Attack on Status Quo : Many Miss Real Story on Jackson

Times Staff Writer

There are certain things, parents tell children, that well-behaved people just do not discuss in polite company.

Among them: politics, religion and race.

The difficulty, and the power, of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in his run for the presidency is that he forces discussion of all three.

Perhaps that is why questions about how the media have treated Jackson’s candidacy spark such sharp debate.


“Jackson has gotten the kid-gloves treatment,” New Republic columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote last month.

To the contrary, Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy argued the same week, the media tried to “type Jackson out of the race by stating . . . as fact that Jackson was unelectable.”

Who is right?

Press Rationalization

Has Jackson escaped scrutiny because the press, fearful of criticizing a black, rationalized that he couldn’t win?

Or has Jackson’s campaign been hobbled by the label of unelectability, based on the presumption that the country still would not elect a black man--particularly this black man, who has never held elective office, has a controversial past, and holds positions ideologically outside the mainstream?

A study by The Times of coverage of Jackson, and interviews with the principals of Jackson’s campaign and the journalists who covered it, suggest that the debate as typically framed misses the point.

For a time, much of the press did dismiss Jackson’s candidacy. But it is hard to establish that this hurt Jackson; even his campaign manager believes it may have made Jackson a more attractive protest candidate for white liberals.

Undergoes Scrutiny

Nor does coverage show that Jackson escaped scrutiny. Stories explored Jackson’s past in detail, and though his policy positions for a time went unexamined, generally the level of scrutiny Jackson received stands neither above nor below that of several other candidates.

If the press has failed in covering Jackson, some journalists now believe, it is not because it has treated him differently from other candidates, but because it has treated him too much the same.

Jackson, even the candidate agrees, runs not merely for President. He also campaigns to change how Americans view one another, to tear apart old assumptions and disrupt the institutions that reinforce them. His campaign is, in short, an assault on the status quo.

And the press needed to do more to cover this less conventional, less political side of Jackson’s campaign, many journalists now feel. If America is too racist still to elect a black President, for instance, what are the implications of that often-repeated but rarely explored statement? If Jackson has changed the country with his campaign, how, and what does that mean? So far, many journalists admit, these deeper questions remain unanswered.

“We failed to turn the camera away from Jackson and into the crowd to see what was going on out there,” said Priscilla Painton, who covers Jackson for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

Part of Polite Society

The press’ failing, perhaps, is that it is too much a part of that polite society, which finds it difficult to broach forbidden subjects.

Few queries evoke such differing responses as “did Jackson get fair press?”.

“Every article you picked up had this disclaimer: ‘Can never receive the party’s nomination,’ ” Jackson Press Secretary Delmarie Cobb argues. “It was like taking a stick and beating somebody over the head with it. . . . Don’t waste your vote.”

“The strength of Jackson’s campaign is his ability to get the news media,” counters James Squires, editor of the Chicago Tribune. “Everyone else had commercials. Jackson relied on the press to convey his message to the American people, and he succeeded.”

In a sense, both are correct.

Did the press dismiss Jackson as unelectable?

In the beginning, the coverage suggests, the answer was yes.

Time Account Typical

A Time magazine story from August, 1987, is typical:

“His presidential quest seems doomed, he has never been elected to any office, and most of his party wishes he would go away. Any Democratic nominee is sure to keep him at a safe distance, and will not want him as a running mate. Even Jackson’s new success with white voters is probably transitory.”

This was seven months before the first vote was cast in Iowa.

“I think that until Michigan that I and my colleagues did keep him in a special category, which in retrospect was a category designed for someone who was not going to win the nomination,” said Robert Kaiser, the editor in charge of national news at the Washington Post. “Michigan shook us a lot, and shook me a lot, and pushed him out of that category.”

The coverage indeed did change, even before Jackson upset Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis in the Michigan caucuses March 26.

The evolution in Time’s coverage illustrates this. In March, following Jackson victories in five Super Tuesday states and strong showings in five New England states, Time did a piece entitled, “Why Can’t Jesse Be Nominated?” explaining why his success so far had limits.

Coverage Changes

Then, after the victory in Michigan, Time wrote, “Jesse Jackson has staked his claim to be taken seriously as the party’s front-runner.”

And on the eve of the Wisconsin primary last month, Time seemed to be embracing a still new catechism: “Any American child can grow up to be President. . . . Adults, of course, know the truth. The presidency is reserved for white men who have held high office. . . . But there are moments when the truths that seemed self-evident begin to be re-examined. . . . And so it is in the spring of 1988 with the campaign of Jesse Jackson.”

