It was a major event for our school, Union College in Schenectady, New York. Jesse Jackson was coming to give an address on the first day of Black History Month. Almost 1,000 students, faculty and administrators packed our largest lecture hall to hear Reverend Jackson. This was quite a turnout for a college with 2,000 students. Members of the Albany and Schenectady press were there in large numbers to report on Jackson’s speech, including CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox News affiliates.

When Jackson arrived on stage, he was greeted with two standing ovations. I remember being a bit surprised by this, since Union College’s student body is composed largely of fairly affluent whites whose experiences would seem to separate them from Jackson’s core constituency and message.

Jackson started slowly by discussing what he saw as the misguided budget priorities of New York Governor Pataki. Then, as it often does, the pace of Jackson’s speech picked up dramatically. He spoke with great passion about the character and health of the United States, about the dilapidated condition of inner city public schools, about the high numbers of children living in poverty, and about the burgeoning prison population. He evoked memories from the civil rights movement to explain to this generation of students how that movement is now stalled, not on racial fault lines, but on economic fault lines. What is critical, Jackson said, is the need to find ways to close the gap between rich and poor; this, he said with great energy, is the last frontier of the civil rights movement.

One thing Jackson did not speak much about was what everyone else was talking about, the scandal involving Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. He largely steered clear of what was going on in Washington and focused mainly on race relations and the treatment of the poor in the United States.

By all accounts Jackson gave a masterful performance. For those who hadn’t seen or heard him before, they couldn’t help but be swept up by his oratorical skills. He was interrupted numerous times with applause. Whether members of the audience agreed with him or not, they seemed to respect the passion and dedication he exhibits. Jackson had come onto our predominantly white college campus and reached and inspired the students—not an easy task in this time of national apathy and cynicism.

When he finished his speech, and after the applause died down, he offered to take questions, first from members of the press and then from the audience. In all, the press asked six questions. The first was the perfunctory question about whether Jackson would run for President in 2000. The next reporter asked: “What do you think about what is going on in Washington?” And the next: “Do you think that the President should be removed from office?” The next: “Have you and President Clinton gotten closer since the Lewinsky scandal broke?” And next: “How would you like to see the scandal in Washington resolved?” And finally: “What team did you cheer for in the Super Bowl?”

As we in the audience watched this give-and-take, it became clear that the local journalists were taking their cues from what had by then become an obsession of the national and Washington press corps. These local reporters began to circle like a hive of bees around the story that members of their profession couldn’t seem to stop themselves from talking about. They managed to entirely ignore the substance of Jackson’s speech. They did not challenge any of his ideas, nor did they press for details on some of what were clearly vague proposals. They did not ask any questions about civil rights or race issues or affirmative action, which after all was the purpose of Jackson’s appearance at Union College.

This evening taught me a valuable lesson, one that I wouldn’t have been able to relate to my students if not for having witnessed this display of media arrogance or indifference for myself. One of the tragedies of the Lewinsky scandal is that it seems to have further perpetuated the news media’s move towards simplistic sensationalism. What I saw happen at Union College that night makes me wonder whether discussions about big political or social questions are too complicated or just too dull for members of the press corps to even bother with.

The vapid questioning by the journalists was truly put into perspective when Jackson began to take questions from the students. “How can we help to bridge the economic gap you spoke of? What can we do?” one student wanted to know. Another student challenged him to place within the context of our times words spoken three decades ago: “Martin Luther King used to refer to a ‘beloved community;’ what does that term mean to you?” Another asked how it is possible to change institutions that have excluded members of minority communities for hundreds of years. These were the questions of real substance. And Jackson’s answers will probably be long remembered by those who were there in the hall that night to hear them. But for those who would have to depend on the press to get the news to them, well, it is doubtful they even know that the questions were asked.

“Why I Asked Jesse Jackson About the Media”
– Adam-Paul Smolak
The moment of the evening belonged to the student who spoke next: “You just gave a very powerful and moving speech, and the press asked you only about the scandal in Washington. What does that say to you?” Before this young man was finished speaking, the hall erupted in the loudest applause of the evening.

The students who turned out to listen to Reverend Jackson that night did not want to hear about Monica Lewinsky. They wanted to be challenged to think about serious and meaningful issues. The message the audience was sending to the press in attendance and throughout the country seemed clear: You speak for yourself, you do not speak for us.

Richard Fox is an assistant professor of political science at Union College in Schenectady, New York.

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