And Still Sharpton Rises

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

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

“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.”

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.