It seems that during the time I was out of the country, The Powers That Be at MSNBC decided to replace "Young Turks" host Cenk Uygur with civil rights movement celebrity Al Sharpton as host of the 6 p.m. hour. This move was confusing at first -- I naturally assumed that what I was seeing on the teevee was a result of jet lag or drunkenness, or that my Virgin Atlantic flight had flown through a wormhole into a parallel dimension (Richard Branson features this option on a select number of international flights). But I've come to understand that this Al Sharpton-on-MSNBC stuff is actually a real thing happening in our lives.
And that's pretty interesting, seeing as there's no evidence whatsoever that Sharpton has any real talent for hosting a television show or covering the news of the day. Sharpton's well known, of course, for being a fiery and exciting orator with genuine rhetorical talent. Being stuck behind a desk and staring at a teleprompter, however, doesn't seem to suit him at all. In a more restrained space, his speech is halting and tentative, his focus seems scattered, and but for the adequate amplification technologies being deployed, you'd have to term the show "mumblecore."
And whether he feels reined in by the politesse of hosting, or is just generally at sea in his new format, there's nothing in Sharpton's performance that suggests he has command of the conversation. If I were in ideological opposition to Sharpton, I'd be only too eager to go on his show -- he seems uniquely incapable of getting the upper hand in an argument.
So, what, if anything, does Sharpton bring to the table? Well, as Wayne Barrett reports in The Daily Beast, Sharpton's appeal may stem from the fact that he's already been such a fine company man to NBC, having played an important role in facilitating the network's merger with Comcast:
It’s gone remarkably unnoticed that Sharpton was the first major black leader to endorse the Comcast merger, which met fierce resistance. Michael Copps, a Democrat who’d served on the FCC since 2001, declared, when he ultimately voted against it, that the merger “erodes diversity, localism and competition” and was “a huge boost for media industry (and digital industry) consolidation” as well as “a stake in the heart of independent content production,” charges that were echoed in a New York Times editorial. But Mignon Clyburn, the daughter of South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn and the only minority member on the FCC, threw her decisive support behind the deal, citing a comprehensive diversity memorandum of agreement (MOU) signed by Sharpton as a mechanism that “will serve to keep the new entity honest in promoting diversity.”
Without Clyburn, FCC chair Julius Genachowski, the third Democrat on the commission, seems unlikely to have backed the deal, which he did a week after the MOU was sent to the FCC. The MOU was significant because it countered opposition from Jesse Jackson, a variety of black organizations, and some black House Democrats.
So, Sharpton gets a gig in return for doing the suits a solid -- that's some sweet, sweet synergy right there! (And Barrett has a lot more to report on that, so please go read the whole thing.) But sadly, this little transaction isn't without some additional baggage that puts MSNBC in a potential bind, journalistically speaking. I'll let Glenn Greenwald explain:
On Sunday, Cenk Uygur was interviewed by CNN's Howard Kurtz about Uygur's departure from MSNBC, and Ugyur claimed that Al Sharpton -- widely reported to be his replacement -- vowed in a 60 Minutes interview never to criticize President Obama under any circumstances. When I first heard Uygur make this claim, I assumed it was hyperbole -- until I watched the video and read the transcript of the Sharpton interview. The 60 Minutes segment was aired on May 19, 2011, and chronicles what it calls Sharpton's "metamorphosis: today he's down right tame. So much so, that he has made his way into the establishment." It includes this:
"Sharpton told us that having a black president is a challenge: if he finds fault with Mr. Obama, he'd be aiding those who want to destroy him. So he has decided not to criticize the president about anything -- even about black unemployment, which is twice the national rate."
Naturally, I've no beef with anyone on cable news opting to defend the things they find defensible. But Sharpton's position here isn't to defend the president on what he sees as the merits -- it's to furnish an amen corner. Greenwald states the obvious: "Holding people in political power accountable is the prime function -- the defining feature -- of a journalist, including a pundit; if you expressly and publicly vow never to do that, how can you possibly be credibly presented as being one?"
Well, you can't! But the good news is that Sharpton doesn't appear able to muster much on-air talent to defend anyone, anyway, about anything. So maybe this is all a wash. The good news for MSNBC is that Sharpton will probably continue to beat CNN in the 6pm time slot -- unless CNN makes a bold move to improve their offering by, say, pointing a television camera at a coatrack for an hour, or something.