One question with Jesse Jackson

By Richard Lee

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who turns 80 Friday, has been a civil rights leader, a candidate for president and an international activist. And a few minutes of his 80 years were spent with me.

We had very brief conversation in 1988 when he was seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Though short, the conversation taught me a valuable lesson about journalism.

Jackson had come to New Jersey, where I was covering politics, to campaign and raise money. While he was in the state, he used an office in the New Jersey State House for phone calls and meetings. He also agreed to speak with members of the State House press corps individually and with one caveat: Each reporter would be limited to one question for his or her session.

Given the circumstances, I had to make my one question count.

I knew Jackson would be visiting a town in our coverage area the next day to join a local legislator to tour a site that had suffered environmental damage. Although he had made the environment one of his top priorities, I suspected he had yet to be briefed on the site he was visiting and would not be able to speak in any detail about it.

The common denominator was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Jackson felt the agency wasn’t doing enough to clean up polluted sites, a sentiment that local community leaders shared about the New Jersey site he was scheduled to visit.

So I mentioned his upcoming visit to our coverage area and asked a broad question about the role of the EPA. He told me the EPA needed to be more aggressive. He did speak in general terms, but his comments not only fit into the story I was writing; they were strong enough to lead the article.

As a journalist, and now as a journalism professor, I tend to approach interviews as a series of questions. You do your research; you word your questions thoughtfully, and you ask follow-ups.

But sometimes your time is limited; sometimes conditions only allow for one question. And when those times come, you need to be ready.

Richard Lee, executive director of the Jandoli Institute, covered politics and government as a reporter and later served as Deputy Director of Communication for two New Jersey governors.

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