I worked at a TV and radio news operation in Cincinnati when I was in college. I came into work early one morning to discover the overnight shift trying to confirm details of a “race-fight” involving high school gangs at a popular suburban mall.
Some racially-tinged violence had unfolded recently at one high school. There were questions if this had spilled over to a mall teeming with high school students. Police were mum and speculation was running wild.
I picked up the chase there. And throughout the course of the day, I called the police in that suburban community nearly every hour to see if they could provide any more information. Was there a police report? Were there arrests? And each time I hung up the phone I still had nothing.
Finally around 5 pm, I reached the police chief. He was so irate that I had to extend my elbow as I held the receiver so he didn’t rupture my eardrum. The chief gave me the business about hassling his officers every hour when they had more important things to do. He then upbraided me for trying to make a mountain out of a molehill.
I asked the chief what he meant. The chief said there wasn’t even a fight. It was a mild disturbance. There no were arrests, everyone dispersed, so they didn’t even make out a report – which of course would be a public record.
That’s when I returned the favor and blew a gasket at the police chief. I told him that’s all I needed to know – that nothing happened. But pray tell, how was I to know that if every time I called, the police provided no information, said there was no report and gave utterly no indication that nothing newsworthy happened at all.
All I needed was someone to tell me that early in the day rather than hours later. In fact, I told the chief that he had wasted my time and he could have put this to rest long ago.
We had tried to be responsible and hadn’t reported anything at all to that point. And we never did. Because all the newsroom had until the police chief’s tongue-lashing was speculation and conjecture.
Which brings us to the saga of Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL).
In late June, Jackson’s office released a brief statement saying the Congressman suffered from exhaustion. He was on medical leave and had been away from Congress for a few weeks. Then Jackson’s office published another statement last week. It said that Congressman Jackson’s medical condition is more serious that we thought and initially believed.”
Jackson’s office and family wouldn’t say anything else. Where was he? Was he getting better? Would he resign?
This comes amid a preliminary House Ethics Committee inquiry into whether Jackson may have offered to raise money for now-jailed and former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) in exchange for an appointment to President Obama’s Senate seat.
Jackson isn’t some obscure back-bencher in the House. He’s the son of Rev. Jesse Jackson, a protégé of Martin Luther King and two-time presidential candidate.
Fissures began to appear in Jackson’s levee last Monday. That’s when lawmakers started filtering back into Washington after the Independence Day break. And, intentionally or not, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) who turned up the pressure on Jackson at a press conference.
“As a public official, there comes a point when you have a responsibility to tell the public what’s going on,” said Durbin. “If there is some medical necessity for him not to say more at this moment than I will defer to that. But he will have to soon make a report on what he’s struggling with.”
At a briefing Tuesday morning, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) indicated Jackson had done enough to communicate his situation.
“They (Jackson’s aides) have certainly reported that he is ill and seeking help. And I think that that fulfills that responsibility,” said Hoyer.
On Tuesday, the usually-loquacious chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) offered a rare “no comment” when asked if he had spoken with Jackson. The Missouri Democrat also suggested that Jackson’s constituents were okay with his absence.
“People in the district he represents are satisfied with the explanation he gives,” Cleaver said. He questioned why the press was clamoring over Jackson, noting there were “434 members (of Congress) not in the hospital.”
But the chiffon bulwark assembled against the press exploded Tuesday night. It’s said that nothing can exist in a vacuum. And two menaces naturally filled the information void surrounding the Congressman: speculation and conjecture.
By Wednesday morning, ABC and CBS filed full-length stories about the Jackson puzzle. NPR stoked the embers when it ran this vague but chilling soundbyte from the Congressman’s father: “The crisis is deeper than we thought it was. But the good news, he’s under good supervision. He’s been in touch with his mother and his wife, and he’s on the rebound,” said Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.
By 10:30 am, Steny Hoyer dialed up the amperage of his message to Jackson, compared to the bromidic remark he gave 24 hours earlier.
“I think Congressman Jackson and his office and his family would be well advised to advise the constituents of his condition,” Hoyer said. “People get sick, and when people get sick, they miss work. Everybody in America understands that. But I think the family would be well advised to give his constituents as much information as is appropriate.”
Late Wednesday afternoon, a gaggle of reporters cornered Emanuel Cleaver off the House floor. While Cleaver didn’t reveal anything specific about Jackson, he fed the scribes the most information they had unearthed yet in the entire affair.
“I’ve talked to family members. He’s fine. They just want him to get well,” Cleaver said. “This is not about a Congressman. This is about a human being who is sick.”
