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."
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.
In a Dec. 19 press release, the network reported that "since PoliticsNation debuted in the time period, MSNBC is topping CNN by 17 percent" in the key demographic of viewers between 25 and 54. "MSNBC topped CNN in every hour from 5 p.m.-10 p.m. ET for the year," the network reported.
PoliticsNation tops CNN's John King USA by 50 percent among total viewers (767,000 versus 512,000), according to TV Newser.
Sharpton's presence may yield more dividends. Recent MSNBC viewers, for example, have no doubt noticed a new promotional spot in which his face is positioned next to those of network heavy hitters Ed Schultz, Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell. The ad, part of MSNBC's "The Place for Politics" campaign, suggests that Sharpton will be a full partner in the network's upcoming coverage of the 2012 presidential election.
And there's talk that Michael Eric Dyson, the author and Georgetown University professor who has also been a substitute host on MSNBC, could be next to join the network, in a role not unlike Sharpton's own.
In an interview with the Daily Beast, Dyson offered what may be an object lesson in how the process of reporting the news may have been transformed — and how the rules of the game have changed, along with the players.
"With the evolution of social media that includes blogging, Facebook and Twitter, who and how information is delivered has changed tremendously," Dyson said. "The landscape for news is a different place, and people have to accept that."