Al Sharpton slips back and forth from Trayvon Martin pundit to advocate

As Trayvon Martin's parents faced news cameras Monday, speaking on reports that the teen had been on suspension from school before his death, they had a powerful ally standing behind them:

The Rev. Al Sharpton.

Already, the nationally known civil rights leader had led a huge rally last week protesting the killing of Martin, a black 17-year-old shot by a volunteer neighborhood watchman in Sanford claiming self-defense.

Calling the teen's death a classic case of racial profiling, Sharpton has been one of the most prominent figures demanding that police arrest the shooter, George Zimmerman, and fire the police chief for a lackluster investigation.

He's also a host of a 6 p.m. show on MSNBC, Politics­Nation. And while the Martin case draws international attention to the small Florida town, Sharpton is breaking new ground leading protests while anchoring coverage on one of TV's best-known cable news channels.

On Monday, during a news conference at which the family attorney revealed Martin had been suspended from a Miami school for possessing an empty plastic bag with marijuana residue, it was Sharpton who pushed back hardest:

"When we first got involved with this case … I had a very candid and open conversation with the attorneys and then with the parents," he said. "I was told of all of the particular issues that they may try to raise. We saw them as irrelevant then; we see them as irrelevant now."

The oddity of his dual roles surfaced in that moment, as Sharpton seemed to be admitting he learned facts about the case long ago that hadn't been reported by MSNBC.

And as supporters of Zimmerman begin speaking up, insisting the man is not racist and was attacked by Martin, a question arises: Even if Sharpton isn't a journalist — leading a highly opinionated, liberal-oriented show on cable news — can he be a fair broker of information on his MSNBC show while pushing for Zimmerman's arrest?

MSNBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines wrote in an email that Sharpton's producer notified NBC News of the school suspension about 45 minutes before Monday's news conference.

In an early email, Gaines also noted: "When Rev. Sharpton joined MSNBC, it was with the understanding that he would continue to do his advocacy work. … His participation in these events is very public and our audience is completely aware of where he stands on the issues."

Still, that statement doesn't explain much.

Back in 2010, star Keith Olbermann was suspended for giving small donations to Democratic candidates, violating NBC News policies.

But Sharpton collected money for Martin's family at a town hall meeting Monday and at a rally he led Thursday.

Once upon a time, critics clucked when George Stephanopoulos left Bill Clinton's White House to cover political issues for ABC News.

Stephanopoulos spent years developing a journalism track record. Now, the transition process is so quick, Sharpton straddles two roles simultaneously.

Kelly McBride, an ethics instructor at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies (which owns the Tampa Bay Times), said Sharpton clearly has loyalties separate from his obligations to MSNBC's audience. "(MSNBC) has moved him into their tent, knowing his loyalty is not fully with their audience," she said. "But with this case, public opinion is so strongly with the family, people may not care."

As anger rises nationwide, more than anything the public now needs clear-eyed reporting, like the work we've seen from the Orlando Sentinel, Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times, painting an accurate picture of the neighborhood, the people involved and the local government.

Can MSNBC do that when one of its best-known personalities is working hard to raise emotions and press the family's case?

In a media world where punditry and activism are so closely blended, it seems we're soon to find out.

Al Sharpton slips back and forth from Trayvon Martin pundit to advocate 03/26/12 [Last modified: Monday, March 26, 2012 11:47pm]

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