Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
(July 2008)

The Rev. Jesse Jackson set off a series of ethics events when his comments accusing Barack Obama of “talking down to black people” and expressing a desire to “cut his nuts off” were captured by an open microphone.  

First, predictably and typically, the news media pounced on the comment as if it had been a planned public statement. This is somewhat unfair, as it has always been unfair. It was unfair when Earl Butz, Nixon Administrator cabinet member, had to resign because of an offensive joke he intended to be private. It was unfair when Bush’s comment to Cheney about a New York Times reporter being a “major league ass-hole” (“Big time!” replied the Veep) was a front page story for days. People sometimes say things in private to friends and colleagues that are intemperate, crude, mean-spirited and ill-considered, and such comments are not necessarily probative of their real feelings, as every reporter well knows. Nonetheless, the media will pounce on an embarrassing comment picked up by an open mike as if it is a roadmap to the speaker’s soul. It has ever been thus, and it is not going to change. The most basic application of the Golden Rule would show that the tradition is wrong. But human nature is a constant. If a hurtful statement reaches unintended ears, it is going to hurt, and there will be consequences to the speaker. 

So the media sharks behaved as if Jackson’s comment was blood in the water. It also somehow found the word “nuts” so horrible that most press accounts didn’t make clear what Jackson actually said, except that it was “crude,” “threatening,”or worse. The late George Carlin must have been laughing in the Great Beyond (except that Carlin didn’t believe in the Great Beyond). What kind of journalistic professionalism is this? If the comment is newsworthy because of its content, then you have to communicate the content. One could also catch the whiff of a double-standard in the air, as many of the same news sources that gleefully reported Bush’s “ass-hole” comment in all its specifics decided to be delicately vague when the Rev. Jackson was the open-mike victim, even though “nuts” is certainly a less incendiary word than “ass-hole.”  

Then Bill O’Reilly made a strong bid for “Liar of the Month” with this hilarious statement about his exposure of Jackson’s embarrassing moment on his cable show:  

“We held back some of this conversation… we didn't feel it had any relevance to the conversation this evening. We are not out to get Jesse Jackson. We are not out to embarrass him and we are not out to make him look bad. If we were, we would have used what we had, which is more damaging than what you have heard.” 

You’re a real piece of work, Bill! Though you have been attacking Jackson on your show regularly for years as a fraud and a race-hustler, you are not out to “get” Jesse Jackson… no, you just devoted almost your entire show to the microphone gaffe of an individual who isn’t even a policymaker or officeholder only because of its intrinsic news value, right? And to prove that you have only the best interests of Jackson in mind, you didn’t play the worst parts of his statement—you just let your audience of millions know that as bad as what you played was, what you didn’t play was far worse, and they were free to imagine just how much worse. I’m certain Jesse Jackson is most grateful. (Eventually it was revealed that Jackson had used the word “nigger,” which he had campaigned to “ban” only last year.) 

But the most interesting ethics issue by far was raised when the most vociferous criticism of Jackson’s words came from…his son, Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. Congressman Jackson was swift out of the box with this statement: 

"I'm deeply outraged and disappointed in Reverend Jackson's reckless statements about Senator Barack Obama. His divisive and demeaning comments about the presumptive Democratic nominee — and I believe the next president of the United States — contradict his inspiring and courageous career. Revered Jackson is my dad and I'll always love him. He should know how hard that I've worked for the last year and a half as a national co-chair of Barack Obama's presidential campaign. So, I thoroughly reject and repudiate his ugly rhetoric. He should keep hope alive and any personal attacks and insults to himself." 

Some critics, including a large percentage of parents, regarded young Jackson’s remark as disloyal. Cynics guessed that his remarks were calculatingly arranged by the Obama campaign to attack Jackson without alienating his many supporters, since criticism by Jackson’s own son would have to be seen as painful and proof positive that Jackson’s remarks were indefensible. Some even suggested that Jesse Jackson, seeing that this was a great opportunity for his son to broaden his political base while currying favor with the Obama camp, suggested the rebuke himself, figuring that he was going to get slammed anyway and that someone in the family might as well benefit from his gaffe. 

The critics are wrong, and the cynics and conspiracy theorists, as is usually the case, lack any proof. So based on what we know, Congressman Jackson properly evaluated where his loyalties should lie. Loving his father does not require siding with him on all issues or supporting him when he is wrong. Jesse Jr. was the most powerful and credible critic conceivable in this situation, and he should only be commended for stepping forward so quickly. He demonstrated his integrity, and enhanced his credibility as a political ally for Obama, and for his father. He showed that he was willing to speak the truth, and put his personal loyalties second to his own sense of his public obligations and his perceptions of the duties of a national leader.  

Personally, I think he made a mistake: I think his father deserved a break, just as I think that all public figures whose private comments are revealed should be given the benefit of our own experiences of saying cruel things that we don’t really mean. But Jackson apparently felt otherwise, and thus his actions showed courage and principle. 

At least an Ethics Hero emerged out of an episode that was otherwise messy, over-publicized, mean and unfair.

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