Sharpton Takes on His Critics

He talks with The Root about MSNBC, MLK, DSK and why he has no apologies for the Tawana Brawley case.

Rev. Al Sharpton (Getty Images Entertainment)

These are heady times for the Rev. Al Sharpton. Earlier this week it was announced that his prime-time gig on MSNBC would be made permanent, starting Monday, Aug. 29. Until Hurricane Irene came to literally rain on his parade, his National Action Network activist group was to lead thousands in a March for Jobs and Justice today in Washington, D.C., along with radio host Tom Joyner and a group of labor leaders. His growing clout with the Obama administration is noteworthy to all and alarming to some: Anyone who attended NAN's 20th-anniversary conference this past April witnessed an impressive turnout of cabinet members, as well as the president himself.

With all of these developments, it can be argued that the controversy-attracting minister and street activist from Brooklyn, N.Y., has reached a new height in his career -- even higher than when he ran for president in 2004. As is inevitable with any rise in public profile, he's drawing fire from critics, with the focal point for the salvos being his new MSNBC cable news show, PoliticsNation.

There's the viral silly season that erupted after a recent teleprompter flub, with Rush Limbaugh baiting him about a "racist teleprompter" -- and Sharpton shooting back, "I gave you a gift ... because I want all your listeners to start watching me."

But more seriously, right-wing bloggers have dredged up Sharpton's role in the 24-year-old Tawana Brawley rape-allegations case as evidence of the network's questionable judgment. Black journalists complained that the slot should have gone to someone in their ranks. Liberal muckraker Wayne Barrett even suggested that Sharpton was given the slot as a quid pro quo for his support of the controversial Comcast-NBC Universal merger. The man he replaced in the 6 p.m. MSNBC slot, Cenk Uygur, has complained that Sharpton's friendliness to the Obama administration could be the reason he got the show.

Sharpton is fighting back against all comers, though he appears to be especially hurt by the criticism he has received from black journalists, who have seen their ranks decimated in the newsroom during the economic downturn. In a recent interview with The Root, he argued that the target of their ire should be the mainstream news outlets, not him. "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."

Sharpton defended his record as an advocate of black journalists, saying that he regularly hosts them on his syndicated radio show, Keeping It Real With Al Sharpton; has pressed for greater diversity in television news; and convened a panel on black media ownership that included journalists at the NAN convention in April, among other actions. 

Of course, there's that agreement that he and other civil rights leaders struck with Comcast in exchange for voicing support for the NBC Universal takeover in a letter to the FCC.

"It is in the interest of those that want to deviate and distract to have us reacting to crumbs," he said. "It is really to me petty to argue about who's gonna be on TV when we should be talking about how NAN, National Urban League and the NAACP negotiated a memo of understanding with Comcast and NBC (pdf) to give us four black stations."

Signed before the January 2011 merger as a response to concerns that the transaction could stifle programming diversity and limit distribution outlets for minority-owned channels, the memo sets out a series of steps that the company will take to increase African-American hiring, staff development and programming, including creating four new networks "in which African Americans have a majority or substantial ownership interest."

"If I was worried about a show, when we have an agreement for four stations, I'd be insane," said Sharpton. "I could get on any show I want on any of those four stations. The point is, what about these big mergers and these big deals that are being cut? What about [plans for] the re-election [of] the first black president? And ain't nobody [black] on television but me right now, and [the president’s] gonna be totally assessed and commentated on by an all other-than-us [media]. That is the big picture, so my thing is, are we really missing the point? Or do they really think we're that stupid? It is in people's interest to drive us to the ridiculous."