Cleaver noted that Congress crafted the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) to prevent the release of medical information about patients.
“The HIPAA laws were designed so that people could experience medical treatment without public discussion,” Cleaver said.
A United Methodist Pastor, Cleaver noted that HIPAA even prevents churches from making a call to prayer about infirm worshipers.
Cleaver said he had not received “one question” from fellow CBC members about Jackson. But he said CBC’ers were “alarmed (at all of the conjecture) that some people were asking about his medical condition.”
That’s what happens when you’re the son of a famous father and well-known public official facing ethics scrutiny.
And you’re from a big media market like Chicago.
This is the second time this year that the Illinois Congressional delegation has waded through this exercise.
In January, 2012, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) suffered a debilitating stroke on the right side of his brain. Kirk’s office and a team of doctors sent out numerous releases and held press conferences discussing the senator’s status. Physicians indicated the stroke would impair Kirk’s motor skills on his left side. Immediately after the stroke, neurosurgeons removed portions of brain tissue and temporarily took out part of his cranium to relieve swelling. Doctors said the stroke could cause Kirk long-term physical challenges. But they thought his cognitive abilities would be fine.
Doctors moved Kirk to a rehabilitation center in early May. A week later, Kirk’s office released a video showing the senator learning how to walk again. Kirk spoke uneasily at the end of the video, saying his goal was to “climb the 45 steps that my staff counted from the parking lot to the Senate front door.”
Kirk still hasn’t returned to the Senate. But few could argue that Kirk’s office and medical team left room for speculation and conjecture.
An instance that did trigger limited speculation and conjecture came when 82-year-old Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) was AWOL from the House in February. Unlike Jackson, Rangel’s office didn’t even publish a delayed announcement indicating that Rangel may be out due to his health.
In late February, I noticed Rangel hadn’t voted in several weeks. So I pressed Rangel’s office to determine if he was really okay. His office said he hurt his back. Nothing else had been written in the press about Rangel’s absence. So I asked Rangel’s staff again, when he didn’t resurface in March. I told Rangel’s office that it’s news when a Congressional legend like him goes absent for weeks amid vague explanations.
It left acres of space for speculation and conjecture.
I received a surprising voicemail later that morning.
“Hey Chad, Charlie Rangel! You’re the only one that misses me,” proclaimed an unmistakable gravelly voice. “I’ll keep calling until I get you.”
Rangel phoned again later and described how a serious spinal infection dispatched him into howls of pain. When Rangel returned to Congress in May, he told a clutch of reporters that “I can’t think of a Republican that I would wish this on.”
Aside from Kirk, no Congressional office has provided more clarity about health-induced absences than that of 81-year-old Rep. Howard Coble (R-NC).
On December 13, 2011, Coble’s Chief of Staff Ed McDonald blasted out a statement announcing that the Congressman “requested a leave of absence Monday because he did not feel well enough to vote” and was at George Washington University Hospital. McDonald even said that the doctors “had ruled out pneumonia.” The next day, McDonald issued another statement indicating that the Congressman remained in the hospital and was resting comfortably.
On June 6, McDonald penned a statement saying the Congressman would be out for surgery due to lumbar spinal stenosis. The next day, McDonald declared the boss was “resting comfortably” following the operation.
“Congressman Coble was out of bed and walking before lunchtime today,” said McDonald’s release. “The incision was just over an inch in length. Dr (Jeffrey) Jenkins removed a tiny portion of the vertebrae so that nerves can pass through easily.”
McDonald published four separate statements about Coble’s recovery from back surgery. One on June 18 said Coble would return to vote the following day.
No room for speculation and conjecture there at all.
This past Wednesday evening, Jackson’s staff pushed out the most-definitive statement yet about the Congressman’s condition. The release cited HIPAA and reported that the Congressman was undergoing inpatient treatment for a “mood disorder.” It also said a rumor about Jackson “being treated for alcohol or substance abuse is not true.”
Some reporters decried that statement was still hazy. But it’s crystal clear compared to what was previously known about the Congressman’s condition. Regardless of HIPAA, this spurs a debate as to what lawmakers are obligated to tell the public about their health. Charlie Rangel’s office didn’t say a word about the Harlem Democrat’s back until a few reporters noticed he was absent and were even reserved about it then. Howard Coble’s office even described the size of his incision.
Unless lawmakers release any and all information explaining why they’re out of commission, it will always spur speculation and conjecture.
And right or not, that’s precisely what happened with Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL).
– Cristina Marcos contributed to this report.