My one and only encounter with Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden almost ended my journalism career before it started.
The year was 1984. I was only a few months out of college when the politics beat for the daily newspaper in Lynchburg fell into my lap. My first assignment was to travel across the mountain to cover the venerable Mock Convention at Washington and Lee University in Lexington.
The convention started on a Friday, but the real action that night was at the fraternity houses. This was an era when the university was all-male and the drinking age was 19. In the gym, a few hundred die-hards soldiered on in an effort to continue the school's winning streak of predicting the presidential nominee of the out-of-power party.
The first night featured a parade of Democratic middleweights who had little success in firing up a crowd heavy with young, privileged Republicans. The students pretended to listen. Who could blame them? Trying to predict the Democratic nominee seemed all the more academic that year given that President Ronald Reagan was running for re-election.
Against all odds, one Democrat managed to stir life into the proceedings. Biden, then a 41-year-old senator from Delaware, delivered a speech that riffed on the tragic loss of fallen heroes — John and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. He spoke about his belief that Americans longed for a leader who encouraged them to consider the common good. Biden wanted to know how the United States had gone from a president who challenged people to “ask not what your country can do for you” to one who pandered with the question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” The students gave him a standing ovation.
Afterward, Biden strutted into the press room like a slugger who'd just hit one out of the park. Too intimidated to venture a question, I listened as reporters quizzed Biden about presidential politics. Someone asked Biden about the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who a few months earlier had won the Democratic primary in Virginia. I can't remember the exact question, but I'll never forget Biden's answer.
“Jesse Jackson, that boy ain't no dummy,” Biden said, quickly adding, “and Gary Hart, that boy ain't no dummy either.”
None of the half-dozen or so reporters challenged Biden to explain his choice of words. He took a few more questions and went on his way.
It wasn't until he left that reporters started asking each other, “Did he just say what I thought he said?” A radio reporter rewound his tape, and we all heard it again.
The reporters soon had themselves whipped into a froth. Several of them hadn't planned on filing stories that night, but Biden's slip had given the journalists a chance to carry their bylines onto the front page for a national audience.
It was late and deadline was approaching. Reporters with The Washington Post and United Press International took turns pitching their editors on the single telephone shared by all reporters.
As I listened to them make their case, I debated what I should do. My instructions were to write color stories and perhaps quote a few students from home. I wasn't sure if my readers back in Lynchburg would care about an ill-advised remark from a junior senator from Delaware.
Biden clearly had made a gaffe. But was it newsworthy? In his favor, the news conference was not the first time Biden uttered the word “boy” that night. During his speech, Biden told a self-deprecating story about his encounter with a farmer who repeatedly referred to Biden as “boy.” Of course, there's is a difference between Biden's anecdote and a white man using the same phrase to describe a man of color. The clincher for me was tone of Biden's voice, which in a folksy vernacular conveyed respect for Jackson.
I decided to take a pass. So did several other reporters.
But I made another decision, one that could have undone my career. The most interesting story that night, at least to me, was how journalists determined what was newsworthy. Without informing anyone, I began taking notes on my fellow reporters. I felt like a double agent. A few days later, the Lynchburg paper published my expose on “pack journalism.”
Imagine the audacity of a 23-year-old novice whose very first political article is a critique of his peers. I expected to be driven from the profession. Instead, nothing happened. Silence. Luckily for me, no one outside of Lynchburg must have read my article.
Today, I sometimes wonder if I made the right call in not rushing Biden's remark into print. Jackson was taken to account that year for using a slur to describe Jews, so was it a double standard for the press not to report a white politician referring to Jackson as a “boy”?
Today, reporters often don't have any discretion in such matters. Had Biden made his remarks at this year's Mock Convention, bloggers would have posted his words within seconds, followed by a video upload to YouTube.
It's instantaneous. It's unending. It's what they call news. S
David Poole worked as a political reporter in the Richmond bureau of Landmark Communications, publisher of The Roanoke Times, The Virginian-Pilot and Style Weekly. In 1997, Poole left journalism to found the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan service that tracks money in Virginia politics.
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