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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Back in August, as the Rev. Al Sharpton began his hosting duties on MSNBC's PoliticsNation, the first gig there for an African American who wasn't a journalist, a reader at the Huffington Post asked what many in the media (and elsewhere) probably asked themselves: "What is the over-under on this guy's hosting job lasting a full month?"

Four months later -- and six months after he began his association with MSNBC, as a substitute host for progressive firebrand Ed Schultz -- Sharpton remains at the helm of his own regular program and has come into his own as part of the rotating face of the "Lean Forward" network.

With a forthright style cultivated in the pulpit and on the street, Sharpton has done one of the main things that modern television demands: carved out a telegenic personality, establishing a singular identity not to be confused with anyone else.

The fact that Sharpton, head of the activist National Action Network, is no shrinking violet but a full-throated progressive with passionate views on a range of topics related to social justice illustrates the evolving tango of journalism and opinion in 21st-century media. Much to their dismay, old-guard mainstream journalists face a paradigm shift of which Sharpton's rise is but a leading indicator: the fact of minority voices are finally starting to achieve critical mass in the American commentariat.

That HuffPost reader was one of many who brought out the long knives for Sharpton's ascension to the host's position. The critics came in full force from every direction, including black journalists, who cried foul that Sharpton got a gig that real, seasoned African-American journalists couldn't secure.

A July 22 news release from the National Association of Black Journalists lamented the absence of black journalists on prime-time television. "While MSNBC is reportedly on the verge of offering civil rights activist Al Sharpton his own prime-time slot, there are no black journalists who can tout a similar promotion,'' read the release.

"Our presence in the prime-time slot makes a big difference in terms of shaping public opinion of each issue," said NABJ Executive Director Maurice Foster.

Carole Simpson, a former anchor at ABC News, distilled their concerns in a Dec. 30 post on her blog: "He has been hosting his PoliticsNation on MSNBC for several months, but face it: If he were a white man, a white woman, a black woman or some other black man, he would be fired. Television host he is not. He struggles with the teleprompter, stumbles on his words and he doesn't talk to the audience, he barks like an agitated beagle ... Sorry to say, he's an embarrassment. Surely, there's someone else."

Prior to taking the PoliticsNation post, Sharpton pushed back early against his critics in two interviews with The Root. "We can't get into a crabs-in-the-barrel mentality," Sharpton said in July. "We cannot let them play us off one another. There is a history here. Kweisi Mfume had a talk show. Jesse Jackson Jr. had a talk show. If someone can advocate nationwide, we need to do that given the pain of our people. We need to do that on television, in newspapers and magazines. And all of us need to be united."

In an August interview, he maintained that the target of black journalists' ire should properly be the mainstream news outlets. "They [mainstream media] escape from the discussion because you pick a fight with the civil rights leader rather than having your eye on the prize."