According to sources at MSNBC, Rev. Al Sharpton is about to have a slot on primetime TV news, and black journalists are not happy about it.
Now, there is a shortlist of things I never expect to see on television in my lifetime: An elected official openly admitting taking bribes, a sitcom about 30-something African-American professionals that doesn’t include a token white girl, and Sharpton with his own show.
How did we get here?
You can thank a healthy mix of politics, money and Keith Olbermann for Sharpton on MSNBC. The process began in January when Olbermann was removed from MSNBC for not playing ball. His departure dented the heart and soul of MSNBC.
After some schedule shuffling, the network placed Cenk Uygur, the firebrand host of the popular “The Young Turks” internet show, as a replacement, but he never seemed to suit the network’s needs. Despite improving on the ratings from last year, Cenk was offered a weekend time slot and a lesser role at the station, and he refused.
Sharpton, who had done pretty well as a guest host a couple of times over the last several weeks, has been all but announced as the new host. That should make black people happy, right? That should improve the progressive image of MSNBC, right? No, on both counts, and all kinds of wrong on others.
You don’t have to be a raging anti-affirmative action baby to smell just how odd and infuriating this entire scenario is to news watchers, black journalists and pundits in general. Nor do you have to be Conspiracy Brotha to note just how odd and quick this change has occurred on nightly television.
Two weeks ago, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and the NAACP released statements criticizing CNN for it’s lack of diversity in nightly news anchors. The organizations rightly pointed out that there are no African American hosts in primetime television on any cable or network news station.
I’ll go one step further and point out that until the Sharpton hiring, there were more openly gay (Rachel Maddow) and foreign born (Christiane Amanpour and Fareed Zakaria) hosts on primetime news shows than blacks or Hispanics.
Of course, it’s odd that the NAACP went after CNN when you consider that they actually have black anchors and heck, Don Lemon is the hottest thing at the network right now. Why didn’t they go after MSNBC who has even less prominent black anchors?
Could it be because all of those stations have cozy sponsorship relationships with the NAACP (in particular during the Image Awards)? Along the same lines it can’t just be a coincidence that Sharpton’s National Action Network gave a “Keepers of the Dream” award to Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, just four months ago and now suddenly Sharpton is the black face of primetime news.
Did giving that award give Sharpton the job? Of course not, but did it sweeten a deal that likely cancelled out another black journalist? Yes.
The NABJ is not feeling this decision and rightfully so.
The lack of opportunities for African Americans on nightly news is long and storied. Sharpton represents a trend that is not only detrimental to news but to black journalists trying to advance their careers the old-fashioned way.
In Richard Prince’s “Journal-isms” column he quotes a disgruntled NABJ member who said, “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.”
Though not all black journalists are mad about this. Freelance journalist Jeff Winbush told Prince “I was not attacking him personally. I bear him no ill will. I simply want to see Black journalists get a fair shot as well.”
Interestingly enough Sharpton is feels totally entitled to his new show and dares any black person out there, with or without a journalism degree to take away his shine. He started into the NABJ this weekend accusing them of jealousy and claiming that he was part of a long line of qualified talking heads.
“We can’t get into a crabs in the barrel mentality,” Sharpton told The Root. “We cannot let them play us off one another. There is a history here. Kweisi Mfume had a talk show. Jesse Jackson Jr. had a talk show. If someone can advocate nationwide, we need to do that given the pain of our people. We need to do that on television, in newspapers and magazines. And all of us need to be united.”
Sharpton’s history lesson is nice but it doesn’t take away from the awful state of opportunities for all to many journalists.
And the key thing here is that we’re talking about hosts and anchors, not talking heads, contributors and pundits. Yes, Melissa Harris-Perry, The Loop 21 contributor Kelli Goff and Jamal Simmons are asked to give commentary all the time, but none of them are being given shots as hosts of their own primetime shows.
In fact over the last five years, only two African Americans have hosted prime time shows on any cable network. Comedian D.L. Hughley had a poor man’s version of “Real Times with Bill Maher” that was boring, crude and not nearly as insightful as he clearly thought it was. The only other example is when a pre-ascot Roland Martin was baby-sitting the 6 p.m. time slot for Campbell Brown when she was on maternity leave. When she came back, Martin got dumped.
Sharpton’s radio show is fine to listen to but that doesn’t necessarily translate into him being a quality television host. It’s not a victory for black folks if Sharpton’s name, fame and award-giving landed him a job that many qualified African-American journalists can do.
This isn’t a victory for the Left either since Sharpton isn’t quite the Left Wing rabble-rouser he was in his Tawana Brawley days. Sharpton’s undergone the same transformation that moved Ice Cube from giving Lethal Injections to asking “Are We there Yet?”.
And while I credit him for smelling the Old Bay sprinkled all over Tavis Smiley and Cornell West, his staunch defense of the Obama Administration suggests that he’s not going to be breaking any ground on the Left that hasn’t be well tread before by any of MSNBC’s other hosts.
At some point one of these networks is going to realize that the way to win the ratings race is not to keep repackaging and re-hashing the same old talent, but instead cultivate your own.
The African-American news watching audience is a huge untapped market, and right now no one is tapping into it because no network has the common sense to hire talent that speaks to that audience.
If FOX, CNN and MSNBC combined can’t find anyone better to attract than a comedian, a Civil Rights generation activist and Roland then they’ve got bigger problems than just ratings.
This article originally appeared at TheLoop21.com under the headline “Sharpton Comes Up on MSNBC, Black Journalists Mad.“