The Rev. Al Sharpton began his new career as an official MSNBC talk show host on Monday by telling viewers not to expect James Brown.
“I’m not going to be a robotic host reading the teleprompter like a robot,” he said. “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,” he added, waving his arms in a rough approximation of a dance move. “I’m going to say what I mean and mean what I say.”
And that may be the problem with Mr. Sharpton’s cable news pulpit: what he means to say is in lockstep with every other MSNBC evening program, making the stretch between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. a nonstop lecture on liberal values and what is wrong with the Republican Party.
MSNBC long ago cast itself as the liberal counterpoint to Fox News. Its star muckraker, Keith Olbermann, left MSNBC and took his show to Current TV in June, but other progressive hosts, particularly Rachel Maddow, have continued to attract viewers — not nearly as many as routinely watch Fox News, but more than for less partisan shows on CNN. MSNBC, which found success by preaching to the converted, has now hired an actual preacher.
And Mr. Sharpton takes his pastoral credentials very seriously.
“I’ve been a minister most of my life, like Billy Graham, though I never took one congregation, I preach at many,” Mr. Sharpton told his first guest, Representative Joe L. Barton, a Texas Republican who had likened federal budgets to church collections. “And what I do notice is that you never give a break to the wealthiest in the congregation and make sure that the poorest in the congregation bear the weight.”
There was a small flutter of controversy over Mr. Sharpton’s selection — many of his critics have not forgotten his advocacy for Tawana Brawley, the 15-year-old who claimed she was abducted and raped by a gang of white men in 1987, only to have a grand jury conclude it was a hoax.
But Mr. Sharpton, who has lost more than 80 pounds in the last few years (through diet and exercise, he says), and wears his suits tailored and his hair slicked back, has toned down his image and his rhetoric, particularly since he came up for consideration for a hosting job. He hasn’t said much of anything in defense of the hotel maid who accused the former head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, of sexual assault, and he recently wrote a column in The Daily News expressing regret for some of his actions during the Crown Heights race riots 20 years ago. (“Our language and tone sometimes exacerbated tensions,” he wrote.)
Others complain that nowadays Mr. Sharpton is a little too cozy with the powers that be: last year, Comcast enlisted Mr. Sharpton to help lobby for its bid to buy NBC Universal, which owns MSNBC. Both Mr. Sharpton and Comcast deny any quid pro quo, and it’s hard to believe Mr. Sharpton’s support would be worth the risk to ratings — besides, back then he was untried, and MSNBC had no vacancies.
More important, in a cable universe in which former Gov. Eliot Spitzer can get his own cable show on CNN (however briefly) some two years after having to leave office because he hired prostitutes, it’s hard to quibble over Mr. Sharpton’s reputation 20 years ago. And in the evening at least, MSNBC is less a news provider than a carousel of liberal opinion — potential conflicts of interest are swept aside in the swirl of excitable guests.
Unfortunately, so is conflict. There is almost no real debate on any of these evening shows: a conservative is brought on and put on the spot, then in a different segment two people who agree with the host on a given issue answer the host’s questions, usually, with words like “you’re so right.”
On Monday, Mr. Sharpton followed the patented formula, bringing in two experts who agreed with him that recent efforts in North Carolina and other states to stiffen voter-identity requirements and restrict early voting would mostly affect those minorities and younger voters who turned out in record numbers for Barack Obama in 2008. Mr. Sharpton called it a “poll tax by another name.”
It’s an interesting issue, and not one that other MSNBC talk shows have addressed with the same degree of passion, but it would have been helpful to viewers to also learn how proponents of voting restrictions justify the legislation.
Mr. Sharpton, like so many of his colleagues on MSNBC, started his television career as a guest, one who could always be counted on to weigh in with brio and savvy. He’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.
But everyone on MSNBC could use a little more James Brown in their act, including Mr. Sharpton, who some 20 years ago campaigned to have the Godfather of Soul released early from jail. As the late musician put it in 1989 while imprisoned in South Carolina for driving under the influence of drugs, and other charges: “I’m well rested, but I miss being tired.”
Reprinted from The New York Times, New York Region, of Tuesday, August 30, 2011.