Al Sharpton’s newest role – full-time anchorman – is now a reality. The New York City-based black activist, preacher and former presidential candidate launched his MSNBC-TV talk show, “PoliticsNation,” on Monday, August 29, six days after the network tapped him for the 6-7 P.M. (EST) weeknight slot vacated in July by Cenk Uygur. The announcement wasn’t unexpected. Sharpton frequently had substituted for Uygur. And MSNBC’s parent company, Comcast Corp., for years has been a generous donor to Sharpton’s nonprofit group, National Action Network (NAN). The elevation of Sharpton, with a long history of demagoguery and financial chicanery, to top-tier media player, for now, is complete. The question is whether “the Rev” is more than a novelty – and whether his hiring represents another case of corporate surrender to a larger political culture.
National Legal and Policy Center a little over two weeks ago chronicled Reverend Sharpton’s movement up the MSNBC food chain. The civil-rights leader’s National Action Network, founded in 1991, in recent years has coaxed sizeable donations from Home Depot, Ford Motor Co., Macy’s, Pepsico, Toyota and other leading corporations to keep his campaign for “justice” going at full tilt. Given Sharpton’s long history as a racially-charged provocateur (see pdf of my 2009 NLPC Special Report, “Mainstreaming Demagoguery”), in a prior era the business community would have kept a safe distance. But these are not normal times. Virtually all corporate leaders in this country have come to embrace racial and ethnic “diversity” as high principle, something to be woven into hiring, training, promotion, supplier relations and all other phases of company operations. Exacerbating this is federal intrusion in this area, often at the behest of civil rights groups like NAN. Corporate America embraces diversity, all right, but it also fears the consequences of not going along.
“Diversity” effectively has come to mean systematic discrimination against whites in an organizational context. As nonwhites as a whole gain, whites as a whole necessarily lose. There is no way to paint a happy, “everybody wins” picture over what amounts to a zero-sum game. I discussed the origins and consequences of this phenomenon in a Special Report for NLPC four years ago, “The Authoritarian Roots of Corporate Diversity Training” (see pdf). In today’s retooled corporation, whites are assumed to bear a special burden of shedding cultural prejudices and meeting challenges of a pluralistic society. Holdouts can expect hostile responses by civil-rights activists in the form of lawsuits, boycotts, demonstrations or media campaigns. They also can expect to hear from the federal government. Al Sharpton and his allies know this. That’s why their corporate fundraising appeals bear fruit.
Comcast is not a holdout. Since 2009 alone, the Philadelphia-based cable operator, the nation’s largest, has donated $140,000 to National Action Network, a sum independent of anything NBC may have given. That money has proven a good investment. And though Sharpton vehemently denies it, that money likely played a role in landing him that anchorman job.
As explained two weeks ago, Comcast in January completed its $13.75 billion purchase of a 51 percent stake in NBCUniversal from General Electric, with GE retaining the other 49 percent (after Vivendi sold its 20 percent stake to NBCU to GE for $5.8 billion). Though Comcast disavows any influence in NBC’s hiring decisions, the stakes here were unusually high. Comcast’s buyout had to clear a high hurdle set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The five-member commission initially leaned toward the view that the company had paid insufficient attention to promoting racial and ethnic diversity. In response, the corporation stepped up its efforts to secure support from prominent blacks. Rev. Sharpton was one of them. And, in fact, Sharpton was the first major civil-rights leader to sign a Memorandum of Understanding on the issue of diversity endorsing the merger. His show of support set in motion eventual FCC approval.
But why would Sharpton go the mat for Comcast? Money couldn’t have hurt. And after the merger was complete, the Rev., by now familiar to MSNBC viewers as a substitute host, reciprocated. This past spring, he presented a “Keepers of the Dream” award to MSNBC President Phil Griffin at the NAN annual conference in Manhattan.
