If Jesse Jackson Jr. has bipolar disorder, we should all be concerned about his well-being and hope he gets the treatment he’ll need to cope. I think it’s a good thing that we can use Jackson’s struggle to inspire a larger conversation about mental health in this country. That said, I think the media is failing us with its coverage of Jackson’s abrupt disappearance from Washington. I fear that any emerging discussion on mental illness will soon be derailed by Jackson’s alleged wrongdoings.
Remember, Jackson is currently being investigated by the House Ethics Committee for his suspicious dealings with former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Remember too, Blagojevich is currently serving a 14-year prison sentence for attempting to sell President Obama’s vacated Senate seat. According to reports, Blagojevich is said to have met with Jackson to speak about his possible appointment to Obama’s Senate seat the day before Blagojevich was arrested in December 2008. During Blagojevich’s federal corruption trial, prosecutors hinted that Jackson knew about the shady dealings between Blagojevich and Nayak.
Jackson’s former campaign fundraiser, Raghuveer Nayak, who was also a fundraiser for Blagojevich, allegedly promised to raise $1 million for the former governor, if he appointed Jackson to Obama’s old seat. Nayak is also reported to have flown a woman, an acquaintance of Jackson’s, cross-country on his own dime, and at the request of Jesse Jackson Jr. Nayak was arrested in late June on other charges (mail fraud and tax evasion), oddly close to the time Jackson announced his medical leave from Congress. Jackson has said, “I am confident that in the end I will be vindicated.”
Jackson is going through a difficult time. We have no reason not to believe the Mayo Clinic when it says that Jackson is bipolar. But this doesn’t give the media a free pass to throw away its investigative work. The allegations against Jackson are deplorable—paying for a voice in Congress is an utter affront to democracy, and Democrats and Republicans alike should be appalled if these allegations are proven to be true.
If we link Jackson’s story to any larger conversation about mental health, we’ll get nowhere. If Jackson ends up being censured by the House, we’ll be talking about him using his supposed disorder as a distraction. The important conversation will take a back seat.
In the meantime, the media’s job is not to give up on the alleged facts because it might be difficult for Jackson and his family to hear them right now. We should be sensitive to the struggle of Jackson and his family, but our sensitivity should be accompanied by a healthy dose of caution. And we need to be talking about mental health whether Jackson is bipolar or not.