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Activist Al Sharpton makes the flip to TV anchor — or does he?

No stranger to television, the Rev. Al Sharpton, seen here on NBC’s “Meet The Press” earlier this year, appears on the MSNBC show “PoliticsNation” starting at 6 p.m. today.


No stranger to television, the Rev. Al Sharpton, seen here on NBC’s “Meet The Press” earlier this year, appears on the MSNBC show “PoliticsNation” starting at 6 p.m. today.

Given that I suggested MSNBC may have made a mistake in employing him, I was prepared for newly hired anchor Al Sharpton to bring it on when we finally talked about his latest gig.

But Sharpton, whose public career has lurched from pressing the later-debunked rape claims 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 he has hosted a radio show, Keeping It Real with Al Sharpton, for more than five years. "(Radio personalities-turned-MSNBC hosts) Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz 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 work as guest host over the past eight weeks was essentially spent helming a version of Schultz's show.

I wondered: How would Sharpton's continuing work as an activist jibe with the NBC News standards all anchors must follow? And given that no person of color yet hosts a show on a major cable news channel in prime time — they do appear in midday newscasts — should MSNBC start down the road to diversity with someone known mostly as an activist? (6 p.m. technically isn't prime time, which starts at 8 p.m.)

"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 Francisco 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 in radio have seen they are taking people from radio. Why can't they take us?" he said. "Why did all of this (controversy) start with me?"

Well, 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.

Sharpton countered by noting his National Action Network is a federally recognized charity prohibited from advocacy for specific politicians, and by scoffing at questions about whether his hire was payback for supporting giant Comcast's takeover of NBC Universal.

He did admit that discussions about his advocacy work contributed to a delay that kept MSNBC from confirming him as the 6 p.m. host until two months after he began guest-hosting in the time slot. And, awkward as he looks reading from a TelePrompTer, Sharpton insists his stiffness on camera has been exaggerated by critics.

I say Sharpton's hire is the latest in a long-developing trend of putting cable news hosts in prime time mostly based on their ability to get viewers.

CNN's hire last year of former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer proved it; even the most traditional cable news channel was willing to hand one of its top jobs to someone with little or no TV journalism experience, further separating the marquee jobs from journalism standards of fairness and accuracy.

"What you cannot say is that this trend started with me," Sharpton said. "We should not suggest that one shouldn't do anything until one side of the color line is broken. It all should be broken."

Activist Al Sharpton makes the flip to TV anchor — or does he? 08/28/11 [Last modified: Monday, August 29, 2011 10:21am]
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