Television coverage of Jesse L. Jackson's 1984 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination helped to launch his candidacy at the same time it portrayed him as someone who could never win, according to a study by a Princeton University political scientist.
In a study called "A Horse of a Different Color: Television's Treatment of Jesse Jackson's 1984 Presidential Campaign," C. Anthony Broh said Jackson fell victim to "horse-race journalism" that characterized much of the campaign coverage on CBS, NBC and ABC.
"They followed the horse-race closely, but they knew that Jesse Jackson was not a front-runner, not a contender and not even a long shot," Broh wrote. "He was 'a horse of a different color.' "
Broh, who studied 2,189 television news reports from the 1984 campaign, wrote for The Joint Center for Political Studies, a nonprofit, nonpartisan institution that conducts research on issues of concern to black Americans.
In the study of television news from Nov. 1, 1983, to July 19, 1984, Broh found that Jackson was viewed less as a viable contender than any of the other four major Democratic candidates.
Few reports about Jackson "spoke of his campaign plans, techniques and tactics," Broh wrote. "It is not that television news was opposed to his becoming president, any more than it was opposed to any of the other candidates. Rather, it simply could not imagine his becoming president."
Broh also said television news items were five times more likely to concentrate on Jackson's personality traits than on those of the other four whose news coverage was studied. They are Sens. Alan Cranston (Calif.) and John Glenn (Ohio), former senator Gary Hart (Colo.) and former vice president Walter F. Mondale.
Broh attributed this fascination with Jackson as a person primarily to the fact that he was not viewed as a contender. Jackson's flamboyance added to the news media's interest in his personality, and Broh wrote that "journalists associated Jackson's rise to national prominence with a personality trait -- the trait of opportunism."
As an example, he cited publicity surrounding the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He noted that eyewitnesses said Jackson was not the first person to reach King after the murder at a Memphis motel in 1968.
However, he added that Jackson has said that he and King were talking at the time of the shooting and that King's last words were about future civil-rights strategy.
Although Broh said he thinks that Jackson benefited from numerous reports about his stamina and hard work as a campaigner, television commentators seemed ready to conclude more easily that such ventures as his trips abroad were timed for political advantage and free news coverage.
Television failed most dramatically in trying to depict Jackson's wit, Broh said. "In fact, television news presented more one-liners by Walter Mondale, the campaign's most boring personality, than by Jackson," he said. Jackson "did not benefit from the good will that most people extend to a person with a lively sense of humor."
After Jackson was quoted in The Washington Post as referring to New York as "Hymietown" and Jews as "Hymies," reporters questioned Jackson's intergrity and honesty, especially since he initially denied making the comments, then acknowledged them and apologized.
"Television not only portrayed Jackson as having an unsuitable personality, but it also concentrated on that personality in a disproportionately large number of stories," Broh said.
Discussing the 1988 campaign, Broh said a black candidate must view television coverage as an obstacle as "formidable" as a party's rules and procedures.
He suggested that the only candidate who might be able to break out of the stereotype as a "black" candidate would be one with regular party credentials, not one viewed as an outsider, as is Jackson, who has never held elective office.