March 9, 2021

Sharpton’s Push for Comcast Raises Issues About Possible MSNBC Job

The possible transition for Mr. Sharpton — from political influencer to television talent — highlights the complex relationships that can arise when cable news channels employ activists who take sides instead of journalists who don’t.

Mr. Sharpton, the president of the National Action Network, a civil rights organization, was one of the many activists and boldface names who agreed to support Comcast as it sought government approval for its takeover of NBCUniversal.

The Comcast chief executive, Brian L. Roberts, and the head of the company’s lobbying effort, David L. Cohen, met with Mr. Sharpton and other representatives of minority groups to talk about their bid early last year. That meeting, Mr. Sharpton said later, was the most important factor in his decision to support Comcast and urge the Federal Communications Commission to approve the NBC deal. Comcast then used the support of Mr. Sharpton and other civil rights activists to promote the proposed merger to government officials.

Rarely, if ever, has a cable news channel employed a host who has previously campaigned for the business goals of the channel’s parent company. But as channels like MSNBC have moved to more opinionated formats, they have exposed themselves to potential conflicts. (The hosts Keith Olbermann, before he left MSNBC, and Joe Scarborough were briefly suspended in 2010 when it was reported that they had made political donations.)

MSNBC said in a statement this week, “There is no agreement with Mr. Sharpton to host a program; however, it is important to note that Comcast plays no role in either the independent editorial decision-making of MSNBC or the selection of its hosts.”

Separately, Comcast said in a statement, “Comcast pledged from the day we announced the transaction that we would not interfere with NBCUniversal’s news operations, including at MSNBC. We have not and we will not.”

Mr. Sharpton has been a guest host for the 6 p.m. hour on MSNBC for most of the last month, effectively replacing Cenk Uygur, who confirmed last week that the channel had decided not to give him the time slot permanently.

Executives at MSNBC say they believe that Mr. Sharpton, a regular guest on the channel for years, may shore up the ratings at 6 p.m., a crucial hour that helps to set up the channel’s prime-time programming. But they emphasized that no decision had been made on hiring Mr. Sharpton. He said he had not been paid for his role as a guest host.

Mr. Sharpton threw his organizational weight behind the Comcast bid for NBC twice, first in his letter to the F.C.C. in May 2010, which said that his group had “for several years” had a “productive, honest and open dialogue at the highest levels of the company,” referring to Comcast, “and we are confident that this positive relationship will continue to prosper after the joint venture is approved.”

In December 2010, in the final stretch of the merger review, Mr. Sharpton reaffirmed his support when the National Action Network and other African-American leadership groups signed on to a diversity action plan with Comcast. The plan included a commitment by Comcast to seek “the expanded participation of minorities on its news and public affairs programming.”

To that end, Comcast said it would consider suggestions from its newly established diversity councils, including the National African American Diversity Council. That council includes Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson, the chairman of the National Action Network, but not Mr. Sharpton.

In a telephone interview this week, Mr. Sharpton said there was no connection between his past support for Comcast and his current role as a host for MSNBC. “How could there be a connection?” he asked, noting that at the time of the merger review, there were no open time slots on the channel.

In April, Mr. Sharpton presented a National Action Network award to Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC. Mr. Sharpton dismissed any connection there, too: “The year before, we honored Jeff Zucker,” he said, referring to the former chief executive of NBCUniversal. “Did Zucker give me ‘S.N.L.’?”

Mr. Sharpton said that if he were to join MSNBC, he would not leave the National Action Network, but would abstain from decisions that conflicted with his position in television.

Reports last week about Mr. Sharpton’s impending hiring created a stir among some black journalists who say that cable news channels had shortchanged minorities for many years.

On its Web site last week, the National Association of Black Journalists wrote that while Mr. Sharpton was about to advance to a permanent position, “there are no black journalists who can tout a similar promotion.”

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