It is appropriate for reporters and pundits to challenge, criticize and disagree with public figures of all races; indeed, it is a central part of their jobs. At the same time, media commentators should avoid name-calling, stereotypes and other distractions from substantive discussion about ideas or proposals; represent people’s ideas and statements fairly; and portray their actions and beliefs accurately. Sadly, when it comes to African-American leaders who challenge the status quo, such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton and professor and author Cornel West, these standards are frequently violated–including, in some cases, by African-American commentators.
Discussing these public figures on the opinion pages, critics often use demeaning terms, with some labels ridiculing these African-American spokespersons for seeking to be public figures in the first place. Jesse Jackson is a “publicity hound,” declared Mickey Edwards of the Boston Herald (4/18/01) and Steve Barrett of the Chattanooga Times/Chattanooga Free Press (9/13/02). In a similar vein, the New York Observer (4/29/02) pronounced Cornel West a “publicity-loving con man.” At times, more explicitly racial terms are used for ridicule, as when Rod Dreher of the National Review Online (1/4/02) pronounced West a “clownish minstrel.” Such slurs do nothing to advance debate about these figures’ ideas. Indeed, they serve to dismiss their message before any real consideration of the issues they raise.
Other racially charged labels imply that the work of these leaders is potentially menacing. Jackson is a “race hustler,” according to Don Feder (Boston Herald, 1/2/02) and Phil Kent (Augusta Chronicle, 1/28/01). George Will (Washington Post, 10/21/01) and the Washington Times (6/20/00) apply the same label to Sharpton; John J. Miller (National Review, 10/14/02) uses it to describe both men. Jackson and Sharpton’s discussions of racism, such treatment suggests, are not legitimate critiques of society, but rather fraudulent attempts to trick the white public.
Attacking style, ignoring substance
Rather than address the messages of African-American leaders, commentators often belittle their appearance or speech. Instead of offering principled consideration of Sharpton’s protest of U.S. military exercises in Vieques, Puerto Rico, for which he spent time in jail, Stanley Crouch (New York Daily News, 6/1/01) offered a trivializing reference to Sharpton’s appearance: “I think he may be more concerned about his time behind bars because he might not be able to get his hair done.” Similarly, Philip Terzian (Providence Journal, 1/26/03) notes sarcastically of Sharpton’s potential presidential candidacy, “With his jumpsuits, medallions, bigoted pronouncements, flowing John C. Calhoun locks and historic attachment to the Tawana Brawley hoax, Sharpton could not be a more suitable Democratic candidate.”
The misleading description of Sharpton’s ostensibly unconventional appearance (he’s actually been wearing three-piece suits at public appearances for some time now) is all that Terzian offers by way of a contemporary critique of the candidate. No examples of the so-called “bigoted pronouncements” are given, and nowhere in the editorial does Terzian discuss any of Sharpton’s recent causes or the ideas he might bring to a political campaign.
Commentators frequently mock Jackson’s verbal style. He “regularly substitutes rhymes for reason,” according to Feder (Boston Herald, 1/10/01). Discussing Jackson’s offer to meet with Middle East leaders, the New York Observer (8/12/02) suggested he had “nothing to offer but empty words and rhymes.” Mike Rosen of the Rocky Mountain News (1/26/01) concluded a list of Jackson’s supposed political sins with a reference to his “bad rhymes.” Pam Belluck remarked in the New York Times (3/26/01) that Jackson’s “call-and-response cadences make him very effective at stirring people but can also obscure his detailed knowledge of complex issues.”
While Belluck’s comments are more sympathetic than those of her colleagues, a central premise underlies all of these assessments: Rhyming, call and response, and other aspects of Jackson’s speech are laughable or distracting. Patricia Sullivan, a professor of communications at the State University of New York at New Paltz, argued (Communication Quarterly, Winter/93) that the media’s negative assessments of Jackson’s speech demonstrated that they did not understand “the oral tradition he represent[s],” which values rhythm and interaction between audience and speaker. Sullivan maintained that unless critics began to “examine their assumptions,” African-American leaders such as Jackson would “continue to be marginalized and muted on the American political stage.” Regrettably, almost a decade after her warning, not much has changed.
