Anchorman: The Legend of Al Sharpton

Carl Horowitz
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Posted: Sep 10, 2011 12:01 AM

 

Would you believe it?  Al Sharpton’s newest role – full-time anchorman – is now a reality.  The New York City-based black activist, minister and former presidential candidate launched his MSNBC-TV news talk show, “PoliticsNation,” on Monday, August 29, six days after he was tapped for the 6-7 P.M. (EST) weeknight slot vacated in late July by Cenk Uygur. 

The announcement wasn’t unexpected.  Sharpton frequently had substituted for Uygur.  And MSNBC’s parent company, Comcast Corp., for years has been a generous donor to Sharpton’s nonprofit group, National Action Network (NAN).  More than a few observers, like Wayne Barrett (and myself), see a connection, and with good reason.  It strains the imagination that a major affiliate of the NBC family would elevate Sharpton, with a palpable history of demagoguery and financial chicanery, to top-tier media host in absence of some quid pro quo arrangement. 

Yes, I know.  Reverend Sharpton was a presidential candidate in 2004.  And for years he’s hosted his own syndicated radio show, “Keeping It Real.”  But nightly news anchorman – that’s a career move that would have surprised even diehard cynics only a few years ago.  The issue now is whether his nightly presence on the screen has staying power and whether his hiring represents another case of corporate surrender in the name of “civil rights.”  About the latter issue, much needs to be said.          

Reverend Sharpton’s movement up the media food chain didn’t happen in a vacuum.   His National Action Network, which he founded in 1991, in recent years has coaxed sizeable donations from Home Depot, Ford Motor Co., Macy’s, Pepsico, Toyota and other leading corporations to keep his ongoing campaign for social justice in perpetual motion.  Given Sharpton’s unapologetic history as a racially-charged political provocateur (see pdf of my 2009 National Legal and Policy Center Special Report, “Mainstreaming Demagoguery”), the business community normally would keep a safe distance.  But these are not normal times.  Virtually all corporate leaders in this country have come to embrace racial and ethnic “diversity,” a high principle to be woven into hiring, training, promotion, supplier relations and all other phases of company operations.  Exacerbating this trend is aggressive federal intrusion on behalf of this principle, often at the behest of civil-rights groups like NAN.  Corporate America embraces diversity, all right, but it also fears the consequences of not embracing it.   

“Diversity” effectively has come to mean systematic discrimination against whites in an organizational context.  In other words, it is what we used to call affirmative action, only this time with a smiling face.  But the logic remains the same.  As nonwhites on the whole must gain, whites on the whole must lose.  In a zero-sum game, there is no honest way to spin things as “everybody wins.” 

I discussed the origins and consequences of this phenomenon in a separate Special Report for NLPC, “The Authoritarian Roots of Corporate Diversity Training” (see pdf).  In today’s retooled corporation, whites are assumed to bear a special burden of shedding cultural prejudices and meeting challenges of a pluralistic society.  Holdout companies can expect hostile responses by civil-rights activists in the form of lawsuits, boycotts, demonstrations or media campaigns.  They also can expect to hear from the federal government.  Al Sharpton and his allies know this.  That’s why their corporate fundraising appeals are so successful.  Everyone loves a winner.

Comcast is anything but a holdout.  Since 2009 alone, the Philadelphia-based cable operator, the nation’s largest, has donated $140,000 to National Action Network, a sum independent of any of the NBC networks may have given.  That money has proven a good investment.  And though Sharpton denies it, that money likely played a role in landing him that anchorman job.  Here’s a plausible scenario – with real facts.

Comcast in January completed its purchase of a 51 percent stake in NBCUniversal for $30 billion from General Electric, with GE retaining the other 49 percent.  Though Comcast disavows any influence in NBC’s hiring decisions, the deal depended on the company securing approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  And the five-member commission at first leaned against the merger, partly on grounds of diversity.  To turn the tide, the corporation stepped up its outreach to prominent blacks, among them Sharpton.  As it turned out, Al Sharpton was the first major civil-rights leader to sign a Memorandum of Agreement endorsing the merger.  His show of support set in motion eventual FCC approval. 

But why would Reverend Sharpton go the mat for Comcast?  Put it this way:  Corporate contributions to National Action Network didn’t hurt.  Neither did praise.  In the official brochure for NAN’s 2009 annual convention in midtown Manhattan, Comcast welcomed attendees with the following message:

 

     We live and breathe innovation every day.  By embracing diversity of thought, philosophy and experience, we have the nation’s leading provider of entertainment, information and communication products and services.  By embracing diversity of communities, we have become an employer and a provider of choice.  Our diversity is our strength. 

 

     Comcast proudly supports the National Action Network.

 

Two years later, Sharpton, by now familiar to MSNBC viewers as a substitute host, reciprocated.  This past April, only three months after Comcast’s completion of its majority-stake purchase of NBCUniversal, he presented a “Keepers of the Dream” award to MSNBC President Phil Griffin at the NAN annual conference.      

Comcast, by several accounts, was in the process of grooming Sharpton for the 6-7 P.M. Monday-through-Friday time slot on MSNBC held by Cenk Uygur, himself having taken over the job early this year.  The Istanbul-born Uygur, the popular host of the Web and radio talk show, “The Young Turks,” was having trouble finding his audience on MSNBC.  Relations between him and the network became strained.  And when the MSNBC officials allegedly asked Uygur to tone down his criticism (from the Left) of the Obama administration, and worse, asked him to accept his show being moved to a weekend slot to make way for Sharpton, Uygur left, acrimoniously, in late July. 