Some journalists believe the press was reporting accurately and appropriately the sense of the political Establishment in this. “Early on, the political community probably underestimated what Jackson would do and we reported that,” said Clark Hoyt, Washington bureau chief of Knight-Ridder Newspapers.

But others, such as Kaiser of the Washington Post, think the press was “out of step” with the public, and for that deserves blame. “It was not right,” Kaiser said.

“In essence,” Jackson political director Frank Watkins says of the “unelectable” label, “it was white reporters calling other white people racist. . . . But it was a classic example of prejudice: To prejudge.”

And Jackson believes that repeatedly describing him as unelectable hurt his campaign.

‘Anti-Momentum Factor’

“If there is such a thing in the press as momentum, then continually pouring cold water on our success has to be an anti-momentum factor,” he said in an interview.

Others think the unelectable label possessed an even more serious danger.

“A lot of racism, like sexism, is ingrained. We don’t know we’re doing it,” said Jackson Press Secretary Cobb. But “all this keeps black people thinking they’re inferior. And if you keep telling black people they’re inferior, they will never strive to be President of the United States.”

“There may be a danger that it reinforces and strengthens prejudice,” said Norman C. Miller, national editor of the Los Angeles Times. “Unfortunately, if a body of evidence exists . . . that being black is a disadvantage politically, we forfeit our function if we choose to ignore that,” he said. “We can’t ignore it as journalists.”

Still others, including Jackson’s own campaign manager, Gerald F. Austin, think that the early dismissal of Jackson’s chances actually might have helped. It lowered expectations, Austin said, which made his victories in states such as Alaska and Michigan seem more impressive.

Voters Send Message

It also, Austin said, made Jackson a safe candidate for those voters, principally whites, who wanted to send a message of protest to the party but didn’t necessarily want Jackson to win the nomination.

Jackson’s momentum finally stalled in Wisconsin, Austin is convinced, “because his win in Michigan said, hey, this guy could be the nominee.” Many voters “weren’t so sure of that before,” he said.

I. A. Lewis, director of the Los Angeles Times Poll, says some evidence does suggest that a portion of Jackson’s support was a protest vote. A third of Jackson voters in New York and Pennsylvania, for instance, said they supported Jackson as a statement rather than because they thought him the best candidate or most likely to win.

Generally, though, journalists said evidence was inconclusive as to whether Jackson’s perceived unelectability in the beginning helped him.

But in New York, Boston Globe reporter Michael Frisby said, Jackson was probably hurt by headlines that described the primary race there as “Too Close to Call.” The notion Jackson might win, Frisby believes, brought out voters opposing Jackson who otherwise might have stayed home. Exit poll data from New York suggests Frisby is right.

In a sense, Jackson wants to have it both ways. While he criticizes the coverage he has received, he also argues: “Our message is winning. Drugs is the No. 1 issue in the campaign now. Who made it so? I have set the agenda.”

Finds Positive Coverage

American Enterprise Institute scholar Robert Lichter, who has studied network television coverage of the campaign, found that Jackson received overwhelmingly positive coverage on network TV, and more coverage than most other candidates.

And Lichter credits, in part, the perception that Jackson was unelectable. “Journalists tend to equate fairness with being toughest on the top dog and helping out the underdog.”

Lichter also believes reporters may have avoided criticizing Jackson because they feared being tagged as racists.

“Have we been soft on Jackson?” asks Steve Holmes, who has covered several candidates this year for Time magazine. “Compared to whom? Who has been scrutinized heavily?”

Richard A. Gephardt may have received the roughest treatment, Holmes and others suggest. But if that is so, it was because the press and many of the candidates focused simultaneously on the Missouri congressman’s alleged flip-flops after his victory in the Iowa caucuses. What followed was every media consultant’s nightmare: a concentration of negative publicity in which everyone was leveling the same criticism at the same time.

“It is like a laser beam working on the principle of concentrated light,” said Jeff Greenfield, who reports on media and politics for ABC News.

Jackson avoided this laser beam because he largely avoided verbal gaffes, and because other candidates avoided criticizing him, knowing there was little political capital to be gained in doing so.

The coverage, further, shows that Jackson was grilled. He was scrutinized heavily on character, his record as the head of PUSH in the 1970s, his varying accounts of his role following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his remarks about Jews from 1984, and his embrace of such controversial figures as Yasser Arafat, Ernesto (Che) Guevara and Louis Farrakhan.

Ignored Policy Details

“For a considerable time,” said Adam Clymer, political editor of the New York Times, “the press in general didn’t pay quite enough attention to the details of what he would do on policy issues if he were elected.”

