Now a cable news host, Sharpton remains activist
NEW YORK—Al Sharpton's activism on the Trayvon Martin case has given him a unique role -- some would say unique conflict -- on MSNBC. The news network host is in the middle of a story he's been featuring every evening on the air.
Half of Sharpton's "PoliticsNation" program on MSNBC Monday was about the Feb. 26 shooting of Martin, an unarmed black teenager in Sanford, Fla., leading with an interview with Martin's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin. Sharpton's only reference to his own involvement in the case was a remark that "we did the press conference" earlier in the day.
The veteran civil rights activist has spoken at rallies in support of Martin. Monday before the Sanford city commission, Sharpton testified that Martin's parents had endured "insults and lies" over reports that their son attacked George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain who shot him.
Sharpton's dual role would have been unthinkable on television 20 years ago and still wouldn't be allowed at many news organizations. While opinionated cable news hosts have become commonplace over the past decade, Sharpton goes beyond talking.
"It certainly represents a change in our traditional view of the boundaries between journalism and activism," said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank. "Al Sharpton is clearly an activist."
Sharpton, a Baptist minister, runs the Harlem-based National Action Network, a civil rights organization. He's been a frequent presence as an advocate in racially-charged cases dating back to Tawana Brawley's accusations of an assault that turned out to be a hoax in the late 1980s.
He joined MSNBC's roster of hosts last summer after extensive discussions about how his activist role would continue while on the air.
MSNBC chief executive Phil Griffin said his chief requirement was that Sharpton discuss his activism with network bosses so they could decide, on a case-by-case basis, how it would affect "PoliticsNation," which begins at 6 p.m. ET.
"We didn't hire Al to become a neutered kind of news presenter," Griffin said. "That's not what we do."
Griffin, talking before Monday's show, said he hadn't seen any conflict with Sharpton's role on and off the air in the Martin case. He said Sharpton had fulfilled his requirement to honest and upfront about his activities, and credited "PoliticsNation" with helping to make it a national story.
Eric Deggans, a media critic for the Tampa Bay Times who has discussed Sharpton's role on CNN's "Reliable Sources" and elsewhere, recalled being treated like he was "nitpicking" last August when he first raised questions that Sharpton's activism could present conflicts for MSNBC.
He wondered whether Sharpton would be able to deal with it fairly on the air if questions are raised about the Martin family's account.
"I don't know what's in his head," Deggans said. "What I know is that he seems to have become the face of the family's protest against the police and the process. Is it possible to do that and still be an honest broker?"
Sharpton was presented with precisely that test Monday following an Orlando Sentinel report that Zimmerman told police that Martin had punched him in the nose, jumped him and began banging his head on the sidewalk. Sharpton reported that account, noting that "there are serious questions about Zimmerman's version of events."
"People who know what Trayvon was all about as a person all say they can't believe he attacked Zimmerman," Sharpton said.
Another report that Martin was serving a school suspension because traces of marijuana were found in his book bag was labeled by Sharpton "not violent and not material to this."
MSNBC said that one of Zimmerman's defenders was on "Hardball" Monday, which airs before Sharpton's show, indicating that Sharpton's advocacy hasn't affected the network's ability to seek the other side of the story.
It's too early to tell whether Sharpton's dual roles will pay off in the ratings for MSNBC. Sharpton's show averaged 776,000 viewers during the first three months of the year, well behind the 1.8 million who watch Bret Baier on Fox News Channel and that hour but above the 459,000 who tune in to John King on CNN, the Nielsen company said.
In recent years, some cable news anchors have gotten in trouble for mixing advocacy and activism. Fox News Channel two years ago barred opinionated prime-time host Sean Hannity from speaking at a Tea Party rally and fundraiser in Cincinnati and also featuring the event on his show, ordering him back to New York.
In November 2010, MSNBC suspended prime-time host Keith Olbermann for two nights for donating money to political campaigns. Olbermann left the network two months later. Griffin noted that Sharpton would also be barred from making political donations at MSNBC, and said the situation was different from the Martin case because the donation was concealed from MSNBC executives and viewers. Sharpton, he said, is open about his activities.
Just because Sharpton has been allowed his dual roles doesn't mean that MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell or Ed Schultz would be freely allowed to speak at political rallies, Griffin said.
"It's a different world we are sort of trailblazing," he said. "The critical part of it is you have to be upfront about it. You can't hide anything."
McBride said she does not view Sharpton as a journalist and doubts that many viewers do. The reason MSNBC puts Sharpton on the air is because it wants to reach an audience that is interested in things that he is, she said.
"I'm not saying this is without problems," she said. "I think it's very confusing. But it's certainly the way we are moving in the journalism industry."