Opinion: Psst, Jesse Jackson’s crude Obama whisper almost slipped through


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Turns out Jesse Jackson’s whispered crudity on Fox News about what he’d like to do to Barack Obama’s privates almost made it through without notice.

Jackson, who has eagerly worn microphones over the years almost as much as Al Sharpton, obviously knew he could be heard. Why else whisper? Which he did, criticizing Obama to a fellow black guest on ‘Fox & Friends’ before the show went live.

But as The Times’ diligent Matea Gold reports here today, no one in the Fox control room caught the exchange at the time.


It was only during the night that a Fox staffer who was transcribing the program caught the whisper and then noticed Jackson’s hand-cutting motion beneath the desk.

The catch worked its way up the in-house news chain and, finally, onto the air Wednesday. But Jackson was tipped about the imminent embarrassment when Fox News fairly asked him for comment before its broadcast, and Jackson immediately arranged to go on CNN to attempt a preemptive broadcast apology.

Judging by online reaction, that didn’t work too well. And people ....

... are examining all sorts of angles, including the potential jealousy of a once leading civil rights and political pioneer as another African American wins the presidential nomination that he -- unsuccessfully -- worked so hard to get 20+ years ago.

Also, unnoticed by much of the country, Chicago’s predominantly South Side black community is riven by the same feuding factions as any other urban demographic.

But what Jackson’s spoken mistake also underlined is the stubborn, inexplicable memory loss that strikes public figures unexpectedly when they put on those little microphones or sit near a larger one. What do they think they’re there for? To zap bugs?

Remember a few years ago George W. Bush’s muttered podium comment to Vice President Dick Cheney describing a passing New York Times reporter as a ‘major league’ anatomical orifice? That got picked up. As did Cheney’s growling response: ‘Big time!’


And then Obama’s bitter-small-town comments got taped during an allegedly private San Francisco fundraiser this spring.

And John Edwards’ and Hillary Clinton’s whispered post-debate comments about the need to whittle down the number of fellow Democrats participating in such forums?

Public figures are constantly reminded (warned) by communications staffers when wearing the small, portable mics that TV crews favor because they eliminate the huge and obtrusive microphone booms. Politicians strap a BlackBerry-sized device onto their belt if possible or, if necessary, some women even wear them on their thigh. A wire is run up inside the clothes to the lapel mics.

Many experienced professional political communicators make informal but strict private deals in advance with TV crews that any inadvertent side comments by the politician or others approaching him or her will not be used. And the crews generally agree in order to get the access.

Rob Stutzman, former communications director for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, an actor accustomed to microphones everywhere, remembers constantly reminding gubernatorial staffers that their boss was wearing mini-mics, so watch what they said around or to him.

‘Just because a camera’s not rolling,’ Stutzman says, ‘doesn’t mean the mic isn’t hot and catching everything.’


But studio settings like Jackson’s are different animals, and anything there is fair game. Remember Connie Chung’s disingenuous interview question some years ago ‘just between us’ as millions watched silently at home?

Fox News says it was not seeking to embarrass Jackson or else it would have used allegedly far worse comments about Obama also caught on that tape. (UPDATE: Once again, our colleague Matea Gold is on top of the story with a Show Tracker blog update on Fox’s further explanation tonight on ‘The O’Reilly Factor.’)

It’s uncertain how long it will take for those remarks to make their way onto YouTube or Fox, where executives are discussing them now. (Speaking of tape, wouldn’t you like to hear one of that meeting?)

But what is certain is that, despite such mortifying incidents and constant warnings, someone else in public life will soon utter yet another gaffe. (And each of us can imagine how we’d sound if everything we said at the office today was taped and broadcast to millions.)

-- Andrew Malcolm