Politics in the Age of Information is markedly different from past eras. There is almost no expectation of privacy, and practically nothing can be said in confidence. What’s more, everything, no matter how astute or embarrassing, is preserved in perpetuity. Just ask former Senator George “Macaca” Allen, or President George “major-league asshole” Bush, or now, Jesse Jackson. Jackson was unknowingly recorded making disparaging remarks about Barack Obama to another guest while waiting to be interviewed for a segment on Fox & Friends:
“Obama is talking down to black people…I want to cut his nuts off.”
Jackson apologized for the comments even before they were broadcast. But the larger issue here concerns the nature of public dialog in the 21st century. These developments can have both positive and negative consequences. It certainly introduces a new level of transparency into campaigning and governing. And it requires a greater degree of attention be paid to extemporaneous remarks. Unfortunately, it will also inhibit the sort of candid commentary that often tells us more about someone than canned speeches will. But are there limits to what can be ethically revealed in situations where the speaker presumed the conversation was private? If there are, you can be sure that Fox News will ignore them.
In most of the instances of loose-tongued public speakers, a third party in attendance produces a personally made recording of the controversial moment. Barack Obama’s comments on bitterness, faith and guns, were made at a closed meeting of donors. President Bush, in the example above, was speaking privately to Dick Cheney. The difference between these events and today’s slip by Jesse Jackson is that Jackson’s remarks were recorded in the studios of Fox News.
Television news studios are not places where recordings are made accidentally. It is, of course, what they are designed for. So people invited inside for appearances ought to be aware that tapes are rolling and mics are hot. But they should not be expected to keep their mouths shut from the time they enter the building until they drive off the lot. They ought to be permitted to have private conversations without fear that they will end up on the evening broadcast.
Jackson was speaking in an obvious whisper when he was waiting to be interviewed. But Fox News chose to record and release the comments that were so unmistakably intended to be private. Since it is impossible to walk into a studio that has no recording devices, Fox has just declared that anything you discuss with anyone while in their facilities is fair game. You could be talking to your mother on your cell phone and see it later that day on Hannity and Colmes.
By setting this standard, Fox is, in effect, daring people to come into their studios and not get caught on tape. Can you stay utterly silent before and after your conversations on the air? Can you refrain from speaking to colleagues or telling them something important while waiting on the set?
I have long advocated that Democrats and progressives should stay off of Fox News simply because there is no benefit to appearing there. But now there is another reason to stay away. The ethically deficient so-called journalists at Fox will screw you over if you give them the opportunity. And that is exactly what happened today. In a brazenly obvious play for ratings, the recording of Jackson’s statement was even held as an exclusive for Bill O’Reilly’s O’Reilly Factor.
In his Talking Points O’Reilly boasted that he would not speculate as to what was on Jackson’s mind, as others might do. Then, in the following segmented, he proceeded to speculate as to what was on Jackson’s mind (saying that Jackson was probably referring to Obama’s speech on fathers in African-American families). Even worse were the implications he floated as he ostensibly bragged about how fair he was being:
“I want to tell the audience, and I want to tell you, that we held back some of this conversation, and we did that because 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.”
Although O’Reilly is not out to make Jackson look bad, he wants you to know that he has even juicier ill-gotten eavesdroppings that he is just too virtuous to reveal – but not so virtuous that he won’t tell you that he has it, so your imagination can start churning. O’Reilly once threatened Democrats who declined to appear on Fox News by warning that…
“If you dodge us, it is at your peril.”
It seems that engaging them is at least as perilous. This is exactly what can be expected from O’Reilly and Fox News. And anyone who ventures there and winds up pulling knives from their back, gets what they deserve.
Update: As it turns out, it was a staff member of Fox & Friends that found Jackson’s remarks and sent them to an O’Reilly producer. The Fester then jumped at the chance to hype this for his show.