FOX News, and the Media, Get Their Macaca Moment

07/22/2008 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

The Jesse Jackson "hot mike" flap, it seems, is only the latest evidence that the old "rules" of journalism deserve a real public hearing, one far more serious and ambitious than what we've heard to date.

Jackson lost his bearings in FOX's studio and let slip before his interview that he's upset with Senator Obama for "talking down to black people." Jackson didn't know the mike he was wearing was live. FOX ran the clip anyway, and every news organization hammered away at the story without any obvious hesitation.

The last time OffTheBus broke news -- "Bill Clinton: Todd Purdum is a "Sleazy" "Slimy" "Scumbag"" -- network anchors introduced the story with disdain. In the ensuing coverage journalists underlined the dangers presented to the craft by the digital age's affirmative action beneficiaries -- citizen journalists and bloggers. The world bequeathed to them by citizens armed with videocameras and cellphones failed their standards, and they wanted everyone to know it.


Our mistake? One of our citizen journalists, Mayhill Fowler, dared to ask a question of former President Bill Clinton at the ropeline of a rally he hosted for Sen. Clinton without identifying herself as a member of the press.

Maybe that's because these journalists abide by the rule laid out by Melissa Hebert in According to Hebert, Jackson is just the "latest to make [a] live-microphone blunder." For those of you who don't follow journalism's ever-changing ways, Hebert clarifies what she means: "Lesson No. 1 -- when dealing with television: if you've got a microphone attached or a camera pointed at you, assume it's on."

Or maybe there's no debate because Jackson's not the only one to make a "live-microphone blunder." Hebert lists others who fell victim to poor judgment, among them:

"Hillary Clinton's mike was on in an appearance in Iowa in 2007, and it recorded that she, like most of us, sounds awful singing the national anthem.

Presidential candidate George W. Bush called a New York Times reporter a "major league (expletive)hole," and running mate Dick Cheney agreed, before a campaign speech in 2000."

Now, wait just a second.

Hebert's "Lesson No. 1" isn't a rule. And certainly not a rule of journalism.

It is a rule-of-thumb. You know, the kind of practical advice that's occasionally helpful. Like, If you don't want a cat to jump into your lap, don't make eye contact with it." Or "aromatic melons taste best immediately before mild discoloration gives way to distinctly brown spots." We pass on rules-of-thumb when we want to guide and protect others from harm, discomfort, or shame. When our recommendations turn up rotten melons or turn off cats, our friends don't hold us accountable. They tease us for giving them bad advice.

Hebert's "Lesson No. 1" is no different. She is telling Jackson to play it safe lest he find himself unwittingly video-taped or recorded pre- or post- interview. In effect, she is playing Jackson's overprotective parent.

Too bad Hebert -- or anyone else in FOX's studio -- didn't remind Jackson of "Lesson No. 1" before they pinned the mike to him. Maybe that would have saved the African American leader from the media's ferocious libido. And Hebert is right; Jackson should have known better. Jackson is a nearly consummate media siren, and his ability to turn theatrical and rhetorical tricks before cameras has kept him, and the issues he's passionate about, in the limelight.

Jackson made the mistake of being reckless. And he'll pay a great price because he found himself tethered to a live wire and a media desperate for a fight in the dog days of summer. If only he had Hebert's hindsight.

Maybe FOX was right to air Jackson's offhand comments. I think it was. What's wrong is that the same journalists who reflexively accused OffTheBus of wrongdoing have yet to debate the merits of FOX's reporting. Both Clinton and Jackson got quoted for remarks spoken outside the obvious context of a formal press interview. Both also happened to be taped. In Jackson's case, the technician working overnight at FOX who discovered Jackson's remarks hours later played no part in the interview process. MissouriNet's Steve Walsh owns up to the phenomenon, writing "We are not immune to this at Missourinet and the other networks under the Leafield Communications umbrella."

In neither case does "Lesson No. 1" provide an air-tight justification for publication. So, why not equal treatment?

FOX got lucky because Jackson slipped inside their recording studio, a place so intimately familiar to broadcast journalists that even ambiguous convention goes unchecked. That's the basic psychology of hypocrisy.