At 61, Mayhill Fowler, a San Francisco housewife, Senator Barack Obama supporter and part-time contributor to OffTheBus.net, a campaign journal published by the neo-liberal commentary Web site the Huffington Post, is an unlikely source for a breaking news story that briefly looked as if it might derail the Illinois senator's presidential campaign last week.
The instant sensation of Obama's comments about bitterness, god and guns in small-town America, and the inference that he was an elitist, supplied his rivals with ammunition and the US media with almost a week of news, commentary, counter-reaction and expectation of further excitement to come.
If Obama does not win in Pennsylvania's primary vote tomorrow then his comment that small-town voters bitter over their economic circumstances "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them" may come to be seen as pivotal to his campaign.
For the media, the episode shows how the Internet is changing the reporting of politics. The event was closed to journalists; Fowler was only invited because she had given generously to Obama.
"He had a fundamental misunderstanding of my priorities," she told the New York Times. "Mine were as a reporter, not as a supporter. They thought I would put the role of supporter first."
But Fowler waited several days before posting Obama's comments.
"There are no standards of journalism on the Internet," she said. "I'm always second-guessing myself. Is this the right thing to do? Am I being fair?"
Michael Wolff, the Vanity Fair media columnist, says this question is moot.
"It doesn't matter whose employ she was in or what function she was fulfilling. He said something and was duly recorded. [That's] the new reality [it's] useless to ignore. Everybody is going to know what you say. We're going through a transformation process. There is no privacy. You cannot hide," he said.
The speed at which the story was consumed was instructive. Fowler's post recorded 5,000 hits almost immediately and over 100,000 by the end of the day. By that time, Obama was talking about it and Senator Hillary Clinton had reportedly mobilized her entire campaign operation to try to exploit it.
But as the distinction between journalist and blogger becomes blurred (in this campaign, bloggers are often seen as activists, useful for energizing the voter base, and given their own distinct "briefings"), so has the distinction between journalist and advocate.
Last Wednesday, ABC hosted a debate between Obama and Clinton, during which ABC evening news anchor Charles Gibson and former US president Bill Clinton White House staffer George Stephanopoulos directed the debate toward "gotcha" questions to such a degree that the audience booed them. The next day, Stephanopoulos, who had sought to tie Obama to the radical left terrorist group the Weather Underground, was forced to deny that he had taken cues from right-wing pundits or been fed questions by Fox News reporter Sean Hannity.
While Clinton was widely judged to have come off better in the debate, the loser may not have been Obama so much as the media itself. ABC News said it had received 14,000 critical messages by the next morning.
One viewer wrote he would "show the debate to my communications students as an example of what shoddy journalism looks like."
More broadly, Wolff says he believes the election coverage shows that the mainstream media has become more insecure.
"The news media is totally confused about what it should be, who it is speaking to or who is listening to it. I cannot think of another time when the media has been this insecure or flummoxed as to its purpose and identity," he said.
The need to attract attention to justify its existence as viewers and readers migrate online has warped its traditional role, Wolff said.
"Everyone has been lurching around trying to be in the hot spot where they think the conventional wisdom is," he said.
But, he says, the media has been consistently wrong.
"First Fred Thompson was going to be the savior, then Rudy Giuliani was king of the hill. The reason [Senator] John McCain is the Republican nominee now is that nobody was looking at him," he said.
Elections, says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, "tend to reveal the contours of the media culture, and how they've changed."
The effects of declining print circulation and revenue is evident on the campaign trail: The candidates' planes are now virtually empty of newspaper reporters. Further evidence of malaise came last week when the New York Times announced the first newsroom layoffs in its history, while CBS said it may cease to run a news-gathering department and buy in news from CNN. It has been a gloomy week for establishment journalism, but few expected that the media would be so willingly influenced by the kind of partisan opinion that passes for information on blogs.
Fowler has made no secret of her affinities.
"I can't believe I would be one of the people who's changing the world of media," she said earlier this month. "Clearly everyone is going to be rethinking how they handle this kind of thing."