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 bus—the biggest names in the business—were 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 reporters—white or black—to 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.”