And Still Sharpton Rises

Four months after the debut of his much-debated MSNBC show, Rev. Al is coming into his own on-air.

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For some, the matter of journalistic pedigree misses the point. "First off, can we take a moment and appreciate the end of the 'white out' during prime time?" James Peterson, director of Africana studies at Lehigh University, told Allison Samuels of the Daily Beast. "Before we get all riled up about who's a journalist and who's not, we need to find happiness that it's more than just white faces on television at night, like it has been for so long."

Sharpton, who hosts a syndicated talk-radio program, has considerable cred as a radio jock. But radio isn't TV, and months along, Sharpton's MSNBC program finds him grappling with the distinctions between the two mediums. It's not always pretty.

Sharpton's on-camera style can be confrontational when confrontation isn't necessary. He's given to mangling the names of his guests; he stumbles over cutaways between guests and abrasively cuts those guests off in midthought. And one of the more consistent features of his on-air persona is a reproving scowl, his eyebrows arched in a hellfire-and-damnation visage that looks presumptively angry.

Despite these matters, Sharpton has adopted some of the chops of traditional journalism. Sharpton spearheaded Block the Vote, an MSNBC investigation of new voting laws around the United States, laws believed to restrict voting access for black and minority voters -- laws that, on the basis of the actual history of voter fraud, amount to being largely a solution in search of a problem.

On Dec. 6, Sharpton reported on a case of election fraud committed by Paul Schurick, campaign manager for Maryland's former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich. Schurick was convicted that day of election fraud stemming from his attempt to suppress black voter turnout in November 2010. Prosecutors said that Schurick approved deceptive Election Day robocalls that targeted about 110,000 voters in Baltimore City and Prince George's County -- calls meant to convince black voters that the election was over more than two hours before the polls even closed.

In the wake of MSNBC's Block the Vote investigation, but certainly not just because of it, the Justice Department on Dec. 23 blocked implementation of South Carolina's voter-ID law, saying it could make it harder for minorities to vote. It's the first voter-ID law rejected by the federal government in almost two decades.

But some journalists and media watchers have said that Sharpton is too unconventional and undisciplined, his history too checkered for prime time. They offered examples of unruly behavior that included the spirited dustup on MSNBC in April with author and professor Cornel West, a rhetorical battle that still raises eyebrows.

And in recent years, Sharpton has been forced to confront his own dubious history of election-related transgressions. In April 2009 he settled with the Federal Election Commission for several campaign-finance violations, including receiving improper in-kind and corporate contributions. An FEC investigation determined that, during his 2004 presidential campaign, Sharpton "traveled extensively and routinely mixed travel for his campaign committee and National Action Network." Sharpton agreed to pay $285,000 in civil penalties to settle the matter.

For all the objections raised over the role of Sharpton at MSNBC, though, there's no escaping his impact on television where it counts: in the ratings. In the world of cable television, which monitors progress according to the ever-changing metrics of viewers and households, Sharpton has played a part in MSNBC's continued strength in prime-time viewership, helping the network beat CNN in prime-time cable viewers for the third straight year.

Sharpton is helping to solidify an audience of black viewers that was well-established before he arrived; MSNBC has been a consistent magnet for African-American viewers, boasting its place as No. 1 among black viewers in prime time for 22 straight months.