Foreign Policy Watch

Geopolitical musings through a progressive lens …by Matt Eckel and Jeb Koogler

Al Sharpton and the Myth of the Anti-Establishment Outsider

The recent New York Times article about Al Sharpton had an “Alan Feuer” in its byline, but it may as well have been written by the marketing team at MSNBC. The article discusses Al Sharpton’s new spot as MSNBC’s 6PM anchor and, by missing the broader context in which this decision came about, comes across as more of a free advertising give-away to MSNBC than as an actual piece of journalism. Feuer does his readers a great disservice when he adopts MSNBC’s line and paints Sharpton as a crusading anti-establishment outsider whose relationship with cable news is — we can be sure — almost certain to be a rocky one (subtext: so tune in for the fireworks!). In the piece, Phil Griffin, the network president, is allowed to cast the decision to bring on Sharpton as some sort of radical move by MSNBC’s executives: ”We are breaking the mold,” said Phil Griffin. “Anything [Sharpton] does on the streets, he can talk about on air — we won’t hide anything.” A professor of journalism at Northeastern is next quoted, adding to our developing image of Sharpton as an anti-establishment firebrand: “Maybe a talk-show host shouldn’t have to follow the entire code of ethics for a journalist,” Professor [Dan] Kennedy said, “but he shouldn’t be able to run roughshod and function as pure political activist.”

What Feuer misses is the context. Not to mention the story. The context is that Sharpton’s predecessor, Cenk Uygur, was basically asked to step aside by MSNBC’s Griffin because he was seen as too tough on the political establishment, too much of a firebrand. Uygur, who is the host of a popular online radio show called The Young Turks, had taken over the 6pm spot on MSNBC and, as he has recently described it, was undoubtedly the “harshest” on the Obama administration of any of the network’s hosts. Glenn Greenwald writes: ”Uygur often refused to treat members of the political and media establishment with deference and respect.  He didn’t politely imply with disguised subtleties when he thought a politician or media figure was lying or corrupt, but instead said it outright.  In interviews, he was sometimes unusually aggressive with leading Washington figures, subjecting them to civil though hostile treatment to which they were plainly unaccustomed.” In other words, Uygur played the part of the journalist — that much-needed check on government power that you read about in political theory textbooks — that is in such limited supply these days. While other cable anchors see it as their job to be deferential to America’s political elites (I see you, Anderson Cooper), Uygur refused to politely treat guest politicians on his show as “honorable gentlemen,” as he put it. “Hell no.” His bluntness and confrontational attitude bothered MSNBC’s executives and Uygur recalls that Griffin took him aside to caution him. MSNBC is “part of the establishment,” Uygur was told.

Uygur’s replacement is Sharpton who, by most metrics (and contrary to the official MSNBC marketing script), is his predecessor’s opposite. Feuer’s article misses the transformation that has occurred: the growing closeness between Sharpton and Obama and the fact that MSNBC’s new host is anything but an anti-establishment firebrand these days. Sharpton has expressly stated that he will not criticize the president — that, as noted in this write-up of his recent interview for 60 Minutes, doing so is tantamount to “aiding those who want to destroy him.” So Sharpton has “decided not to criticize the president about anything – even about black unemployment, which is twice the national rate.” Most accounts (including his own) indicate that Sharpton — long a passionate defender of the powerless — is truly a changed man, at least in his refusal to criticize the power-hungry in Washington. As the 60 Minutes report summarizes: “It’s been quite a trajectory: from street-protest agitator, to candidate for president in 2004, to now a trusted White House adviser who has become the president’s go-to black leader campaigning around the country for President Obama and his agenda.” The WSJ writes, in an article entitled “Obama’s New Partner,” that Sharpton has recently been “telling black leaders to quiet their criticisms and give the government a chance.”

President Barack Obama has turned to Mr. Sharpton in recent weeks to answer increasingly public criticism in the black community over his economic policy. Some black leaders are charging that the nation’s first African-American president has failed to help black communities hit hard by the downturn, leaving party strategists worried that black Democrats will become dispirited and skip November’s congressional elections. Mr. Sharpton has emerged as an important part of the White House response. On his national radio program, he is directly rebutting the president’s critics, arguing that Mr. Obama is right to craft policies aimed at lifting all Americans rather than specifically targeting blacks.

Mr. Sharpton has been to the White House five times since Mr. Obama took office, most recently this month as part of a small group meeting with economics advisor Lawrence Summers. Mr. Sharpton’s radio program, which airs in 27 markets, has become a friendly platform for administration officials to address black listeners, allowing Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, for example, to take credit for a recent $1.25 billion settlement with black farmers who had sued the government for discrimination. Now there are signs that Mr. Sharpton will play a role in this fall’s midterm elections. Democratic National Committee Chairman Timothy Kaine conferred with Mr. Sharpton this month on sending him to black churches and neighborhoods in politically important states to register and mobilize black voters.

Not only has Sharpton become buddy-buddy with the president, his radio program is a “friendly platform for administration officials,” he is a public defender of this administration’s policies, and he has explicitly stated that he has decided not to criticize Obama. That’s the story here: that the prime evening spot on one of this country’s most prominent cable networks is being filled by someone who has essentially pledged his allegiance to getting Obama re-elected. I’m sorry that the New York Times missed it.

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