The media also detract from a real examination of Jackson’s ideas, proposals and actions by focusing on personal scandals that are irrelevant to the issues purportedly under discussion. The Boston Herald (9/29/01) brought up Jackson’s out-of-wedlock child in an editorial dealing with his proposal to negotiate with the Taliban; columnists Don Feder (Boston Herald, 1/9/02) and Mary McGrory (Washington Post, 1/6/02) inserted the fact into commentaries about his support of Cornel West. While commentary on Jackson’s personal life might be relevant in some contexts, these gratuitous references in articles about unrelated topics demonstrate that some commentators are more interested in discrediting him than in offering the public any meaningful discussion of the issues he raises.
Jackson’s personal life can even be used to disparage Sharpton. On Fox News Channel’s Special Report With Brit Hume (1/7/02), Hume commented on the opening of the West Coast office of Sharpton’s National Action Network in Los Angeles: “There was a special guest at a private party to commemorate the event. It was Karen Stanford, former mistress of Sharpton rival, Jesse Jackson, and the mother of Jackson’s two-year-old, out-of-wedlock daughter. Stanford told NewsMax.com that Sharpton is–quote–‘the only civil rights leader I respect and support’–end quote.” No information about the National Action Network or Sharpton’s work with the organization was given.
Distorting the record
Reviewing Sharpton’s book Al on America in the National Review Online (10/8/02), Rod Dreher remarked that Sharpton presented positions “without a semblance of sustained, fact-based argument.” As an example, Dreher summarized Sharpton’s views on education: “We need to ‘strengthen’ the public schools, whatever that means.” But Dreher’s suggestion that Sharpton offered no detailed strategy for improving public education is incorrect; in a chapter on education, Sharpton addressed teacher salaries, parent participation and funding, providing a 12-point plan to implement his goals.
Commentators also mislead the public about West’s writings, presenting them in ways that make them appear unintelligible. The Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby (1/6/02), the Boston Herald’s Don Feder (1/9/02) and Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume (Special Report With Brit Hume, 1/8/02) all mocked West by pulling difficult passages out of his scholarly books and presenting them out of context. To use such a tactic to suggest that a text is incomprehensible is preposterous; how could any scholarly work (or many popular ones) stand this test? It is one thing to disagree with the opinions of various leaders; it is quite another to falsely imply that they have no clear ideas at all.
In some cases, commentators make assertions that are patently false. To buttress his claim that Cornel West is a “self-promoter,” for example, John Leo of U.S. News & World Report (1/21/02) remarked, “On [West’s] website, he praises his own ‘unmatched eloquence’ and calls his CD ‘in all modesty . . . a watershed moment in musical history.’” Actually, these words appear on a website dedicated to marketing West’s CD Sketches of My Culture, and they were written by his brother Clifton West, one of the CD’s producers, who might be expected to applaud the work in order to market it.
After the elections of November 2002, Sheryl McCarthy (Newsday, 11/7/02) argued that one reason why the Democrats fared so badly was that “instead of going to Florida, getting out the black voters and avenging all those people who were disenfranchised the last time around, the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were busy complaining about a movie.” While it is true that Jackson and Sharpton, among others, objected to elements of the film Barbershop, Jackson was in Florida during the days before the election, doing just what McCarthy claimed he avoided: rallying voters, particularly those discouraged by the 2000 election (Florida Times-Union, 11/5/02).
Others claim that Jackson and Sharpton do not regularly address the everyday problems of African-Americans. Stanley Crouch maintained in the Los Angeles Times (2/3/02) that “the civil-rights establishment, symbolized by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, is consistently removed from the greatest problems weighing upon the communities it purportedly represents.” Crouch argued that “we are accustomed to seeing Jackson attach himself to controversies, specious and real,” but “we are not accustomed to seeing” him “taking on problems facing Afro-Americans that are far greater than the threats of racist murder or police homicide,” such as the “unprecedented crisis of violence” within the African-American community. Similarly, Tony Norman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (10/29/02) asserted, “Last month, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton marshaled what was left of their rapidly dwindling moral authority to take on–poverty? No!–urban violence? No!–a movie [Barbershop]? Yes!”
