As an MSNBC Host, Sharpton Is a Hybrid Like No Other
By ALAN FEUER
At 50 minutes to airtime, the Rev. Al Sharpton, in pinstripes and cufflinks, was sitting in his office at Rockefeller Center, tinkering with Tuesday’s introduction to “PoliticsNation,” his new nightly show on MSNBC.
Times Topic: Al Sharpton
Two TV sets hung from the wall: one tuned to “Hardball,” the other to CNN. A procession of producers — he has six on staff — whisked through to give him updates on their segments. Just before he rose for his makeup session, he turned to his executive producer. “Let’s not forget,” Mr. Sharpton said, casually employing the TV vernacular, “to put that Ron Paul sound bite in the D-block.”
Only days before, a more familiar version of Mr. Sharpton was on display: at one of his weekend rallies at the House of Justice, a power-lifter’s gym turned headquarters in Harlem. Dressed in shirtsleeves, using preacherly tones, he opened, as he always does, with his protest mantra — “No justice! No peace!” — and then went on to talk about Denise Gay, the Brooklyn woman shot and killed this month, possibly by the police. At the rally’s end, a choir appeared. Mr. Sharpton, 57, soloing at times, joined them in “Amazing Grace.”
His ascension to MSNBC’s 6 p.m. anchor slot signifies yet another episode in the long-running, much-debated drama called “The Transformation of Al Sharpton”: from the street-level firebrand who made his name supporting Tawana Brawley in 1988 to a political candidate (twice for Senate, once each for president and mayor of New York) to the Twitter posting, Facebooking, radio-show-hosting modern media figure.
His recent venture into television has attracted the expected condemnations — all of which have missed how unusual MSNBC’s decision really was.
Many polarizing former office holders — Sarah Palin, Eliot L. Spitzer — have been given TV platforms, but Mr. Sharpton is not a former anything. He remains an activist: he is planning to march on Washington next month to call for jobs (an event he expects to cover on his show) and has already done segments on another project, winning the release from death row of a Georgia laborer, Troy Davis, convicted — wrongfully, Mr. Sharpton says — of killing a policeman.
As construed by MSNBC, Mr. Sharpton will be a hybrid TV personality, a journalist-participant of sorts, both a maker and a deliverer of the news. “We are breaking the mold,” said Phil Griffin, the network’s president. “Anything he does on the streets, he can talk about on air — we won’t hide anything.”
Though this arrangement may be journalistic, said Dan Kennedy, an assistant professor of media at Northeastern University, it is probably not journalism. Its proper name, Professor Kennedy said, is talk-show hosting.
“Maybe a talk-show host shouldn’t have to follow the entire code of ethics for a journalist,” Professor Kennedy said, “but he shouldn’t be able to run roughshod and function as pure political activist. “
Lingering in the background is the case of Keith Olbermann, the former MSNBC anchor who left the network this year after being suspended for writing checks without approval to political campaigns. NBC’s professional standards bar on-air talent from making donations without managerial consent and from endorsing candidates. But what about rallying at the Lincoln Memorial? Or leading a march across the Brooklyn Bridge?
Naturally omnivorous, Mr. Sharpton has always been a blender of unlikely elements (hair by James Brown, rhetoric by the Baptists) and now his blending will combine the advocate’s megaphone with the anchor’s teleprompter — a unique bit of alchemy that Mr. Sharpton says can be accomplished without an alteration of his message. The other day, in his new corporate office in Midtown, he said his model for this crossover act was, as always, Mr. Brown.
“In the last 15 years of James Brown’s life, he wasn’t just playing the Apollo, but he was still singing the same songs,” Mr. Sharpton said. “So how do you go from the Apollo stage to Lincoln Center and still remain authentic? How do you translate soul to a Lincoln Center crowd?”
Long before Mr. Griffin approached him this year with the idea of replacing Cenk Uygur, the acting 6 o’clock anchor, Mr. Sharpton had been a frequent MSNBC guest. There was a two-month tryout over the summer, after which an offer was made.
His ratings have so far been encouraging, network officials say. His audience (about 630,000 people a night) is up 4 percent over Mr. Uygur’s and he occupies the No. 2 slot for cable news in the 6 o’clock hour, behind “Special Report,” a competing show on Fox News. (The network won’t disclose what it is paying him, but a source close to Mr. Sharpton puts the figure at about $500,000 a year.)
“The guy’s terrific on TV,” Mr. Griffin said. “He’s smart, he’s got great life experience. He brings a different voice to our network. And he was at a point in his career where he needed a bigger platform.” As for the journalistic questions, Mr. Sharpton said they were solved by frankness and transparency.
“I’ve known Phil Griffin for a long time,” Mr. Sharpton said. “He said, ‘You can’t do partisan politics unless we’re aware of it and we talk it out.’ I said, ‘My activism is not affected?’ He said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘You do advocacy on education, police brutality, all those things — we have no problem.’ ” (Mr. Griffin agreed with this summary of events.)
In an e-mail, David McCormick, vice president for standards at NBC News, said that Mr. Sharpton’s activism would be acceptable so long as his employers knew what he was up to: “He may participate in such events with prior approval from the network president.”
Of course, the words “prior approval” and “Al Sharpton” have rarely been seen in close proximity. (Mr. Sharpton has not had a boss since working for Mr. Brown nearly 30 years ago.) Some, like Mr. Sharpton’s friend, Clayborne Carson, a history professor at Stanford, sense a tension between the hot pursuit of social justice and network television’s McLuhanesque cool.
“It’s a balancing act,” Professor Carson said. “If I were in his position I would have a hard time figuring out where that line is. It’s a tough one.”
Then again, Mr. Sharpton has made a career out of stepping over lines and continues, energetically, to burn both ends of his professional candle. He is up these days at 5:30 a.m., scanning a variety of news sources, including The Wall Street Journal and theRoot.com. By 7, he has e-mailed to his television staff — which is mostly white — what Matt Saal, his executive producer, calls his “news haiku” (“Krugman’s strong today. That Politico piece on Romney’s path to victory — interesting.” His first reference was to Paul Krugman, a columnist for The New York Times.)
By 9, he is in his office at the National Action Network, his civil-rights group, ducking into meetings to manage that staff, too — it’s mostly black — on matters as pedestrian as arranging insurance for next month’s march. Then, as Mr. Saal and his team assemble the evening’s show, Mr. Sharpton is off to the studios of WWRL radio, where, from 1 to 4 p.m. five days a week, he hosts his radio program, “Keepin’ It Real.”
His arrival at MSNBC, at about 4:15 each day, is often accompanied by whispers of, “It’s Reverend Al.” One of his makeup artists claims she is famous. As she said the other day, “I do Al Sharpton’s hair.”
Mr. Sharpton said he loved his new experiment with television (“It’s challenging”), and, at least for now, television seems to love the challenge of Mr. Sharpton.
In the middle of their production meeting Tuesday night, Mr. Saal’s cellphone rang. It was a representative of Rachel Maddow. She wanted Mr. Sharpton as a guest on her MSNBC show.
“Can you do Maddow?” Mr. Saal asked. Mr. Sharpton said, “Yeah.”
Turning from his phone again, Mr. Saal asked, “9? 9:15?”
Mr. Sharpton said, “Yeah.”
“Yeah,” Mr. Saal told the booker. “He’s good.”
Reprinted from The New York Times, New York Region, of Monday, September 19, 2011.