Rev. Al Sharpton on starting his new MSNBC anchor job tonight: "I don't think it was that big a leap"
Given that I suggested MSNBC may have made a mistake in employing him, I was prepared for newly-hired anchor Al Sharpton to try tearing me a new one when we finally talked about his latest gig.
But Sharpton, a veteran of countless public battles in a career that has lurched from pressing the questionable case of Tawana Brawley to running for president, shrugged off any criticism with a casual confidence.
“I didn’t think it was that great a leap,” he said Thursday, noting that he has hosted a radio show for Radio One, Keeping It Real with Al Sharpton, for five years. “(Radio personalities-turned-MSNBC hosts) Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz also do what I do…a type of journalism based on opinion and advocacy.”
At 6 p.m. today, MSNBC’s viewers will decide for themselves exactly what Sharpton does, as his new show PoliticsNation debuts on MSNBC. The man himself was uncharacteristically taciturn about what’s coming, noting that his time over the past eight weeks hosting the timeslot was essentially spent helming a version of Schultz’s show.
I raised questions about Sharpton’s hire for a few reasons: How would Sharpton’s continuing work as an activist jibe with the NBC News standards that led MSNBC to suspend former host Keith Olbermann and current host Joe Scarborough – in their case, for unauthorized campaign donations?
And given that no person of color has yet been hired to host a show on a major cable newschannel in prime time – they do appear in midday newscast programs – should MSNBC start down the road to diversity with someone known mostly as an activist, not a journalist? (6 p.m. isn’t technically prime time, which starts at 8 p.m.)
The fact that some black journalists were willing to criticize Sharpton made headlines, fueled by his decision to cancel a July appearance at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Philadelphia. But Shaprton insisted he was mostly misunderstood by people who didn't understand MSNBC's programming strategy.
“I think people would have to look at the format and understand that after 5 p.m., the format doesn’t call for a journalist,” Sharpton said, noting that hosts Maddow, Schultz and Lawrence O’Donnell have not worked primarily as journalists. Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s 7 p.m. show Hardball, worked for 15 years as a journalist, serving as Washington bureau chief for the San Fransisco Examiner.
Indeed, Sharpton sees his hire as breaking another color line; allowing a radio host of color to make the same transition to cable television news that others have.
“Those of us who have been in advocacy and those of us who have been in radio have seen they are taking people from radio – (Fox News host Sean) Hannity and Schultz – why can’t they take us?” he said. “Why is there a different standard for us. Why did all of this (controversy) start with me?” Hear my appearance on NPR Sunday discussing the issue below:
But Schultz and Maddow never led a nationally-known civil rights advocacy organization before taking their hosting jobs at MSNBC – let alone continuing to lead that group while working their anchor job.
In the past, when Fox News hosts such as Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck seemed to give too much support to the then-developing Tea Party, media critics asked sharp questions, wondering if the line had grown too blurry between passionate advocacy of general politics and specific support of a specific political organization.
With Sharpton’s hire at MSNBC, those questions rise again, despite his assurances that his National Action Network is a federally-recognized charity prohibited from advocating for specific politicians (he also shrugged off notions that his support for government approval allowing cable giant Comcast to take control of NBC Universal led to his MSNBC show, noting that ratings govern most cable TV news decisions).
Sharpton admitted discussions over his advocacy work contributed to a delay that kept MSNBC from confirming him as 6 p.m. host until two months after he began guest hosting in the timeslot. “It was a matter of reaching a comfort level on both sides,” he said. “Glenn Beck and other have done their activism marches while they were affiliated with their (channels). And none of it is partisan political. Most of what the network does is around issues of civil rights.”
I say Sharpton’s hire is the latest in a long-developing trend where cable news hosts in prime time are chosen mostly for their ability to get viewers – Sharpton’s ratings at 6p.m. are 18 percent higher than those of the host he replaced in mid-July, according to the channel.
CNN’s hire last year of disgraced former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer showed even the most traditional cable newschannel was willing to hand one of its top jobs to someone with little or no TV journalism experience, further separating the marquee jobs from the worker bees who actually cover the news during daytime. Watching Sharpton struggle to read the TelePropmTer with a stiffness that dampens his powerful charisma, you realize that cable channels are trading the expertise of professionals for the sizzle which comes from big names trying a new path.
Will that accelerate a process where cable news primetime is more partisan, less tethered to fact and even more laden with shocking pronouncements that get people talking?
For at least part of the answer to that question, Sharpton said, critics will have to tune in at 6 p.m. tonight. “No one knows what’s going to be in my segments until the show starts (today),” he said. “You will see Al Sharpton, and I know how to do Al Sharpton better than anyone else.”