Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign boosted—no, it actually created—the 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 journalists—among 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 News—traveled 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.”