But this, too, changed after the press and party Establishment saw Jackson as a serious contender for the nomination, journalists said. Following Jackson’s Michigan victory, for instance, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and others all did long articles looking hard at Jackson positions.

So if it is not demonstrable that Jackson was hurt by coverage, despite the initial tag of unelectability, and if he received arguably equal scrutiny as others, was coverage of his campaign exemplary?

Many who have been out covering Jackson think not.

One problem, some reporters who have traveled with Jackson feel, is that when the press called Jackson unelectable--even if that was accurate--it rarely looked closely at the basis for that assumption.

“When you make assertions like that, you need to state your assumptions and examine them,” said Holmes of Time. “We never really did that.”

Hoyt of Knight-Ridder acknowledged: “We never did a story per se that ‘Jackson cannot win because many white voters will always vote against a black.’

“I don’t know how you do a concrete story about that,” Hoyt added. “There is certainly enough anecdotal evidence, but how do you look at that in a broad electorate.”

Hard to Glean

Such information is hard to glean from polls or voter focus-group discussions, polling experts said. And it is a rare interview subject who will openly acknowledge prejudice to a reporter.

“You’d be crazy to say there isn’t racism in America,” Washington Post political reporter David S. Broder said, “but there are also judgments about who is the best candidate that have nothing to do with race.” Some people who voted against Jackson, he said, may have done so because of his record, his lack of elective experience, his views on Israel, his liberalism.

Stories that discuss racism not in the abstract but in ugly detail are also difficult to write. That is the kind of discussion that is awkward in polite company.

Jackson adviser Ann Lewis argues that the press has trouble examining such deep-seated elements of the culture because “you are a part of the political, economic and cultural Establishment, and to that extent share many of its assumptions and predispositions.”

That strikes some journalists as spurious. “Of course we reflect our culture. We’re not from Mars,” said Holmes of Time, who is black. “What culture should we reflect?”

If the press at first did not adequately examine the assumptions about race that made him “unelectable,” Jackson now sees a second failing: It is missing the more subtle impact of the campaign, its effect on racism, on black pride, on cultural barriers, on the American conscience.

People Held ‘Transformed’

“People are being transformed here, and in very fundamental ways,” Jackson said, a theme he talks about often in more private moments. “Whites coming up to me and saying, ‘Please hold my baby. Please come to my home.’ . . . And I think the implications of that were missed.”

“The man has won without winning,” New York Times Executive Editor Max Frankel agreed at a panel this month at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

But some journalists who have traveled with Jackson feel, and the coverage supports their contention, that the nature of this nontraditional victory has gone largely unexplored--at least until very lately.

“Jackson cannot be understood in classic political terms,” said Painton of the Atlanta papers. “When he talks about breaking down ancient barriers in America, that is real.”

Knight-Ridder correspondent Doreen Carvajal, who credits her organization for being one of the first to place a reporter full time with Jackson, recalls the days in Iowa when all the reporters covering Jackson--most of them female, black, young or all three--could fit into one van.

“I felt the problem was that editors back in the newsrooms of America had decided he could not win their kind of victory, and they forgot there were all kinds of other things to measure. All those other things were ignored,” Carvajal said.

Lately, that has changed, slightly. The first and most notable examples were two pieces in the Wall Street Journal, one examining the impact of Jackson’s campaign on a cross section of blacks in Brooklyn, and another on the reaction of working-class whites to Jackson in Queens.

Examines Jews’ Reaction

The New York Times also examined the reaction of Jews to Jackson during the days before the New York primary.

The Los Angeles Times came closest to this kind of story with a piece assessing Jackson’s impact on black Americans, but that piece, which largely stands alone, did not run until late April.

One reason journalists gave is that the impact of Jackson’s campaign is still an evolving story.

In politics, however, a candidate out of the running is soon out of the story. As Jackson’s chances for conventional victory grow dimmer, some journalists said, the political press corps will quickly move on to other more conventional stories.

Since his losses in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, journalists covering Jackson said privately, several news organizations have begun discussing pulling back on coverage of Jackson.

Jackson adviser Lewis worries: “Conflict is inherently more interesting than resolution, but that distorts the image of what is really happening out there.”

And generally journalists agree. “He has won already,” Washington Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee said of Jackson. “He has changed the rules. For good.”

The difficulty is defining now what the new rules are.

Times researcher Tom Lutgen contributed to this story.


2,081 delegates needed to secure nomination


Dukakis: 1,589

Jackson: 944

Uncommitted: 524

Gore: 406

Simon: 179

Others: 5

Source: Associated Press