Will Comcast Reveal Ties to MSNBC Anchorman-in-Waiting Al Sharpton?

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Sharpton photo"Al Sharpton, anchorman" - the phrase has an undeniably odd ring. Yet on MSNBC it's already a part-time reality. And his close relationship to MSNBC's parent, Comcast Corp., may enable him to become full-time permanent host of the cable network's 6 P.M. news slot. If Sharpton gets promoted - the announcement could come any day - it would be the ultimate coup in his ongoing campaign to obtain respectability to cover a long history of racial incitement. It also might be a conflict of interest. Comcast, the nation's largest cable owner-operator, this past January completed its purchase of a 51 percent stake in NBCUniversal, which owns MSNBC. Of more than passing significance, Comcast also is a key donor to Sharpton's main nonprofit conduit, National Action Network (NAN). So why isn't Comcast more open about its relationship with "the Rev?" It's a question that Comcast top brass aren't answering. 

The Philadelphia-based Comcast isn't one to complain about Reverend Al Sharpton, or for that matter, any other black civil-rights leader. For action as well as rhetoric, few corporations can match the company in giving preferential treatment to nonwhites (i.e., "diversity") in all phases of operations. Granted, virtually all major U.S. corporations regularly trumpet their commitment to racial diversity - a phenomenon I described in detail in a Special Report published four years ago by National Legal and Policy Center (see pdf). Yet Comcast seems to go that extra mile. In the official brochure for National Action Network's 2009 annual convention, for example, the company welcomed attendees with the following message:

We live and breathe innovation every day. By embracing diversity of thought, philosophy and experience, we have become the nation's leading provider of entertainment, information and communication products and services. By embracing diversity of communities, we have become an employer and a provider of choice. Our diversity is our strength.

Comcast proudly supports the National Action Network.

Actually, the main reason why the publicly-traded Comcast is a successful business, aside from its aggressive acquisition strategy over the years, is its relentless search for improvements in technology and in relations with shareholders, suppliers, employees and customers. Pandering to racial hustlers like Sharpton in hopes of averting a boycott or lawsuit, by contrast, isn't a long-run winning strategy for any company. Yet Comcast, by its own admission, has donated $140,000 to NAN since 2009, coincidentally or not, the same year the Comcast-NBC merger was proposed. The company was a sponsor-level donor for each of NAN's 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 Manhattan extravaganzas; Anheuser-Busch, Colgate-Palmolive, Home Depot, Johnson & Johnson, and Macy's were among the other repeat corporate contributors. And in Comcast's case, this may have produced an ethically-challenged quid pro quo necessitated by a heavy federal hand and accompanying "civil rights" monitoring.

Reverend Al Sharpton, now 56, has become a mainstay at MSNBC as both a guest and host. The minister, community organizer and former presidential candidate has a long and documented track record for fomenting racial discontent for political gain, something I digressed upon in a 2009 report released by NLPC (see pdf). Yet the evidence doesn't appear to register among network executives. He has served in recent months as a frequent guest host for its 6 P.M. (EST) news hour, bracketed by 5 P.M. and 7 P.M. airings of Chris Matthews' "Hardball" show. Sharpton had substituted several times in that time slot for Cenk Uygur, who departed from the network in July on less than amicable terms. The network is satisfied with the "Rev." In fact, Sharpton has been on MSNBC for all of its 15 years in some capacity, noted President Phil Griffin before a meeting of the Television Critics Association. Griffin emphasized that Sharpton "fits in with the MSNBC...sensibility." Added Chris Matthews at that event (which also included MSNBC stars Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell): "If he (Sharpton) gets the job I think he'll do well." Don't look now, but Al Sharpton may be about to receive a boost in pay grade.

Comcast, a company with around 100,000 employees that generated nearly $38 billion in gross revenues in 2010, this past January acquired a 51 percent stake worth $13.75 billion in media conglomerate NBCUniversal following Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval earlier in the month. The previous majority owner, General Electric, would retain a 49 percent stake following its acquisition of the 20 percent interest held by French multimedia giant Vivendi. The merger, worth a grand total of $30 billion, had been publicly announced in December 2009. As a matter of company policy, Comcast refrains from influencing MSNBC hiring decisions. In a recent statement, MSNBC stated: "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." So that's the end of the story, right? Well, maybe not.

Last year, Comcast reportedly approached Sharpton in an effort to pave the way for its takeover of NBCUniversal during FCC review. Comcast was in the process of presenting a plan to promote company "diversity," including its news programming.  Sharpton, among a number of black civil-rights leaders consulted, eventually signed a comprehensive diversity Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to the merger. The NAACP and the Urban League would sign a similar MOU. While Michael Copps, a Democrat who has served on the commission for the last decade, opposed the deal partly on grounds of a lack of diversity, another FCC member, Mignon Clyburn, daughter of black South Carolina Democratic Congressman James Clyburn, gave a thumbs-up. She concluded that Sharpton's approval "will serve to keep the new entity honest in promoting diversity." Clyburn's approval in turn set the stage for approval by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. It also mollified Jesse Jackson, various black organizations, and several top black members of Congress, including then-House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., all of whom initially were opposed to the deal because it wasn't sufficiently aggressive in its promotion of "diversity."

Diversity is what Comcast and MSNBC might have been thinking when it took a hard look at its 6 P.M. news slot. MSNBC initiated a shakeup in January, the very month of the takeover. Keith Olbermann, whose "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" had run continuously since March 2003, left the network (or was fired, as many speculate) and took his show to Current TV; Ed Schultz, like Olbermann, combative in a hard-Left way, had his program, "The Ed Show" (which Sharpton has guest-hosted a number of times), moved from 6 P.M. to 10 P.M.; and Cenk Uygur, a trained lawyer and Republican-turned-Democrat, took over Schultz's slot. But the Istanbul-born Uygur declined to sign a new contract with the network and, since his departure a few weeks ago, has been focusing full time on his long-running Web and radio talk show, "The Young Turks."

The ultimate winner of this game of musical chairs may be Al Sharpton. He's been a semi-regular guest on the center-Right Fox News Channel, appearing on Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity's shows a combined more than 15 times in recent years. And he was a guest host on Uygur's show during its six-month run. A full-time job at the MSNBC anchor desk would be the ultimate prize, providing him with a forum to sound off. Sharpton perhaps signaled his intentions when he handed MSNBC President Phil Griffin a "Keepers of the Dream" award at the 2011 National Action Network banquet in April. And wouldn't you know it - Chris Matthews and other NBC top guns were seated at Griffin's table.

With a slurred vocal style more akin to an aging bluesman than a TV newscaster, Al Sharpton might not retain an audience as a full-timer once the novelty wears off. He's had a few previous runs as a television talk-show host - "I Hate My Job," "Sharp Talk," and "Education SuperHighway" - each of which proved short-lived. But that hardly knocks him out of the running for the job. He still has his nightly radio show, "Keepin' It Real," broadcast simultaneously on the XM Satellite Network and Radio One. More importantly, common sense dictates that anyone who can grease the wheels for a corporate takeover on this scale can write his own ticket. Comcast has refused to answer as to whether hiring Sharpton would be reciprocation for his intermediary role for FCC approval. But it's hard to avoid connecting the dots: Comcast donates money to National Action Network; Sharpton praises Comcast; and Comcast, by way of MSNBC, makes Sharpton a full-time anchor. Such are the rewards in the Age of Diversity.

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