Al Sharpton on MSNBC Presents Both Risk and Opportunities for Black America

Al Sharpton's presence on MSNBC will hopefully open the door for black journalists to find access to the platforms that continue to evade them.
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When I read today about Rev. Al Sharpton taking over as the 6 pm host of "Politics Nation" on MSNBC, my first thought was "Finally, they made a decision." It took some time, but after a while, the network confirmed the move that has been the source of a tremendous amount of speculation over the past several weeks.

I've been on Al Sharpton's radio show at least 80 times during the last two years. I've also sat with him for hours at a time in private conversation. I can confirm that he is an outstanding host, and fully capable of giving MSNBC their money's worth in nearly every conceivable way. He also personally fills the long-held void of "All white, all night," that has been the on-going theme for most cable news networks, which have refused to use African American hosts after 6 pm.

MSNBC President Phil Griffin deserves credit for making the move that should have happened long ago. I don't know Griffin well, but I did sit on a panel with him during the National Action Network Convention this year, hosted by Rev. Sharpton. The relationship between Griffin and Sharpton has been built over time, and Griffin seems to have a genuine respect for Sharpton as both a media personality and civil rights leader.

When trying to predict how this relationship works out in the end, it's all a matter of simply sitting back and seeing how it goes. Sharpton brings a tremendous amount of talent, skill, passion and creativity to his ever-evolving public role, and he is willing to take risks that one wouldn't expect from a pastor and civil rights figure. For every person who points out one of the "more complicated" parts of Sharpton's past, I encourage them to listen to his words carefully to understand that a man can't be this successful, for this long, without having a high degree of intelligence and determination.

I do worry about the deep relationship between Sharpton, MSNBC and the Obama Administration. This is not to say that any of these relationships are illegitimate. But one can't help but notice the "Media Arms Race" taking place between the political right and left. On the right, we have Fox News and Rupert Murdoch's media empire conspiring to control the minds of millions of conservatives. On the left, we have MSNBC, who owns at least two black media outlets ( and There is also the interesting relationship between (owned by the Washington Post), which is run by long-time Obama supporter Henry Louis Gates.

Corporate America is a capitalistic cannibal: It seeks to devour all things that might either promote or impede its pre-existing financial interest. One has to be concerned when black media outlets and public figures are too closely aligned with the interests that have long been a part of the oppression of African Americans. At the same time, having some access to those who control these entities may be good for the community. But when a field slave was invited into "Massa's" house 200 years ago, you never knew if the slave was gaining power or if he was conceding power to the master.

Black America is getting an exciting and intimidating public political education as we slowly learn to run the race from the front. We now have access to the White House and leading positions in powerful American organizations. The greater challenge is that these machines are pre-wired to oppress in the name of profitability, so all of us have reason to be concerned when our most vocal leaders have become part of the very same machines that have served to hold us back. At the same time, nearly every black person in America works for one of these corporations, which means that our inability to seek the independence that was taught to us by Malcolm X many years ago continues to cost us our true freedom.

The point is that we must all think critically as we evaluate news and information we receive from nearly any source. Additionally, black-owned media and businesses are the keys to our salvation, not simply gaining an elevated platform on an entity that is owned by someone else. As NBC/Universal earned approval for their massive merger a few months ago, everyone in the black community has reason to scrutinize this move to ensure that we are truly getting a piece of the pie. No one on television or anywhere else should be thinking for you -- we should all be thinking for ourselves.

Sharpton's presence on MSNBC will also, hopefully, open the door for black journalists to find access to the platforms that continue to evade them. The fact that Sharpton is not a professional journalist is not a concern, since many of the hosts on nighttime cable news networks do not have a journalistic background. In that regard, Rev. Sharpton is every bit as qualified as Bill O'Reilly, Mike Huckabee and many other staples in nightly news. He's going to do the job very well and will probably receive higher ratings than those that would be earned by an unknown journalist.

All the while, the community and MSNBC are wise to remember that doing a favor for a black leader is not the same as taking care of the entire black community. While there are millions of African Americans who love and support Rev. Al Sharpton (myself included), there are millions of others who have a different point of view (i.e. Cornel West). So, at the end of the day, media must learn to reflect a variety of African American voices on television networks, and never presume that our entire community shares the same brain.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World coalition. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.

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