Al Sharpton’s all over the media lately, and the media are all over him. With his front-stage involvement in the Ferguson and Eric Garner protests and this Saturday’s march on Washington against police brutality, the Rev is, once again, the target of pop parody and right-wing hysteria. But now that he’s hosting the MSNBC show Politics Nation, he’s also the target of some perfectly valid scrutiny of his potentially conflicting roles of activist and cable news anchor.
In a Sharpton spoof last Saturday, Saturday Night Live didn’t touch on any conflicts of interest; its cold open simply reprised the image of Sharpton as a bombastic fool—but softly enough that Al ran a clip of it on his Monday show. Per usual for SNL, the skit was more flat than funny, but it did catch that exceedingly rare moment when—largely because of the Eric Garner case—most of the world actually agreed with Al Sharpton. “Folks are high-fiving with me, inviting me places,” says Al, played by Kenan Thompson. “This must be what it feels like to be Beyoncé.” (SNL also caught his mangled pronunciations, but it mistakenly showed him talking so much that his guests could barely get in a word. At MSNBC, that’s Chris Matthews’s job.)
The right wing, however, doesn’t do Al softly. They won’t forget his handling of the Tawana Brawley case (and for his part, Sharpton won’t admit it was a hoax, which is like Governor Chris Christie’s refusing to admit there was never a traffic study), and maybe they shouldn’t. But the right also refuses to see that Sharpton has mellowed or changed at all: they need him to forever be a radical and a race hustler. Glen Beck virtually called him a terrorist, saying, “He’s a dangerous, extremist cleric.” To Sean Hannity, Sharpton is one of the “racial arsonists,” along with Barack Obama and Eric Holder, responsible for the rioting in Ferguson (“Are those three people responsible,” Jon Stewart wondered, “or did you just name the only three black guys you could think of?”).
Because he’s the best-known single figure in the growing protest movement, the right will blame him for any violence, when, in fact, as New York City police commissioner Bill Bratton told Don Imus last week, Sharpton has been helping to promote the peace, as he did in Staten Island rallies earlier this year. In any case, this new grassroots civil rights movement has grown far beyond Sharpton, and perhaps any one leader.
The more relevant question about Sharpton is the one asked by Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s media-watch show, Reliable Sources. Given his prominence as an activist and newsmaker himself, “Are there ethical issues for MSNBC to have Sharpton anchor every night?”
It’s not just that Sharpton’s wearing both the anchor and the activist hats. “It’s more complicated than that,” Stelter said. “He’s wearing like seven hats,” including those of preacher, fundraiser, adviser to Obama, confidant of NYC mayor Bill De Blasio, and “importantly,” said Stelter, “a grief counselor to families in need like [Michael] Brown’s family. And, finally, he seems to be coordinating their media appearances.”
Sharpton has handled his haberdashery habit well enough since he got his MSNBC gig in 2011 until now, but has Ferguson somehow changed all that? “I think for the first time it’s probably gotten a little bit sticky,” NY1 anchor Erroll Lewis told Stelter. “When you see him interviewing somebody who he’s also representing and then he goes to the Justice Department or to the White House, you have to wonder, who in all of this is he really speaking to and for?”
Stelter said that in a phone conversation, Sharpton “pointed out that Jesse Jackson had a show on CNN in the 1990s, while heading up the Rainbow Coalition,” but Stelter implied that Jackson’s Saturday show, Both Sides, was somehow less transgressive than Sharpton’s daily show at “6 pm, almost prime time.” But that would seem to make only a quantitative, not a qualitative, difference.
It is complicated, indeed, as are most conflicts of interest involving media and political cross-dressers. Fox News hands out shows and/or lucrative contributor deals to any politico it wants to—Mike Huckabee, Scott Brown, Sarah Palin—until and if they run for office, when, maybe, they gotta go. MSNBC made Keith Olbermann return money he donated to two candidates (including Gabby Giffords, before she was shot).
I have friends on the left, though, who find Sharpton’s many roles endlessly irritating. “Is he making the news or delivering the news?” one of them asks. “Sharpton takes an hour away from a professional journalist who might possibly do some good by reporting. He’s not a professional, he’s a showman, as all good advocates in society need to be. But it almost says anyone can be a network news person. It’s a cheapening and a celebrification of the news.” This friend feels the same way about Ronan Farrow, another non-journalist activist with an MSNBC show. Back when Sharpton first took over Politics Nation (from “Young Turk” Cenk Uygar), St. Petersburg Times television critic Eric Deggans, a former officer of the National Association of Black Journalists, also gave MSNBC flak for not handing its valuable real estate to a black journalist.
Personally, I’m not bothered by Sharpton’s other roles. When you have twenty-four hours of cable to fill, why not mix it up? As long as a news or an opinion show is backed up by good journalism, why not extend diversity to include other professions and backgrounds? Comedians like Jon Stewart and John Oliver are doing a kind of journalism, as much as Stewart tries to deny it, and doing it well. The lines, they are a-blurrin’.
As National Urban League president Marc Morial told Stelter, in the “age of opinion journalism…TV anchors write blogs, lead or participate in organizations” and “wear different hats along the way. In that regard, I don’t think Reverend Sharpton is a lot different. He’s better known.”
Watch the Sharpton segment on Reliable Sources: