The current generation in control of the major media, especially television, came of age in the 1960s, when no cause was a nobler excuse for putting balanced coverage aside than the fight for black civil rights. That decade may be long gone, but the old reflexes remain.
Exhibit A is the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a long-time media darling. When he ran for the White House in 1984 and 1988, liberal reporters took turns pinching each other to see if they were dreaming. Hardened veterans like David Rogers of the Wall Street Journal traveled from airport to airport tingling with awe, preserving their cassettes of Jackson speeches to inspire their children and grandchildren with Jackson's often-satirized stump-speech poetry.
In the bubbling fury after the contested 2000 election, the National Enquirer took the glow off the Jackson aura by publishing internal documents that revealed that the political preacher of progressivism was paying off a former lover (complete with love child) in exchange for her silence. When Jackson was forced to admit his multiple mistakes, reporters didn't go into scold mode, which would have been de rigueur with a Republican. This was Jackson; they went into mourning. As ABC's Cokie Roberts puts it, "I think he's an important voice in public debate and I think that having it now lose some authority is too bad."
That attitude - preserving Jackson's cracked Humpty Dumpty appearance of moral authority because it's good for America - is still on display.
Around State of the Union time, Jackson's public displays of sudden angst on behalf of dismissed Enron employees were the latest cause for helpful free publicity. Leading the list, unsurprisingly, was CBS, including a Bryant Gumbel "Early Show" interview with Jackson and two ex-Enronites.
But the shtick just isn't working. Last week, Steve Miller of The Washington Times pored over the 2000 tax records of Jackson's political groups and found "his top donors that year were a who's who of companies that had been threatened with boycotts or other sanctions by Mr. Jackson." It may not be news to political junkies that Jackson's empire is built by threatening corporations with hostile media exposure. But let it be said: A supportive liberal media elite not only makes Jackson's threats credible, they are so supportive of this man that no one will touch Miller's keg-of-dynamite report. So much for objectivity.
If that story was not enough, Miller also revealed that Rev. Jackson, the scourge of the law-breakers at Enron, took $50,000 from Kevin Ingram, a friend who pleaded guilty to federal money-laundering charges related to Pakistani arms deals. He is in federal prison. No news there for Bryant Gumbel, apparently.
Another investigative reporter on Jackson's trail is author Ken Timmerman, whose book - appropriately titled "Shakedown" - has graced the New York Times best-seller list for six weeks. There was no book-promoting segment for Timmerman on NBC's "Today" show. He wasn't going to be Gumbel's first choice, either. ABC, full of Jackson sympathizers like Cokie Roberts, also ignored it. The book hasn't been mentioned in Time, or Newsweek, or U.S. News & World Report. It hasn't even been reviewed in the New York Times. It's becoming so predictable: conservative best-sellers can make the Times best-seller list, but they can't sell themselves into a review.
One can easily argue that review deficit is for the best, given how liberal reviewers would treat it. In The Washington Post, reporter Keith Richburg took the predictable cheap shots. "Jackson's defenders could usually dismiss those who did dare to criticize him as right-wing extremists, thinly veiled racists or both. In the case of Kenneth Timmerman, author of the new biography Shakedown, the accusation may be right."
What? Richburg's evidence of racism in Timmerman's book is his point that the movement for corporate divestment from apartheid-era South Africa was a "key goal of the International Left and Soviet-sponsored front groups." Racism might be demonstrated if the author had sympathetic words for apartheid. He didn't. He merely pointed out that many apartheid opponents weren't exactly "freedom fighters" themselves, but instead Soviet-supported opportunists.
Richburg thinks it's offensive that Timmerman repeatedly refers to Jackson and his advisers as "hard left," since the Cold War was almost over by Jackson's second presidential campaign. Take notes here: the Nazis have been gone for 57 years, and "far right" forever remains a handy label for reporters, but "hard left" was outdated even before the Soviet communists fell.
Richburg concluded, "This book shows mainly how he still brings out the worst in his enemies - and how he attracts enemies of the worst kind." How liberal reporters forever avoid any evaluation of their own heroes' faults with this so's-your-mother routine! It only serves to illustrate why so many Americans who want a fuller account of the news are reading Miller and Timmerman and taking a detour around the cassette-collecting Jackson enablers of the national press.