser accused small-town voters of “clinging to guns and religion.” In the same year, former President Bill Clinton mistook Huffington Post blogger Mayhill Fowler for an unassuming bystander before launching into a profanity-ridden tirade in opposition to a Vanity Fair article written about his family. Yet, what we can learn from Prouty’s decision to involve himself in ‘citizen journalism’, is that the process is continuing to have a growing effect on the bigger picture.

Whilst there is an argument to be made that Romney's comments were blown out of proportion (or reported only partially), and not ignoring that most Presidential candidates do receive between 47 and 53 percent of the popular vote, Prouty's observation that Romney's closest thoughts were only shared with those wealthy enough to be in his presence that evening, spoke volumes to voters about the circles in which Romney seemed most comfortable.

In an election cycle where he was constantly criticised for being out-of-touch, the gaffe was a damning blow for the Romney campaign in the area where they already faced the largest amount of scrutiny,  and it was this that stuck most strongly with the voters.

The ever-reliable Nate Silver noted how in the week following the video’s surfacing, Obama was able to increase his advantage over Romney in the polls from 4.1% to 5.7%, and amongst the various peaks and troughs for both men last year, it is fair to say that Mr Romney’s comments strongly resonated with both Democrats and Republicans alike; he was branded “arrogant and stupid” and as “an incompetent, rolling calamity” by individuals sharing his own political alignment. 

Today, we find ourselves in an age of sleepless media consumption and production, with its boundaries always expanding. Our culture seems to absorb its news through YouTube clips, 140-character tweets, short blog posts and user-based websites. Add this to fact that it’s never been easier for anyone to create, report, comment on, or even in cases like Prouty’s, break news, the power of the citizen has never been stronger. 

Besides the covert nature of Prouty's behaviour, we can also look back to May 2011, when Sohaib Athair (@ReallyVirtual on Twitter) unknowingly gave live updates of the U.S. operation to kill Osama Bin Laden. A normal, everyday citizen of Abbottobad, Pakistan, Athair was informing the entire world of what was happening, before major outlet reporters and conventional journalists were even aware of a story. In this respect, citizen journalism as well as uncovering hidden truths, can also allow the news to reach the world quickly, more effectively, and in the Bin Laden case, without hyperbole or framing. 

Citizen journalism is not without its critics, and many have contended that ‘@YourAverageJoe’ is not professionally qualified to report on news, nor is he necessarily objective or accurate. There is also the threat of the spread of misinformation, an issue which manifests itself in every modern crisis. We only have to look back as recently as the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings to see the droves of ill-informed 140-character outbursts, retweeted around the world without second thought because of the immediate fear and panic. When this happens, it only takes one reporter or news account to retweet or even acknowledge those tweets for them to go viral and spread like wildfire.

Yet despite this, is Prouty not right when he suggests that the everyday American should know how a Presidential candidate truly thinks about the everyday American? Anyone investing one of their most-heralded constitutional rights in a candidate probably deserves to know exactly who they’re voting for, and it should matter not who is responsible for conveying this, be it Scott Prouty, Anderson Cooper, or the 18-year-old freshman who overhead something they shouldn’t have done. As the Washington Post notes, the ever-widening possibilities of modern media and the ever-decreasing gap between the public and the politicians, means that the cloak of privacy doesn’t cover nearly as much ground as it once did. There is a true onus on the public to share what they see, and whilst it may make those in Washington squirm, it’s ultimately more beneficial to the people who really matter; the voting public.