Comcast, by several accounts, for months had been grooming Sharpton to take over the 6-7 P.M. Monday-through-Friday time slot on MSNBC from Cenk Uygur, himself relatively new to the job. Uygur, already the popular host of the Web and radio talk show, “The Young Turks,” was having trouble finding his audience on MSNBC. And relations became strained. The network allegedly asked Uygur to tone down his criticism (from the Left) of the Obama administration, and worse, asked him to accept a move of his show to a weekend slot in order to make way for Sharpton. Uygur left, acrimoniously, in July. For several weeks the 6-7 P.M. news slot ran without a regular host. Speculation ran high: The job was all but Sharpton’s. MSNBC management did nothing to quell such rumors.
Last Tuesday, August 23, MSNBC President Phil Griffin made the announcement official: Al Sharpton would be joining the MSNBC news and commentary team on a full-time basis, hosting a tailor-made show called “PoliticsNation.” Rev. Sharpton, Griffin assured, “will lead a lively and informed discussion of the top headlines, bringing viewers his take on events in his signature style.” The new show would be “an incredibly strong kick-off to our evening schedule.” NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, ever the affirmative action booster, praised the hiring as “a positive step toward addressing the dearth of African-American voices in primetime news.”
Rev. Sharpton promises to strike a balance between formality and fanfare in his camera and vocal presence. “Let me tell you from the outset,” as he closed his show Monday. “I’m not going to be a robotic host reading the teleprompter, like a robot. 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.” The reviews of his August 29 debut suggest the Rev could use some extra polish. The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley put it this way: “He’s (Sharpton’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.” Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly, also less than impressed, opined: “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.” Sharpton himself admits to harboring a strong disdain for the teleprompter, but adds that he’s getting more comfortable.
Sharpton’s voice and camera presence is a lesser issue, however, than his potential use of his show for aggressive partisanship. His use of language Monday and Tuesday evening, slurred speech patterns aside, suggested a Left-leaning spin. But then, he’s in good company. Even minus Keith Olbermann, MSNBC’s main anchor team of Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz make a habit of demonstrating a certain animus toward conservatives. More problematic still is Sharpton’s refusal to come clean about his long history of organizing black rent-a-mobs in an attempt to railroad white defendants in criminal cases where the “victim” was black (e.g., the Tawana Brawley hoax), while practically beatifying black defendants charged with crimes against whites (e.g., the Central Park attack on a white female jogger). His behavior can’t simply be swept under the rug as being “in the past.” It requires accountability. Sharpton’s public demagoguery helped feed a mob mentality that had lethal consequences in Crown Heights, Brooklyn (1991) and in Harlem at Freddy’s Fashion Mart (1995). Sharpton to this day refuses to apologize for these and other campaigns. His credibility as a journalist should be questioned on that basis.
Comcast management remains mum. For them, hiring Sharpton for the anchor desk is a sound business decision, in no way related to its bid for a majority stake in NBCUniversal. Sharpton likewise insists politics was not a part of the decision. In an interview with Lloyd Grove of The Daily Beast blog site (August 25), he stated:
It’s very public and registered with the FCC why we supported the merger. Comcast made some very, very, I might say unparalleled commitments for TV stations to blacks and Latinos…So I think it’s belittling to the black community to say that that commitment doesn’t mean anything, and that somebody was going to get a show that didn’t even exist at that time [before the primetime shakeup]…It’s so insane.
Yet even if all this is true, the ultimate issue is the elevation of the cult of diversity to near infallibility, and as a corollary, the expanded role of the State in enforcing it. Comcast and NBCUniversal, inasmuch as their cozying up to Rev. Sharpton merits rebuke, had to play a game whose rules are controlled by the FCC and Congress. Given that Sharpton’s good friend and ally, President Barack Obama, isn’t about to change the rules, corporations will continue to pay what amounts to a “diversity tax” to nonprofit groups like National Action Network. It’s a tax whose rates can go up at any time for any reason.