Sharp­ton roles con­flict­ing?

MSNBC host also ac­tive in Trayvon Martin case

The Washington Times Daily - - Life - BY DAVID BAUDER

The Rev. Al Sharp­ton’s ac­tivism on the Trayvon Martin case has given him a unique role — some would say unique con­flict — on MSNBC. The news net­work host is in the mid­dle of a story he’s been fea­tur­ing ev­ery evening on the air. Half of Mr. Sharp­ton’s “Pol­i­tic­sna­tion” pro­gram on MSNBC Mon­day was about the Feb. 26 shoot­ing of the un­armed black teenager in San­ford, Fla., lead­ing with an in­ter­view with Trayvon’s par­ents, Sy­b­rina Ful­ton and Tracy Martin. Mr. Sharp­ton’s only ref­er­ence to his own in­volve­ment in the case was a re­mark that “we did the press con­fer­ence” ear­lier in the day.

The veteran civil rights ac­tivist has spo­ken at ral­lies to seek jus­tice for the slain youth. On Mon­day be­fore the San­ford city com­mis­sion, Mr. Sharp­ton tes­ti­fied that Trayvon’s par­ents had en­dured “in­sults and lies” over re­ports that their son at­tacked Ge­orge Zim­mer­man, the neigh­bor­hood watch cap­tain who shot him.

Mr. Sharp­ton’s dual role would have been un­think­able on tele­vi­sion 20 years ago and still wouldn’t be al­lowed at many news or­ga­ni­za­tions. While opin­ion­ated cable news hosts have be­come com­mon­place over the past decade, Mr. Sharp­ton goes be­yond talk­ing.

“It cer­tainly rep­re­sents a change in our tra­di­tional view of the boundaries be­tween jour­nal­ism and ac­tivism,” said Kelly Mcbride, ethics group leader at the Poyn­ter In­sti­tute, a jour­nal­ism think tank. “Al Sharp­ton is clearly an ac­tivist.”

Mr. Sharp­ton, a Bap­tist min­is­ter, runs the Har­lem-based Na­tional Ac­tion Net­work, a civil rights or­ga­ni­za­tion. He’s been a fre­quent pres­ence as an ad­vo­cate in racial­ly­charged cases dat­ing back to Tawana Braw­ley’s ac­cu­sa­tions of an as­sault that turned out to be a hoax in the late 1980s.

He joined MSNBC’S ros­ter of hosts last sum­mer af­ter ex­ten­sive dis­cus­sions about how his ac­tivist role would con­tinue while on the air.

MSNBC chief ex­ec­u­tive Phil Grif­fin said his chief re­quire­ment was that Mr. Sharp­ton dis­cuss his ac­tivism with net­work bosses so they could de­cide, on a case-by­case ba­sis, how it would af­fect “Pol­i­tic­sna­tion,” which be­gins at 6 p.m. EDT.

“We didn’t hire Al to be­come a neutered kind of news pre­sen­ter,” Mr. Grif­fin said. “That’s not what we do.”

Mr. Grif­fin, talk­ing be­fore Mon­day’s show, said he hadn’t seen any con­flict with Mr. Sharp­ton’s role on and off the air in the Martin case. He said Mr. Sharp­ton had ful­filled his re­quire­ment to be hon­est and up­front about his ac­tiv­i­ties, and cred­ited “Pol­i­tic­sna­tion” with help­ing to make it a na­tional story.

Eric Deg­gans, a me­dia critic for the Tampa Bay Times who has dis­cussed Mr. Sharp­ton’s role on CNN’S “Re­li­able Sources” and else­where, re­called be­ing treated like he was “nit­pick­ing” last Au­gust when he first raised ques­tions about how Mr. Sharp­ton’s ac­tivism could present con­flicts for MSNBC.

He won­dered whether Mr. Sharp­ton would be able to deal with it fairly on the air if ques­tions are raised about the Martin fam­ily’s ac­count of the shoot­ing.

“I don’t know what’s in his head,” Mr. Deg­gans said. “What I know is that he seems to have be­come the face of the fam­ily’s protest against the po­lice and the process. Is it pos­si­ble to do that and still be an hon­est bro­ker?”

Mr. Sharp­ton was pre­sented with pre­cisely that test Mon­day fol­low­ing an Or­lando Sen­tinel re­port that Mr. Zim­mer­man told po­lice that Trayvon had punched him in the nose, jumped him and be­gan bang­ing his head on the side­walk. Mr. Sharp­ton re­ported that ac­count, not­ing that “there are se­ri­ous ques­tions about Zim­mer­man’s ver­sion of events.”

“Peo­ple who know what Trayvon was all about as a per­son all say they can’t be­lieve he at­tacked Zim­mer­man,” Mr. Sharp­ton said.

An­other re­port that Trayvon was serv­ing a school sus­pen­sion be­cause traces of mar­i­juana were found in his book bag was la­beled by Mr. Sharp­ton “not vi­o­lent and not ma­te­rial to this.”

MSNBC said that one of Mr. Zim­mer­man’s de­fend­ers was on “Hard­ball” Mon­day, which airs be­fore Mr. Sharp­ton’s show, in­di­cat­ing that Mr. Sharp­ton’s ad­vo­cacy hasn’t af­fected the net­work’s abil­ity to seek the other side of the story.

It’s too early to tell whether Mr. Sharp­ton’s dual roles will pay off in the rat­ings for MSNBC. His show av­er­aged 776,000 view­ers dur­ing the first three months of the year, well be­hind the 1.8 mil­lion who watch Bret Baier on Fox News Chan­nel dur­ing that hour but above the 459,000 who tune in to John King on CNN, the Nielsen com­pany said.

In re­cent years, some cable news an­chors have got­ten in trou­ble for mix­ing ad­vo­cacy and ac­tivism. Fox News Chan­nel two years ago barred opin­ion­ated prime-time host Sean Han­nity from speak­ing at a tea party rally and fundraiser in Cincin­nati and also fea­tur­ing the event on his show, or­der­ing him back to New York.

In Novem­ber 2010, MSNBC sus­pended prime-time host Keith Ol­ber­mann for two nights for do­nat­ing money to po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns. Mr. Ol­ber­mann left the net­work two months later. Mr. Grif­fin noted that Mr. Sharp­ton would also be barred from mak­ing po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions at MSNBC, and said the sit­u­a­tion was dif­fer­ent from the Martin case be­cause the do­na­tion was con­cealed from MSNBC ex­ec­u­tives and view­ers. Mr. Sharp­ton, he said, is open about his ac­tiv­i­ties.

Just be­cause Mr. Sharp­ton has been al­lowed his dual roles doesn’t mean that MSNBC’S Lawrence O’don­nell or Ed Schultz would be al­lowed to speak at po­lit­i­cal ral­lies, Mr. Grif­fin said.

“It’s a dif­fer­ent world we are sort of trail­blaz­ing,” he said. “The crit­i­cal part of it is you have to be up­front about it. You can’t hide any­thing.”

Ms. Mcbride said she does not view Mr. Sharp­ton as a jour­nal­ist and doubts that many view­ers do. The rea­son MSNBC puts Mr. Sharp­ton on the air is be­cause it wants to reach an au­di­ence that is in­ter­ested in things that he is, she said.

“I’m not say­ing this is with­out prob­lems,” she said. “I think it’s very con­fus­ing. But it’s cer­tainly the way we are mov­ing in the jour­nal­ism in­dus­try.”

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