Derrick Jackson on race in the media
You said that you think athletes have the potential to play a huge role in improving the image of black people in the media. I was wondering if you could explain a little further what you meant and how you would like to see them get more involved?
I think that the disproportionate participation and dominance of African-Americans in sports is, unfortunately, due to a lack of opportunity--perceived or real lack of opportunity. In a perfect world, the NBA [National Basketball Association] would not be 80 percent black, it would be 13 percent black. [13 percent of Americans are African-American, according to Jackson.] In a perfect world, the NFL [National Football League] would not be 60 percent black, it would be 13 percent black, and African-Americans would be 13 percent of corporate CEOs...I've always felt that black athletes, because of their prominence, could have a serious role to play, if they wanted to. Are they obligated to? That's something to debate, but their potential is immense for both social issues and, in some cases, political issues.
Sometimes I've thought, "What if the top athletes of the day ran a campaign for kids to go to school, a literacy campaign?"...The way the media often works is we give the Ochocincos and the Terrell Owens and other people like that a disproportionate amount of play and it enhances and reinforces a very big and mixed-up stereotype of African-Americans as jesters and clowns. Maybe I'm wishing against hope, because the athletic life of an athlete is so short and their time to make money is so short, that a lot of them are not going to be thinking about their community and their potential within it [while they're in the prime of their careers].
Do you think there's been a step back since the days of Jim Brown, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron--all black athletes for whom social justice and social advancement were huge on their agenda?
I think that [as far as athletes are concerned] there's been a huge step backwards. I don't perceive a lot of social consciousness from athletes while they're playing.
Interestingly, in a sort of parallel way, I do see [social advancement] in the growing acceptance of African-American coaches. I've written about Tony Dungy being the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl. Indiana was a red state when Tony Dungy took the helm of the Indianapolis Colts and during his time, the team got better and better, and in the 2008 elections, by the narrowest of margins, Indiana became a blue state. Who knows, but I'm willing to take an educated guess that, white voters, seeing an African-American at the helm of a very treasured cultural asset in Indiana, somewhere in the subconscious of white voters they could see, in a very prominent way, not only competence from an African American chief executive, but excellence.
Can you clarify what you mean when you referred to President Barack Obama as "the most disciplined black man in history?"
Many African-Americans, such as myself, have always operated under the assumption that we would have to work twice as hard to get the same thing as a typical white person. And I think Obama came to that assumption when he began running for president. The assumption is that there is less we can do wrong, and the things we do wrong will be picked at...I think that because Obama knew that, he ran the tightest campaign in what I think could be American history. He had a couple gaffes here and there, but he quickly apologized for them.
I think the best example of Obama's discipline was his speech about race in Philadelphia, when quotes from his former pastor Jerry Wright were being used so much on conservative talk shows...that speech that he gave in Philadelphia was, I think, probably the tightest and most balanced discussion of race and racism [that I'd ever heard]. Had he said one word wrong, or one word that had been perceived as wrong, he probably wouldn't be president.
Aside from his speech on race, can you point to anywhere else in Obama's campaign where he demonstrated what you call his ability to "disarm the media on race and get people to look at him as an individual?"
In the general campaign, when Sarah Palin started going after [Obama's] "Americanness"...the times were so bad at that moment that Americans were really thinking about the economy, the wars...we were at sort of an interesting moment where the average American really didn't have time for racial anything. They wanted to talk about the real issues of the day.
I think it is a cautionary statistic that, even with the worst economy since the great depression, even with two wars, one of which was launched under false pretenses...55 percent of white Americans still voted Republican. That said, Obama is still president because of a much broader coalition of Americans. I think that he spoke to something that easily transcended race. The issues that confronted the country were universal enough that people didn't really have time to engage in divisive politics. It was a good moment at a bad time for the United States.
You praised The Boston Globe's program that gives kids from the inner city a chance to write columns for the Globe. Where else do you think the media can go to get young minorities involved in the media and in changing the direction of race in the media?
Newspapers and the media need to get to kids in middle school and high elementary school, we need to get to them the value of considering this craft which is still a pillar of how we maintain a free society. Without free press, people become imprisoned by whatever the government wants to say. The commercial and material pressures on youth today are like none before...Newspapers and television stations that are serious about recruiting young people to consider the craft, have to get to kids when they are 10, 11 12 years old. By 13, 14 and 15, it's too late. You have to plant the seed early...Even if this isn't immediately the highest paying job, somehow it's still going to be worth it at the end of the day.
For me, at 54, this is still fun...I don't know what other craft in which you can follow the future president in perhaps one of the most historic moment in the nation's history, and then you can also be on field for the NFC [National Football Conference] championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants. Or I can be in South Africa going to Robin Island and interviewing a past prisoner about how terrible his conditions were under apartheid...I don't know too many other professions that people love with the intensity of journalism. It's allowed me to have a piece of power in the world; the power to tell people stories or give a perspective that otherwise might not be put forward.
You said a columnist's first job is as a journalist. How do you toe the line between presenting your opinion while still remaining unbiased?
A columnist is never unbiased - our job is to be biased. But you're biased with principle; you're biased with journalistic principles. The whole point of being a columnist is to provide a point of view.
The critical point that separates a newspaper columnist from a talk show pundit is that you back up what you say with real data, real facts, and you do follow the old fashion of "who, what, where, when, why and how."