Jesse Jackson is a study in concentration -- eyes fixed straight ahead, expression unchanging, hands firmly clasped before him -- as he sits beneath the hot lights of a Northwest Washington television studio. He is about to read from the first script of the first show that he hopes will transform him in the public mind from perennial presidential candidate to Jesse the Journalist.
Jackson has recently returned from Canada, where he tried to talk to a small band of Mohawk Indians locked in a tense standoff with the Canadian government. Now he looks into the camera, ready to tell the story. After flubbing his lines three times, he finishes the introduction to a taped report on his trip.
There is footage of Jackson surrounded by Canadian reporters. Footage of Jackson conferring with a Canadian official who barred him from the site. Footage of Jackson surrounded by a thicket of mikes and minicams. Footage of Jackson holding a news conference with an Indian leader and accepting an Indian sweat shirt. Then it's back to the studio for more Jackson.
The first taping of "The Jesse Jackson Show" turned into a six-hour marathon at WRC-TV's studios Thursday, but the exercise shed light on more than just Jackson's stamina. Clearly, Jackson's brand of reporting will be an unusual amalgam of inquiry and activism that will focus the camera's lens on his favorite causes and, some would say, his favorite subject. He remains a man with a mission who has simply traded the pulpit of national politics for the stool in front of the TelePrompTer.
The weekly, hour-long show, which will debut this weekend on 130 stations nationwide under a syndication arrangement with Time Warner and Quincy Jones Productions, will not air in Washington and Baltimore until after the November election because of Jackson's candidacy for D.C. shadow senator. Perhaps the larger question is whether a show that ends with Jackson's trademark chant -- "Keep hope alive!" -- can separate itself from the reverend's political shadow.
"We've been wrestling with this for the past eight or 10 weeks and when he went to Iraq," says Kevin Wendle, president of Quincy Jones Productions. "Is he a journalist? Is he a diplomat? First we said to ourselves he's a journalist, he's just like Ted Koppel. Then we said he's really not, he's something in between. He's a major American figure with a television show. If you looked up Webster's definition of the word journalist, he wouldn't fall under that."
Bypassing the Middlemen Jackson, 48, who began the morning in a jeans jacket, strolls out of the makeup room in a navy pin-stripe suit with pocket handkerchief. As he stops to chat, he makes clear that his frustration with the media -- he recently complained that he was the victim of a near-total blackout by major news organizations -- has prompted him to go over the heads of those who would interpret his words.
"You make a point in Montreal, and by the time it is shot by satellite to Washington, what comes out can be several nuances away from where the point was," he says.
He is tired of having his message filtered through "two or three levels of editors," he says. "There becomes a lot of distortion, a lot of pollution. Sometimes the reason's technical, sometimes the reason's political... . I tell them my story and they tell their story about my story, which is a different story."
Jackson recalls how television coverage brought the civil rights movement into the nation's living rooms. It was something of a breakthrough, he says, when Martin Luther King Jr. appeared on a late-night talk show in the 1960s, allowing viewers to see more of the man than just snippets of speeches.
"We used to have to march from Selma to Montgomery to get our message across," Jackson says. "Now, with today's technology ... I can travel less and send out more message by projecting it this way."
In a larger sense, Jackson says, blacks have "been locked out. You have Pat Buchanan, McLaughlin, 'The Capital Gang,' 'This Week With David Brinkley.' Those who have been identified with expanding democracy ... have for the most part been censored and strained through some production mechanism that gives our view in bits and pieces."
Jackson walks onto the set, drawing applause from the audience of 40 people. In a little warm-up talk, he says he is committed to fair journalism but wants to "fuse it with some action. We really do want to cover issues of great substance, but then make things happen."
The Journalist at Work It is shortly before 10:30 a.m. and the taping, which was supposed to begin a half-hour ago, is still not underway. Director Jesse Vaughan is pointing to a big red exit sign near the ceiling.
"This thing is in my opening shot, and it looks like dog doo," he complains. Three men are dispatched to remove the sign.
The set is a spare one -- a wooden table and five chairs that look like early Scan, surrounded by wooden bleachers. The taping had been scheduled for the morning before, but was put off at the last minute. Several sources said a series of snafus had prompted executives to consider postponing the show for two to four weeks, but decided not to out of concern that many affiliate stations, who have been promoting the show, might jump ship.
Wendle and Time Warner officials insist a long postponement was just a rumor. Wendle says the producers were merely trying to update the show after the Mohawk Indians, who were protesting plans to build a golf course on their sacred burial ground, abruptly ended their 11-week siege in Quebec Wednesday. Several staffers stayed up all night making changes.
At 11:39 a.m., Jackson is ready for the first run-through. He settles onto a stool before Camera F and begins: "This week, the world saw scenes -- "
"We can't hear it," a technician barks from offstage. Adjustments are made. Jackson tries again.
"This week, the whole world saw scenes of incredible racial ugliness. The Canadian army, 4,000 strong, converged its troops on a single obstacle -- " Jackson stops. He wants a script change. A new phrase is penciled into the TelePrompTer. An 8-month-old baby in the audience starts to cry. An aide comes over with tissues and mops Jackson's forehead.
Moments later, the actual taping gets underway. "Welcome, friends, to a brand new forum in which the issues of the day can be discussed." Jackson flubs a line. "Welcome, friends -- " More technical problems. The makeup lady is summoned. Jackson delivers the same lines over and over, completing the segment on the seventh try.
For any other reporter, the taped report on the trip to Canada would have been a near-total washout. Jackson didn't get to interview any Mohawk Indians; he was rebuffed in his attempts to speak to Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney or the premier of Quebec, settling instead for a sit-down with one provincial official. But the trip itself -- Jesse goes to Canada, Jesse blocked by the army, Jesse holds a press conference -- becomes the story, another colorful adventure starring Jackson.
