| American Journalism Review
| From AJR, May 1999|
By Gigi Anders
Gigi Anders is a freelance writer and the author of the upcoming memoir "JUBANA! Confessions of a Jewish Cubana Goddess."
"LETS TALK BLACK TALK."
Fifteen years ago, over breakfast at Washington, D.C.'s National Airport, presidential candidate Jesse Jackson uttered those four words to Milton Coleman. Coleman was then a national political reporter at the Washington Post, covering the campaign. He motioned Jackson to go ahead. As Coleman wrote in a first-person piece in the Post's Outlook section some two-and-a-half months later, after a major controversy developed over Jackson's remarks, "Jackson then talked about the preoccupation of some with Israel. He said something to the effect of the following: `That's all Hymie wants to talk about, is Israel; every time you go to Hymietown, that's all they want to talk about.' "
Coleman, who had no notebook or tape recorder, made a mental note of Jackson's remarks; he knew this conversation was important. Coleman had talked to other reporters on the Jackson campaign and they'd heard the same thing. He therefore considered Jackson's talk "sorta semi-public."
The week after the airport conversation, fellow Post reporter Rick Atkinson called Coleman in New Hampshire. Atkinson was writing a story on Jackson's relationship with Jewish Americans and asked Coleman if he could arrange an interview with Jackson for him. Coleman agreed, telling Atkinson that there were two things he needed to know if he was going to do the story: One, he should interview Chicago writer and political consultant Don Rose, who'd earlier talked to Coleman about Jackson's general problem with white liberals; that is, that many are Jewish and felt that Jackson was an anti-Semite. Secondly, Coleman told Atkinson about Jackson's "Hymietown" remarks, adding that Atkinson had to call Jackson before he used the material.
Four days later, on February 13, Atkinson's story ran on the front page; Coleman got a tagline. In the 37th and 38th paragraphs of the 52-paragraph story, Atkinson wrote: "In private conversations with reporters, Jackson has referred to Jews as `Hymie' and to New York as `Hymietown.' "
Jackson issued a non-denial-denial, insisting he had no recollection of having said any such things. The Post reported that denial in a small story in the front of the A section. And then things sort of went awry.
Jackson copped to the quotes; Louis Farrakhan, a Jackson supporter, threatened Coleman's life; some of Coleman's own colleagues broke with him; Jackson's political momentum stalled and died.
In an interview with Gigi Anders, Coleman, now the Post's deputy managing editor, reflects on what became a seminal event in journalism:
AJR: Do you ever get sick of talking about this?
MC: It's hard to be a journalist and not talk to people. I don't really talk about it that much. Three or four times a year, maybe. Often to students. I have an obligation to impart my version of what happened. I try not to talk about things like what impact it had on the campaign. Let other people judge that.
AJR: So why do you think people still talk about the "Hymietown" thing?
MC: It was a particularly charged incident. I mean, look. I was not the first reporter to be a target of those kinds of threats. Bad things have been said about [former USA Today columnist] Barbara Reynolds and [former New York Times reporter] Paul Delaney. People continue to talk about what happened with Jesse and me as an example because, let's face it, there are not that many high-profile stories in the black journalism realm. That's the reality.
AJR: What are your critics' criticisms?
MC: I would venture to say that first of all, people had legitimate disagreements with what I did. And I think it's only fair to the record to point out that much of the criticism aimed at me was aimed at the fact that in some of my critics' view, I had broken a vow on the anonymity of a source. They saw that as the wrong, not `He reported something negative on a brother.' [David] Broder subsequently said that he thought that I and other reporters should have made the ground rules more explicit to Jesse, and that's fair criticism.
AJR: Why did this get so much publicity at the time?
MC: A lot of people say it got so much publicity because it came at a God-awful time. Everybody's looking at Jesse, the first black person to be a serious factor in a presidential campaign. There are blacks who think that whites think that all black men need to be happy are loose shoes, a tight [woman's sex organ] and a warm place to shit. So of course black people were saying, "I hope it goes flawlessly." And lo and behold: Jesse stumbles by something someone black wrote.
AJR: How did you arrive at your decision to tell Atkinson about what Jackson had told you, and did you feel you were betraying a brother?
MC: I made the decision as a journalist. I had a higher calling. That ain't got nothin' to do with race.
AJR: Any regrets?
MC: I don't have any regrets. I stand by what I did. It's a moot point because in the end it was an accurate report. I broke a rule, but for a legitimate reason. My view is that we are accountable to our communities, but the leaders shouldn't be confused with the communities. I have never heard black people--honest--say, "Please don't tell me the truth." After you tell people something, it may not matter to them, but they're free to do with it as they will. A lot of people have made it clear that they don't care about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. But our job in the news media is to report what we think people ought to know, and they can make up their minds, and we've done our duty.
AJR: So doing our duty's really the bottom line?
MC:You know the movie, "The Fugitive"? There's that scene where Tommy Lee Jones [dogged U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard] finally catches up with Harrison Ford [Richard Kimble, a surgeon wrongly accused of his wife's murder]. Harrison is at the edge of this cliff above a dam. Right before he jumps, he yells out to Tommy, "I didn't kill my wife!" And Tommy goes, "I don't care! It's not my job to care. I have to bring you in!" Well, that's how I look at this. Jesse was Harrison Ford. And I am Tommy Lee Jones.###