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?”).