Is this advocacy journalism, or self-advocacy journalism?
"If he calls himself a journalist, journalists should protest," says Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution analyst. "Journalists don't run for president. Journalists aren't shadow senators. This is more than a semantics problem.
"We expect most journalists to be objective, show both sides of the story... . If everyone running around who can get a syndicated show can call themselves a journalist, people's impression of journalism is going to get very fuzzy," Hess says.
Syndicated columnist Carl Rowan was recently quoted as saying, "I am against intelligence agents posing as journalists, against cops posing as journalists and against diplomats posing as journalists. He's no journalist, no diplomat. He's a politician."
The dilemma first surfaced last month when Jackson sought funding from Time Warner, the three networks and other news organizations for a trip to Iraq to interview Saddam Hussein. He was finally bankrolled by the show "Inside Edition." The Saddam interview was something of a bust -- Jackson was scooped by Dan Rather -- but the reverend made news of his own when he negotiated freedom for several American hostages in Kuwait.
Author and Middle East expert Milton Viorst, who traveled with Jackson as an adviser, wrote in the New Yorker: "No one really believed that Jesse Jackson had come to Iraq to be a journalist -- not the Iraqis, not the diplomats in the American Embassy with whom he bargained, not the newsmen who followed him around. Not Jackson himself, in fact."
Still, Jackson argues he can give a fuller airing to issues like the plight of American Indians that are all but ignored by the national media, which have "a very strong conservative tilt." When he meets with white farmers or mine workers, he says, it rarely draws coverage because it doesn't fit reporters' preconceived notions about a black activist.
The program, which has a multimillion-dollar budget, has a one-year contract for 40 weekly shows and 12 reruns. It is trying to position itself as a hard-news show, with some staff members, including Executive Producer Michael Linder, imported from Fox's highly rated "America's Most Wanted." Senior Producer Kenneth Walker is a former Washington Star and ABC News reporter who was also an anchor on the ill-fated "USA Today" television show.
"We do not see this as a Beltway talk show," says Senior Producer Dan Cavanaugh.
In the coming weeks, the show plans to examine U.S. relations with Japan, college athletics, AIDS and black-on-black violence. But staffers also hope for late-breaking satellite interviews, using Jackson's stature to land interviews with such leaders as Fidel Castro.
"What some see as confusion, we see as an opportunity to do something different," says publicist Valerie Scott.
Jackson likens his new career to a star athlete becoming a sportscaster. While he may carry some ideological "baggage," he says, he knows more than those anchors with "pearly white teeth and the right kind of TV sex appeal."
Besides, says Jackson, he already writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, and wrote much of the show's script himself. "That's why it's in my rhythm," he says.
The Sympathetic Host If there was any doubt that the Jackson show would have a hard-left point of view, it dissipates with the next taped segment. The correspondent is Russell Means, leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM), who visits reservations in three states. The report is filled with such phrases as "the white people have gone crazy," "killing our culture" and "stopping the rape of our mother." Few opposing opinions are included. Means interviews suspended Navajo leader Peter MacDonald without mentioning that MacDonald has been charged with more than 100 counts of fraud and corruption.
Behind the scenes, producers have been struggling with internal tribal politics in trying to assemble a balanced program. Navajo interim vice president Irving Billy, for example, is upset with the show's focus and the fact that he was not invited to the taping until that morning.
At 2:25 p.m., Means, Billy, another Indian leader and a pro-Indian lawyer take their seats at the wooden table for a panel discussion. But Jackson has trouble with the introductions, at one point describing Means as "a founding member of rain," not AIM.
"Oh please," says Jacqueline Jackson, who is knitting backstage, after her husband's fourth fumble.
Jackson leads the group in a sober discussion of treaty rights. Some of his questions are convoluted; there is little disagreement among the guests. Jackson says he asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to send a participant but the agency declined.
At one point, Billy says he prefers a conciliatory approach to redressing Indian grievances. Jackson seems taken aback. "Are you resisting the confrontational efforts to gain attention to the crisis?" he says. But the hint of controversy quickly fades.
Jackson closes the show with a brief commentary, denouncing a racist comment by a Japanese minister and assailing that country's business ties to South Africa. Suddenly he sounds more like himself, firing off phrases like "economics over ethics" and "no sanctions, no shame." Faced with a no-comment from Japan -- the third time on the show he has been unable to get the opposing viewpoint -- Jackson tries to turn it to his advantage.
"We asked the Japanese Embassy here in Washington to send a spokesman to explain. However, as you can see" -- the camera pulls back -- "his chair is empty."
But Will the Show Go On? It is 4 p.m. and Jesse Jackson is tired. He tells onlookers the anecdote about King's appearance on late-night TV a second time. While the rest of the staff attacks eight boxes of Domino's pizza, Jackson has just finished taping some promotional spots. He admits the endless retakes are "tedious."
Kevin Wendle hails the maiden tape, which must be edited all night and flown to Warner Bros.' Burbank, Calif., studios by 11 a.m. Friday. He says that Jackson has a multi-year contract and that the show will likely continue if the ratings are good. That, of course, would take it into the next presidential campaign cycle.
"Jesse Jackson has told us this is not a platform for him to run for the presidency, and we've got to believe him... . He's told us he has no plans to run for president," Wendle says.
The question is put to Jackson, who is back at the wooden table for a round of print interviews. Is he really ready to renounce the 1992 campaign? The man who has spent the day asking the questions suddenly turns tentative, choosing his words carefully.
"I'm taking the show one week and one year at a time," Jackson says.