Jan 1 2001

Media Passed by Jesse Jackson

. . . And passed up a great story

The media’s denial about potential disenfranchisement in Florida is cloaked in the denigration of Jesse Jackson. In lockstep media commentary, Jackson was depicted as a crazed black man on the corner, so nuts that cab drivers, the editors steering the news, had every justification to pass him up.

On CNN (11/9/00), Jackson was “fomenting turbulence” with his “rent-a-riot.’’ In the Providence Journal (11/17/00), Jackson was one of the “exhibitionist demagogues.’’ A Washington Post column (William Raspberry, 11/18/00) asked, “Why didn’t someone prevail upon Jesse Jackson, as much in the dark as the rest of us, to stop exciting racial passions?,’’ while a Wall Street Journal columnist (Al Hunt, 11/16/00) wanted to know, “Why hasn’t someone given the hook to Jesse Jackson, with his phony claims of African-American disenfranchisement?’’

Even though Jackson, of former “Hymietown’’ fame, made some refreshing alliances with elderly Jewish voters who also felt disenfranchised in South Florida, a Columbus Dispatch columnist (11/14/00) called Jackson one of the “rent-a-ranters.’’ George Will (Washington Post, 11/12/00) similarly saw him as a “rented ranter.’’ Bill O’Reilly of Fox News (11/08/00) said, “I don’t want Jesse Jackson stirring up racial tensions and class warfare.’’ The Dallas Morning News (11/11/00) said Jackson attempted to “incite’’ people with “inflammatory remarks.’’ A Detroit News editorial writer (11/12/00) called Jackson “incendiary.’’

Echoing the “What Does Jesse Want?’’ headlines of the 1980s when Jackson ran for president, many commentators asked what the point was of Jackson being in Florida. A member of Newsday’s editorial board (11/12/00) said, “For those nitwits who believe public issues should be addressed by street mobs, Jesse Jackson’s West Palm Beach rallies should be encouraging. If anybody can rouse the rabble, he can.’’

In the Boston Globe (11/17/00), you could read that Jackson’s efforts ‘’to rile up alleged victims of the butterfly ballot are an insult to those whose right to vote was truly violated in the past.’’

The attempt by media cab drivers to pass up this black man was noteworthy because rebukes of Jackson were not followed up with evidence that Jackson was making up complaints of voter irregularities. Quite to the contrary, while the opinion pages ripped into Jackson—an easy, unpopular lightning rod for many white Americans—the media did not unleash their full powers to find out if there really was disenfranchisement in Florida on a scale that could have tipped the presidential election from George W. Bush to the man Jackson supports, Democrat Al Gore.

Potential mistakes in overseas military ballots that would probably favor the Republican Bush were taken so seriously that Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman said that those ballots should get the “benefit of the doubt.’’ There were no parallel concerns issued from the Bush camp over the claims that African-American voters suffered several types of indignities throughout the state.

The NAACP and civil rights workers held a hearing on reports of discrimination and intimidation at the polls. But we have no idea if this was enough to affect the vote for president because the media did little to follow it up.

A great story was missed. Florida happened to be one of the most targeted states for get-out-the-vote campaigns by the Democrats and the NAACP. On one hand, the campaign was immensely successful. African-Americans, 13 percent of Florida’s voting age population, made up 15 percent of the state’s voters on election day. That was way up from 10 percent in 1996.

But civil rights workers who—unlike the media—have been doing the grunt work of taking testimony are concerned election officials in Florida may have responded to the energized black vote by quietly denying any “benefit of the doubt’’ to black voters who had a problem at the polls. One cannot forget that Florida, governed by Bush’s brother Jeb, has waged an aggressive assault on affirmative action. Who is to say a state like this is not capable of dirty pool at the polls?

If as much of the media’s resources went into following up on the NAACP’s hearings as in the definition of a chad, we might already know the true story. Now, with the election fading into history, the truth, whatever it was, is being lost.

The media had a choice. It could have called Jackson’s bluff with serious reporting. Instead, it wrote him off as a raving lunatic and sped past him to the next block to pick up stories more easy for white audiences to digest. The digestible story was that we had an election that is tied and we didn’t erupt like a Third World country. In leaving Jackson on the corner, the media missed the bloodless coup that may have occurred in Florida.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a columnist for the Boston Globe, where a version of this column appeared (11/22/00).

2000 Globe Newspaper Company.