Jackson’s Obama Comments: Should Fox Have Broadcast Them?

Matea Gold’s Los Angeles Times story today lets readers know what a close call it was that Jesse Jackson’s off-color comments made it on the air yesterday.

But for an alert overnight transcriber, Jackson’s comments, meant to be private, almost stayed that way. What a loss to the public interest that would have been. Not.

I suggest that the public benefited very little from knowing Jackson’s personal feelings on this matter, and that Fox was doing little more than spreading gossip.

Revealing all isn’t always useful. Take the rush to report then-President Reagan’s remark, meant as a joke, that the bombing of the Soviet Union “begins in five minutes”? Like Jackson’s comment, it was said into a live mic, but it wasn’t meant to be public.

What if the Soviets had believed Reagan meant it? The satisfaction a few reporters received by covering something the President didn’t intend to be public would have been faint consolation had nuclear warheads rained down on our heads.

Sure, Reagan shouldn’t have said it, but was it any wiser to report it?

I’m no Jackson fan, to say the least, and this Jackson issue is far less significant than the Reagan issue, but I think broadcasting Jackson’s private comments was a bit rude of Fox. Jackson was a guest in the Fox studio, he said something that obviously was not meant to go out on the air, and Fox put it on the air anyway.

It isn’t as though Jackson is running for office himself, and we already know Jackson has an inclination toward blunt talk. Fox told us nothing new and nothing important.

If Jackson had said the same thing by the sink in the men’s room and a Fox employee overheard him, would the comment still be fair game? Does a live mic make all the difference? Would it matter if Jackson didn’t realize his was on, or that it was sensitive enough to pick up whispers?

Are there any rules, or is it fair for journalists to print anything they overhear?

I do know of one rule the journalists put on themselves: The big media outlets mostly don’t spy on their own personnel or one another. We can be sure that various powerful journalists have said things about politicians that are just as uncomplimentary as what Jackson said, but the journalists’ comments almost never get reported. It’s not because they’re not newsworthy, as anything revealing the biases of influential journalists would be newsworthy. It’s because journalists are extending a courtesy to one another that they don’t feel obliged to extend to people who chose another line of work.

As I said earlier, I’m no Jackson fan, and as it happens, I generally like Fox and watch it often. But I don’t think journalists should do to others what they would never do to themselves.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters, where comments are enabled.

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