Monday, August 29, 2011

Al Sharpton’s new pulpit

If you stay in the casino long enough, you get your share of the winnings. Maybe in spite of yourself. That's one of the inescapable takeaways from the Monday launch of “PoliticsNation With Al Sharpton,” the new news and commentary program on MSNBC in the 6-7 p.m. hour, featuring the longtime activist and radio host offering his perspectives on the day's doings. Let the hating begin.

Sharpton's rise at MSNBC is part of what appears to be a reinvention underway at the Peacock's Fledgling Network. After years of doubling down on guessing at the prevailing political winds from Washington, the network has lately been stepping out on true faith and burnishing its progressive bona fides. The hiring of ardent lefties Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell as prime-time anchors and MSNBC's ongoing variations with the daytime lineup, suggest a network in flux — the better to be in play in the runup to a no-doubt tumultuous presidential election.

The 6 o'clock hour is perfect for Sharpton right now. Technically, 6 p.m. isn't prime-time, and that's a good thing. Count on the good folks at MSNBC to quietly polish and sharpen Sharpton's on-air demeanor. As it stands now, Sharpton's too willing to jump bad, to talk at people instead of to or with him, to conversationally get in someone's face in a way that doesn't work with the relative niceties of mainstream television. Never let it be said that Al Sharpton ever brought Roberts' Rules of Order to a rhetorical gunfight; anyone who watched him during the long battle over Tawana Brawley knows better than that.

It’s evident that Sharpton (who’s been a regular guest host for Ed Schultz since late June) still needs grooming. Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly observed: “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. ... The host sometimes seems ill-prepared by his producers: Last week, for example, Sharpton’s handling of the breaking-news coverage of Hurricane Irene was a fumbling mess. ...

“If he can ever become comfortable on-camera and expand his horizons, Sharpton may eventually bring to MSNBC the combination of intellect and passion that has made so many of his press conferences over the years little wonders of argument, controversy, hype, entertainment, and enlightenment. Whether he’ll ever reach that point on PoliticsNation remains to be seen. Or, depending on the ratings, not seen at all.”

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It's a long way from the Rev's adidas track-suit wearing days. As the head of the New York City-based National Action Network, Sharpton has for years navigated the free-fire zones of politics, culture and the media like nobody else. Sharpton, who began his life in the church as a Pentecostal minister at an early age, moved toward a more aggressive social activism in the mid 80’s, when New York City was its own free-fire zone for African Americans, frequently victimized by the city’s police department in tragic and sometimes criminal circumstances. Sharpton frequently represented the families involved in press conferences and interviews, appearing to stand on their behalf as a moral witness with a sense of the street.

The fiery storefront rhetoric that Sharpton all but trademarked had its potential for blowback. In 1987, Sharpton championed the case of Tawana Brawley, a teenager who claimed to have been raped by one Steven Pagones, an assistant district attorney in Dutchess County.

Sharpton took Brawley under his wing and engaged in a public campaign of what amounted to defamation of Pagones’ character. When Brawley was found by a grand jury to have lied about the whole thing, Sharpton was successfully sued for defamation by Pagones. Sharpton was hit with a $65,000 judgment, ultimately paid by his supporters.

Since then, to one degree or another, Sharpton’s been about the process of not so much rebuilding his image as refining it to suit the dictates of a new, immersive media age. MSNBC’s announcement confirms his success in doing exactly that.

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What makes this such an event in the world of 21st century electronic media is the fact of who and what Al Sharpton is besides Al Sharpton. This moment is bigger than he is. Never mind his outsize personality or his reputation for rhetorical flamethrowing. This matters because Sharpton is an African American who becomes the first black television personality named to be a regular commentator on a mainstream news channel, paid for his style and his brand and his opinions, weighing in on the matters of the day with a point of view.

Not a fill-in host, not a newsreader of the evening news, as someone whose function is necessarily more transcriptive than opinionated. Sharpton becomes one of the regular five-days-a-week voices in the commentary realm of the mediasphere — the first to assume that level of saturation equal to the rest of American electronic media. Roland Martin had a similar gig at CNN, on Saturdays, for about two months in 2009, filling in for a host on maternity leave. Juan Williams has a spot as a commentator at Fox News — with a three-year, $2 million deal, he’s the highest-paid substitute host on TV — but no show of his own, no consistent self-branded platform from which to espouse the conservative line from a black perspective.

Sharpton has the bully pulpit right now. Implicit in his promotion at MSNBC is the network’s acceptance of what makes Sharpton’s new job bigger than Sharpton: The opinions of black Americans on current national and global events are as important as those of anyone else.

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The big question is, what’s next at MSNBC and what’s next at the rest of the cable outlets?

The theory's out there that Sharpton may have received this coveted job because of previous statements supporting the acquisition of NBC Universal (MSNBC’s parent) by media superconglom Comcast last year. The reasoning (if you can call it that) goes that Comcast had some dark hand in appointing Sharpton to the talk-show position as payback for his public support. It’s ridiculous and too calculated by half. You might just as soon accuse Comcast (a Philadelphia-based company) of granting special dispensation to Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” because Matthews was born in that city and roots for the Phillies.

