Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign boostedno, it actually createdthe careers of a whole cadre of black political reporters.
Barack Obama’s historic capture of Oval Office? Well, not so much.
The reasons behind the white-out of the Obama campaign are varied and complex, ranging from the reduction of general political coverage by mainstream media to fewer experienced black political reporters to the persistence of racism in the doling out of coveted newsroom assignments.
A generation ago, as the peripatetic preacher crisscrossed the country to the chants of “Run, Jesse, Run!” black journalistsamong them Gwen Ifill of The (Baltimore) Evening Sun, Julie Johnson of The (Baltimore) Sun and later The New York Times and ABC News, George Curry of the Chicago Tribune, Ron Smothers of The New York Times, Milton Coleman of The Washington Post, Kevin Merida of The Dallas Morning News and Kenneth Walker of ABC Newstraveled along, reporting and interpreting the historic political campaign.
Nearly a quarter century later, Barack Obama made the same primary run, and it was not the symbolic stab at the White House that Jackson’s represented; instead, the junior senator from Illinois took the prize and will become the nation’s first black president.
But black journalists by and large weren’t around to document the groundbreaking victory. A handful of black journalists popped in and out of the Obama campaign, notably Suzanne Malveaux of CNN, Ron Allen of NBC and William Douglas of McClatchy Newspapers. At the end of the campaign, the black faces most visible on the Obama plane belonged to reporters and photographers representing Ebony and Essence, magazines that don’t traditionally cover politics.
The complexion of the media can be an important factor in defining the president and his policies. In fact, even as Obama’s campaign operated with “no-drama” precision, some media miscues emerged, among them the Associated Press describing Obama as half-black.
Speaking at a recent journalism symposium conducted by the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, Jack White, who covered the 1984 Jackson campaign for Time magazine, noted the irony of Obama’s taking office with relatively few black reporters assigned to cover his administration.
“We are going to integrate the Oval Office long before we integrate the media that covers the president,” White said. “The job of interpreting this president to the world is too big and too important to be left just to white reporters and editors.”
Political reporting is something of a boutique corner in most newsrooms, a space reserved for those deemed to be the best and the brightest. Political reporting was glamorized by Timothy Crouse’s 1973 ” The Boys on the Bus ,” a best-seller that revealed the techniques and antics of the reporters covering the 1972 presidential campaign. Of course, all the boys on that busthe biggest names in the businesswere all white.
The color of campaign coverage changed somewhat when Jackson announced his presidential aspirations. Run more like a civil rights crusade than a modern, efficient presidential campaign, the Jackson entourage was populated, at first, by black reporters who had largely cut their teeth covering Urban League dinners and NAACP conventions.
Kevin Merida, now an associate editor of The Washington Post, recalled being reluctant to cover Jackson’s fledgling campaign, fearing it would derail him from more coveted assignments as an investigative reporter. Now, he credits covering Jackson with boosting his career, which includes his recent publication of a photo-essay book on the Obama campaign.
“I guess I was like a lot of other black reporters who didn’t want to cover Jackson,” he said in a recent interview. “We didn’t want to get pigeonholed, and we didn’t anticipate the story becoming as big as it did.”
The lure of political reporting stayed with Merida, unlike most of the other blacks reporters covering Jackson. Often, between presidential campaigns, he marveled at the dearth of black faces at political meetings and gatherings where white political writers cemented relationships with campaign operatives and grass-roots activists.
“Covering politics isn’t always a glamorous job,” he said. “It’s a lot of rubber-chicken dinners and talking to a lot of county political hacks.”
Squeezed by tighter budgets, fewer newspapers are springing for reporterswhite or blackto indulge in such reporting. The number of black reporters who do cover full-bore politics has reverted to its pre-Jesse Jackson days.
White, now retired from Time and a regular contributor to The Root , recalled covering Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential runs, saying it was starkly different from the coverage he observed from the sidelines during the Obama campaign.
“I got the impression that black reporters didn’t get as much of a bounce from [Obama’s] campaign as you might expect,” White said. “Maybe that’s because Jackson was seen back then as the black people’s candidate, who shocked the world by winning a couple primaries. Obama was seen as something more than a black candidate and that meant white editors wanted to put their best political team on him. And, of course, in their minds that meant white reporters.”
Michael Calderone, a media writer for Politico.com, wrote recently that an Obama White House is likely to bring more black and minority reporters to Washington beats. He quoted Julie Mason, White House correspondent for The Examiner in Washington, as saying: “The number of African-American commentators on TV has gone through the roof and I think that’d be reflected in how [news organizations] cover the White House.”
But others are more skeptical. Richard Prince, author of the online Journal-isms, reported recently that black political writers were “big-footed” off the Obama campaign plane by white reporters. He said in an interview that he sees no evidence of that changing after Obama takes office.
“Most news organizations are ignoring that [Obama] is black, just as they did for the most part during the campaign,” Prince said. “Having black reporters on the White House beat is just not a priority, unless it can be measurably demonstrated that some special access or advantage can be gained by having a black reporter there.”
What if Obama insisted on black reporters being among the press corps?
“That’s not likely,” Prince said. “He’s not going to be that kind of president. Jesse might have been, but not Obama.”