Al Sharpton and the Line Between Activist and Journalist

There are abundant reasons to oppose MSNBC’s reported decision to hire Al Sharpton for its 6 p.m. slot. His vile anti-Semitism, well-documented race-baiting, and shady financial practices come to mind. But his new position as a news anchor is also being criticized because of his reputation as an advocate, and some see this as a snub against black journalists who have spent years working their way up the ladder:

When rumors surfaced this week that Sharpton was under consideration for the MSNBC job, one [National Association of Black Journalists] member told colleagues without challenge, “This would still be just another non-journalist media ‘celebrity’ receiving a TV show based upon their name recognition, not their years of experience, training, ability and talent.”

The National Association of Black Journalists also issued this statement in response to Sharpton’s hiring: “Currently, there are no African American anchors hosting prime time news hours for any major cable network. 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.”

John McWhorter, writing for the New York Daily News, is less subtle in making the point:

This is something Sharpton, despite his intelligence, does not bring to the table. We classify Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity neither as geniuses nor as impartial, of course, but both are hungry generalists in a way that Sharpton is not and has never claimed to be. They, in other words, are talk show hosts; Sharpton is a race crusader.

Another difference is that Beck and Hannity were considered talk show hosts by Fox News. Sharpton, in comparison, would be taking a slot reserved for news anchors, on a show that’s also anchored by actual journalists like Contessa Brewer.

But apparently Sharpton has no illusions he’ll be doing news analysis or reporting like his colleagues. Here’s his take on the show from his interview with The Root:

“Sharpton emphatically stated that he is an advocate, not a journalist. If he accepts the offer, he said, it would be in that role. The format under consideration at MSNBC is not for news but for opinions and advocacy, he said.”

Clearly, MSNBC believes Sharpton’s personal faults can be overlooked because of his ability as an entertainer, but giving a news anchor role to a self-proclaimed advocate who has been successfully sued for defamation of character does not seem like a good journalistic judgment call.