It would be easy to be that cynical if there weren’t evidence of something more going on at MSNBC, something foundational and apparently organic. We’re not talking a Paradigm Shift, but MSNBC, along with other cable nets and the broadcast networks, has been moving away from the persistent media meme of on-air correspondents and anchors as a collection of Multiple White Wise Men.

Even the casual viewer of MSNBC has noticed in recent months a dramatic increase in the complexion and composition of its newsreaders and contributors — including Asians, Hispanics and African Americans — at various times of the day and night. Veronica De La Cruz, a Filipino American, and Richard Lui, an Asian American, are fixtures on MSNBC morning and daytime shows; so is Craig Melvin, a young black morning anchor. Kristin Welker, an African American journalist, covers the White House. Tamron Hall, who is African American, leads the “NewsNation” daytime program. Some correspondents (Ron Allen, Thanh Truong and Rehema Ellis among them) are strictly speaking working for NBC News, MSNBC’s parent, but their reports find their way into MSNBC programming.

Author and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson has been a guest host for Ed Schultz of “The Ed Show,” while Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post substituted for veteran interviewer Martin Bashir recently, taking the reins of the “Martin Bashir” program.

Meanwhile, author and Columbia University professor Melissa Harris-Perry, a frequent fixture on the network, has been pinch-hitting this week for Rachel Maddow, guest-hosting “The Rachel Maddow Show” and by most accounts doing it rather well.

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It all seems to indicate a network increasingly comfortable with doing under its own brand what a cable news network needs to do today to fully establish an identity: take risks, step outside the box.

They’ve done this before. Between 9/11 and now, MSNBC has frequently shuttled show hosts, and corporate identities, on and off the air in an outwardly feverish attempt to gauge the national post-9/11 mood and establish a more formidable presence in a cable space historically defined by CNN.

What’s different this time is the colors of the people in front of those cameras. Sharpton will be the highest-profile example of MSNBC’s apparent embrace of on-air diversity of message and messenger, reflecting a more demographically pragmatic world view.

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And how will other networks react, particularly those aimed at black audiences? BET has been in the process of reinventing their news coverage, certainly since the 2008 election. In the heady early days of the Obama White House, the administration widened the strike zone of recognized media players — the ones who got called on at President Obama’s news conferences — by calling on news outlets like BET and The Huffington Post for questions.

That happens less frequently these days. But in ways they may not be prepared to admit, Sharpton’s rise at MSNBC raises the stakes on setting the high ground for enunciating the African American viewpoint. Not that there should be just one source for that — certainly not. But in a society smitten with the name brand, the A-list identity, black news networks may well be inclined to revisit who’s at the helm of their news broadcasts and their relationship with black viewers.

For years now, African American cable viewers have favored MSNBC’s news coverage over other cable outlets, including BET and TV One, which would be presumed to have some intrinsic advantage over the others. In July 2010, The New York Times, citing data from Nielsen Media Research, reported that MSNBC has averaged 145,000 black viewer households, representing 19.3 percent of its total viewer audience of 751,000 households.

Earlier this year, Richard Prince’s Journal-Isms news blog reported that “[i]n prime time, MSNBC beat CNN and Fox News Channel among African Americans and Hispanics, according to ratings for the first quarter of the year.” MSNBC’s ratings among black viewers climbed to 171,000. That ratings-driven preference no doubt played a role in MSNBC making the decision to hire Sharpton in the first place. For black networks, that fact shouldn’t be overlooked.

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That crack a while back about the new rise of the Sharpton hate machine isn’t so much a prediction or a guess as it is a fact. Read the comments in the wake of Sharpton’s new gig:

Last 7 Rows at Entertainment Weekly: “Sharpton is an unintelligible, racist hack that would look far more natural barking at passersby outside of an old 42nd Street sleaze joint. He is a disgusting embarrassment that should have been shamed into infamy’s black hole long ago.”

Ash at Entertanment Weekly: “Sharpton is not even intelligent opinion. He can’t even read a Teleprompter right.”

1will, The Huffington Post: “He'll be around for a while until MSNBC gets tired of the ratings decline. He'll most likely stick around through 2012 and scream racism nightly until after Obama is voted out of office. I suspect he'll get the boot in 2013.”

Pab08, Huff Post: “Sharpton will fail. Not because he is black, but because he is obnoxious.”

Matt Spedale, HuffPost: “What is the over under on this guy's hosting job lasting a full month?”

Some of these, of course, could be comments from right-wing plants, unknown conservative netizens who’ve weighed in at The Root and TheGrio and Black Voices, lobbing mal mots at Sharpton at every opportunity. Frankly, it’s not so much to be expected as it is to be ignored. If Walter Cronkite had been black and then become the public face of CBS News, these malcontents would have said it was a minority hire.

For better or worse, Al Sharpton has become a regular part of the rotating face of the Lean Forward Network. The challenge for him is to distill and articulate the national conversation without reliably becoming part of it. The challenge for the media generally, and the rest of us, is to realize just how diverse that conversation has always been.

Image credits: Sharpton images, PoliticsNation logo, MSNBC logo, Harris-Perry: MSNBC. Sharpton and Tawana Brawley, 1988: Associated Press. BET logo: © 2012 Black Entertainment Television/Viacom.

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