For several weeks, the 6-7 P.M. news slot ran without a regular host.  Speculation ran high:  The job was all but Sharpton’s.  MSNBC management did nothing to quell the rumors.  And on August 23, MSNBC President Phil Griffin made the announcement official:   Al Sharpton would be joining the MSNBC news and commentary team on a full-time basis, hosting a tailor-made show called “PoliticsNation.”  Rev. Sharpton, Griffin assured, “will lead a lively and informed discussion of the top headlines, bringing viewers his take on events in his signature style.”  The new show would be “an incredibly strong kick-off to our evening schedule.”  NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, ever the affirmative action booster, praised the hiring as “a positive step toward addressing the dearth of African-American voices in primetime news.” 

Rev. Sharpton has promised to strike a balance between formality and fanfare.  “Let me tell you from the outset,” as he closed his debut show on August 29.  “I’m not going to be a robotic host reading the teleprompter, like a robot.  Nor am I going to come in here and do the James Brown and do the electric slide to prove to you that I’m not stiff.”  Initial reviews suggest the Rev could use some extra polish.  The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley put it this way:  “He’s (Sharpton’s) more subdued and dull as a host, weighed down by a teleprompter that he is still uncomfortable reading and by a desire for gravitas.”  Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly, also less than impressed, opined:  “MSNBC is going down a wayward road in hiring Sharpton because it makes the channel look desperate to throw on its screen someone who’s a familiar media face.”  Sharpton himself admits to harboring a strong disdain for the teleprompter, but adds that he’s getting more comfortable.    

Sharpton’s voice and camera presence is a lesser issue, however, than his use of his show for political partisanship.  Of course, he’s already shown it.  But he’s in good company.  Even with Keith Olbermann having taken his “Countdown” show to Current TV, MSNBC anchors Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz make it a habit of injecting disdain for right-of-center positions in their presentations. 

More problematic on ethical grounds is Sharpton’s refusal to come clean about his decades-long penchant for organizing black rent-a-mobs to railroad white defendants in criminal cases where the “victim” was black (e.g., Tawana Brawley) and practically beatify black defendants charged with real crimes against whites (e.g., the Central Park attack on a white female jogger).  His behavior can’t simply be swept under the rug as being “in the past.”  It requires accountability.  Sharpton’s public demagoguery helped feed a mob mentality that had lethal consequences in Crown Heights, Brooklyn (1991) and in Harlem at Freddy’s Fashion Mart (1995). 

Sharpton to this day refuses to apologize for these and other campaigns.  His credibility as a journalist should be questioned as such.  Someone who has made this sort of news shouldn’t be reporting on the news generally – at least not until he issues a recantation.  That’s not likely going to happen. 

Comcast/NBCUniversal officials don’t see a problem.  They view hiring Al Sharpton for the regular anchor desk as a sound business decision.  In a way, they’re right.  When Sharpton guest-hosted the 6 P.M. time slot, ratings for MSNBC shot up on average by 18 percent, especially significant given that MSNBC pulls in far fewer viewers than rivals CNN and Fox News Channel.  What this says about the public taste is open to interpretation.  But it was clear Comcast viewed its new property as needing a ratings boost – and that Reverend Al was just the guy to provide it. 

Comcast insists the hiring was in no way was related to its bid for a majority stake in the NBC networks.  Sharpton insists likewise.  In an interview with Lloyd Grove of The Daily Beast (August 25), he stated:

 

It’s very public and registered with the FCC why we supported the merger.  Comcast made some very, very, I might say unparalleled commitments for TV stations to blacks and Latinos…So I think it’s belittling to the black community to say that that commitment doesn’t mean anything, and that somebody was going to get a show that didn’t even exist at that time [before the primetime shakeup]…It’s so insane.

 

Even if there wasn’t a quid pro quo, the ultimate issue is the elevation of the cult of diversity, and as a corollary, the aggressive role of the State in enforcing it.  Comcast and MSNBC, inasmuch as their cozying up to Rev. Sharpton merits rebuke, played a game whose rules are controlled by the FCC and Congress, and especially by black “civil rights” activists.  A lot of companies, not just Comcast, would have made nice to Sharpton if that’s what it took to pull off a $30 billion acquisition. 

Sharpton’s friend and ally, President Barack Obama, isn’t about to change the rules.  It wasn’t as if his predecessors in either party shook things up.  Did anyone notice President Bush taking steps to reverse the tide of affirmative action?   I certainly didn’t.  Until a reversal does take place, corporations will continue to pay a “diversity tax” to nonprofit groups like National Action Network.  For them, it’s just an acceptable cost of doing business. 

Al Sharpton’s audience – regrettably, it is far from tiny – couldn’t be happier.  Their man is an anchorman!  “I’m a man who discovered the wheel and built the Eiffel Tower out of metal and brawn!  That’s what kind of man I am,” declared Will Ferrell’s lead character in the 2004 movie, “Anchorman:  The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” and only somewhat facetiously.  To Sharpton’s followers, however, such words might well apply literally to their hero.