February 28, 2024

As an MSNBC Host, Sharpton Is a Hybrid Like No Other

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.)

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=4f1e18bc0fbc8744cb9393f70b7e6aa2

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