The media focus on Trayvon Martin’s death has slowly grown from local story to national issue. And perhaps the most public figure to support the cause is Rev. Al Sharpton — who happens to host a primetime show on MSNBC.
Does Sharpton’s participation in the story — from interviewing Martin’s parents on MSNBC to leading rallies with them, demanding justice for the teen’s premature death — pose a problem for the cable news network?
MSNBC doesn’t think so. “When Rev. Sharpton joined MSNBC, it was with the understanding that he would continue to do his advocacy work,” the network said in a statement. “We’re fully aware of that work and we have an ongoing dialogue. His participation in these events is very public and our audience is completely aware of where he stands on the issues. It’s because of this work and his decades of activism that Rev. Sharpton brings such a unique perspective to our line up.”
Marc Cooper, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California agrees. Sharpton is known by millions as a civil rights activist, and his MSNBC audience is relatively small in comparison, Cooper said. “Everyone who watches Sharpton on MSNBC knows exactly where he is coming from.” Sharpton’s show, which airs at 6 p.m. ET, attracts about 776,000 viewers each night, according to most recent figures.
Sharpton told the New York Times recently that Martin’s family lawyer called him and said he needed his help. Sharpton then moved his radio and TV shows down to Florida. In the past week, Martin’s parents have appeared on Sharpton’s show a number of times as the investigation has been a focal point for the show.
To be clear, when MSNBC announced of Sharpton’s hiring last year, he was never referred to as a journalist. In the release, MSNBC refers to Sharpton as a “community leader, politician, minister and advocate.” But night after night, he hosts a show on a major cable news network. Whether or not he’s a journalist, he is covering the news. The supposition with Sharpton and other pundits is that “everyone is in on the set up,” said Susie Linfield, director of the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University. But to a casual viewer, nothing sets Sharpton’s show apart from news shows like Andrea Mitchell Reports or News Nation with Tamron Hall.
And the network’s other personalities aren’t participating in the news in quite the same way. Chris Matthews may be known as a Washington insider — and devout liberal — but he’s not standing outside the Supreme Court leading a protest in support of the Affordable Care Act. Rachel Maddow certainly has her opinions, but they’re mostly broadcast on her television show.
Sharpton’s positions may be well known — MSNBC hosts at times acknowledge his civil rights connections as well as his employment at the network. But Sharpton is far from the only pundit with political ties. Take David Gergen, a veteran of the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations, who regularly delivers political analysis on CNN, for example. Or Donna Brazile, a former Democratic operative, who also contributes to CNN’s political coverage and analysis. Unlike Sharpton, they are presented as middle-of-the-road commentators. And Fox News, of course, employs scores of commentators with political ties.
“I find the way that these people are being put forth as some sort of journalist or analyst to be really disquieting,” Linfield said. She doesn’t oppose opinion journalism, but it has to be just that: journalism.
So Sharpton’s shapeshifting from activist to commentator is hardly unprecedented in a space that had been blurring the line between news and opinion for years. His role in the Martin story has allowed him to have unfettered access to the teen’s parents, and the public is hungry to hear what they have to say. It’s ultimately up to viewers to decide if Sharpton is practicing journalism or advocacy, and whether they care about the distinction, says MSNBC.
Here’s a compilation video of Sharpton’s colleagues at MSNBC covering the reverend, at times acknowledging his ties to the network, and sometimes not.
David Taintor is TPM’s News Editor. He contributes to TPM’s Livewire coverage, among other areas. David is from Chanhassen, Minnesota, where, yes, it gets very cold. Reach him at taintor [at] talkingpointsmemo.com