FLASHBACK: Reporters Adored Jesse Jackson, “King” of America’s Left

July 22nd, 2023 8:43 AM

Jesse Jackson has now officially stepped down as the longtime leader of his Rainbow PUSH movement. Back in the 1980s and ’90s, liberal reporters openly cheered the left-wing Jackson as “inspirational,” a “king” and a “rock star,” the “conscience of the country” and America’s “charismatic national symbol of human rights.” In more recent years, however, journalists switched to a more regretful tone, fretting the self-inflicted controversies that distracted from what they regarded as his noble progressive crusades.

When news broke in 2001 that Rev. Jackson had fathered a daughter out of wedlock, for example, ABC’s Cokie Roberts mourned the potential impact: “I do not want to have his voice silenced in public debate. I think he’s an important voice in public debate, and I think that having it now lose some authority is too bad.”

Three years later, it was only gadflies like MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann who provided a forum for Jackson’s loopy election-denying claims that, because of supposedly rigged voting machines in Ohio, Democrat John Kerry was the true winner of the 2004 presidential election. “[Jackson] called for a federal investigation of the vote count,” the wacky Olbermann hyped on his November 30, 2004 Countdown program. “He used the word ‘fraud.’ Today he wrote that the election was, quote, ‘marred by intolerable and often partisan irregularities and discrepancies.’” It was all nonsense, of course, as even the left-wing Salon took pains to explain.

Then in 2008, reporters again shook their heads in sorrow after Jackson was caught on an open microphone muttering about then-candidate Barack Obama: “I want to cut his nuts off.” On the July 10, 2008 CBS Early Show, co-host Harry Smith confessed: “As somebody who sat in an Operation PUSH meeting some 30-plus years ago in an old theater in Chicago, hearing this and seeing this, there’s something a little sad about it.”



A year later, MSNBC anchor Contessa Brewer actually introduced Jackson as “Reverend Al Sharpton” before apologizing for the mix-up. The episode illustrated just how far Jackson had tumbled from the height of his media celebrity, when journalists routinely praised him as the unelected leader of the American Left. A few quotes from our archives:

■ “He’s such a delight in terms of the media. Even though he won’t win, there’s a feeling that he’s so good we have to put him on.”
— CBS News reporter Bob Faw on Jesse Jackson, as quoted in the March 1988 Washington Journalism Review.

■ “Jesse Jackson toured Chicago and brought tears and excitement wherever he went. Watch him as he walks to the Robert Taylor project, home of some of this city’s poorest people. They gave him what they had, they gave him love. This week Jackson has been king. Greeted like a rock star, in a campaign more emotional, perhaps, than Robert Kennedy’s in 1968.”
— Reporter Bruce Morton on the March 15, 1988 CBS Evening News.

■ “He’s the Ronald Reagan of his era. Ronald Reagan in 1980 preached a message made up of whole cloth, often, but it got across.”
— ABC’s Sam Donaldson talking about Jesse Jackson on This Week with David Brinkley, March 27, 1988.

■ “When Geraldine Ferraro became the Democratic candidate for Vice President, I stood on the convention floor and fought back tears. Forget objectivity; the moment transcended politics. As I followed the Jesse Jackson campaign in Philadelphia yesterday, I fell on the same phenomenon: a transcendent pride in this person’s breakthrough. You could see it on the faces of people on Locust Street...you could hear it in the voice of the gospel singer at a Jackson rally.”
— CBS News reporter Judy Muller in her CBS Radio “Correspondent’s Notebook,” April 26, 1988.

■ “Jesse Jackson succeeded in conducting a brilliant presidential campaign in which he enlisted white support as well as black support...and conducted a mainstream campaign.”
— CBS’s Walter Cronkite during live convention coverage, July 20, 1988.

■ “He [Jackson] has become here, a kind of new, he’s acquired a new status. He’s almost like Hubert Humphrey was, a sort of conscience of the country.”
— CBS’s Eric Sevareid during live convention coverage, July 20, 1988.

■ “Jackson’s gift is his uncanny radar for emerging issues that strike the country’s conscience. Last week he literally was at the forefront of the crusade against homelessness, helping to lead a huge Washington protest rally on the eve of his 48th birthday. He’s still brimming with ideas: school-based training for parents who accompany their kids to school, anti-drug education programs that enlist disc jockeys and entertainers as leaders.”
Newsweek reporter Howard Fineman, October 16, 1989.

■ “Let Ronald Reagan ride off into the sunset untroubled by fleeting memories of astrologers, smoke-and-mirrors budget arithmetic, and arms-for-hostages swaps. Dwell instead on those political tall timbers still standing, the heirs of Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln....Only Jesse Jackson, still an acquired taste for most white Americans, can strike the kind of inspirational pose that one could imagine being immortalized in granite.”
— Time Senior Writer Walter Shapiro in the September 1990 GQ.

■ “Jesse Jackson is one American politician who consistently speaks for the poor and downtrodden. One of the few national leaders openly advocating aid to the cities.”
— Dan Rather, July 13, 1992 CBS Evening News.

■ “Jesse Jackson never wasted his talent on the giants. He’s always reached down to little folks....I’m from East Texas. My daddy was a New Deal Democrat, and I love the vibrations and the rhythms and the cadences and the power he puts behind lost causes.”
— CNN convention commentator Bill Moyers, July 14, 1992.

■ “Did anyone else find it unnerving that only days before Bill Clinton signed a welfare-reform law that will plunge more than a million children into official poverty, he marked his 50th birthday with glitzy celebrations in New York City that added $10 million to his party’s bulging campaign war chest?...As Jesse Jackson has repeatedly and unavailingly pointed out, it makes little sense to elect a Democrat if he governs like a conservative Republican.”
Time National Correspondent Jack E. White in the September 2, 1996 issue.

Anchor Brian Williams: “Again, Howard, bottom line. No other American was able to do what Jesse Jackson did. Doesn’t the American political system need a Jesse Jackson?”
Newsweek’s Howard Fineman: “He is a safety valve....You know, the old joke is that there is no more dangerous place in America than between Jesse Jackson and a microphone, but he’s got guts. And he’s got a lot of guts, more than most politicians and most leaders in this country are willing to show.”
— Discussion on MSNBC’s News with Brian Williams, May 3, 1999, after Jackson secured the release of three U.S. soldiers captured in Serbia.

■ “Jesse, if you’re watching in Chicago, you’re still our hero, and we need you now more than ever.”
West Wing actor Martin Sheen during the January 21, 2001 Golden Globe Awards.

■ “When you first heard that Jesse Jackson admitted he’d fathered an out-of-wedlock child, what did you think? Jackson, the charismatic national symbol of human rights, the married father of five grown children.”
— ABC’s Connie Chung introducing her 20/20 interview with Karin Stanford, the mother of Jackson’s illegitimate daughter, August 17, 2001.

■ “If you were a kid in the Northeast during the 1980s, as I was, there is something awesome — in the literal sense — about sitting across a desk from Mario Cuomo.... Cuomo, Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson were the three titans of the day who seemed to possess the defiance needed to rescue liberalism from obsolescence.”
— Correspondent Matt Bai in the April 10, 2011 New York Times Magazine.

For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.