The suggestion that Jackson and Sharpton avoid the concerns of the poor and those who live in communities plagued by crime is itself specious. In frequent editorials in various newspapers, Jackson has addressed economic concerns, particularly the plight of America’s poorest workers. Sharpton frequently speaks out against violence, often in response to specific incidents. After a mob beat two men to death after a traffic accident in Chicago in July 2002, for example, Sharpton visited the neighborhood, appearing with ministers to denounce the crime. Jackson and Sharpton both attended a gang violence conference in Chicago in November 2001. One may support or reject their positions, but it is untenable to suggest that Jackson and Sharpton ignore such issues.
Indeed, critical readers might discover that conflicting standards are used to judge the responses of progressive African-American spokespersons to various causes. They are charged with ignoring the problems of minorities, the poor or working people, yet when they get involved in a cause, they are deemed self-serving or divisive. Steve Barrett (Chattanooga Times/Free Press, 9/13/02) dismissed Jackson’s visit to Pacific Coast dockworkers in support of their strike as “agitation” that “makes the union’s demands more suspect.” Suzanne Fields of the Washington Times (12/30/02) argued that Jackson and Sharpton seem “trapped in a deadlocked ideology that suggests that only black rabble-rousers have the right to formulate the solutions to the problems of the black underclass.” (Notably, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., mentioned in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that these terms–“agitator,” “rabble-rouser”–were used to describe him by his opponents.) In effect, the media place these leaders in a double bind: Whatever they do, they just cannot win. As a result, an honest examination of the issues they raise is often doomed from the outset.
Similarly, when progressive African-American spokespeople take someone to task for what they believe are inappropriate remarks, they are often told to lighten up and to respect free speech. Calling Jackson’s and Sharpton’s objections to comments in the movie Barbershop about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. a “petty snit,” E.R. Shipp (New York Daily News, 9/29/02) demanded, “Isn’t free speech one of the rights Jesse has made it his life’s work to uphold?” Rod Dreher (National Review Online, 9/25/02) remarked that “it’s absurd to claim that any human being has the right to be spared any negative commentary at all.”
Yet the “free speech” standard frequently disappears when African-American leaders are the ones making the comments others consider offensive. After Jackson said at Michigan State University that democracy in America was created by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, not by the Founding Fathers, Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity (Hannity & Colmes, 9/16/02) asked, “What is Jesse Jackson’s problem with our nation’s Founding Fathers? You won’t believe what he had to say this weekend.” When Cornel West described New York Democratic gubernatorial candidate H. Carl McCall as “a hesitant brother” and “a timid brother,” the New York Post (8/27/02) attacked West for “race-baiting” and declared that he was “racializ[ing] a campaign” that previously was “relatively benign in that respect.”
Why do mainstream media approach progressive African-American leaders with such evident contempt and disingenuousness? Why are they so reluctant to engage their arguments, preferring instead to ridicule and misrepresent them? Why do they apply impossibly contradictory standards to them? Perhaps the answer lies in the challenges that these leaders present to American society.
Commenting on NPR’s Tavis Smiley Show (7/25/02) on the media’s reaction to statements made by Jesse Jackson about police brutality, professor and commentator Michael Eric Dyson remarked, “The reason Rev. Jackson is being placed under such scrutiny here is because he’s pointing to something that the powers that be don’t want to hear about… so they have to kind of discredit him and call him a part of the lunatic fringe.” Dyson’s comments can be extended to explain coverage of other progressive African-American leaders: Media frequently do not want to seriously consider the ideas of those who challenge the status quo, particularly on issues related to race. Rather than allow them to speak for themselves, they disparage or distort their ideas. Instead of examining racist assumptions, many commentators exploit these biases.
Such treatment constitutes a challenge for African-American public figures. Sharpton explained in Al on America, “When the media began portraying me as a buffoon, it never bothered me, because . . . I defined myself long ago. I always defined my own terms.” He said he follows the advice singer James Brown gave to him: “If you start letting people define who you are, people will then decide what is credible and what is not. And you never give them that, Rev. You may suffer, but you never give them that.”