On his MSNBC program on Tuesday, Al Sharpton told viewers about the rallies being planned to protest George Zimmerman’s acquittal on murder and manslaughter charges in the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. “I’ve said from the beginning we must pursue [this] until the end,” declared Sharpton, adding, “We’ll be in 100 cities on Saturday.”
Sharpton certainly knew whereof he spoke. The “Justice for Trayvon” rallies, after all, are being organized by Sharpton himself through the organization he heads, the National Action Network.
Earlier in the day, Sharpton led a group of ministers to the doors of the Justice Department in Washington to demand that Zimmerman be charged with violating Martin’s civil rights. The story got wide coverage online and on TV.
And so, in just a few hours, Sharpton, 58, played several parts in the Martin story virtually at once: national TV host, Martin-family advocate, rally organizer and promoter, and newsmaker.
The multiple roles, which Sharpton has taken on since the Martin-Zimmerman story’s earliest days, make him an unusual figure among TV news personalities. Perhaps only Karl Rove, the prominent Republican Party fundraiser and Fox News Channel pundit, comes close to being such an active participant in the news stories he goes on TV to talk about.
But even in an age of rapidly eroding boundaries between reporters and commentators, Sharpton’s multitasking stands out. A veteran champion of issues involving African Americans — from the discredited claims of Tawana Brawley to the vindication of Amadou Diallo — Sharpton helped draw national attention to Martin’s shooting last year by leading a rally in Sanford, Fla., to demand Zimmerman’s arrest. He has helped raise money for the Martin family. And he has used his nightly TV show, “PoliticsNation,” as a forum to advocate on their behalf.
Sharpton’s immersion in the story — unthinkable for a network-news figure even a few years ago — has raised questions for MSNBC and its parent, NBC News. Among them: Is Sharpton, and MSNBC, helping to create some of the very news MSNBC is covering?
MSNBC’s president, Phil Griffin, acknowledged in an interview that Sharpton is different from the network’s other hosts; indeed, Griffin hired him in 2011 with a “carve out” from NBC News’ policy of prohibiting employees from direct involvement in political activity.
But the decision was worthwhile, he said: “We didn’t hire him to be just another news host. I knew who we were hiring. He brings to our channel a different voice, and a voice who speaks about issues that are not being talked about regularly anywhere else. . . . I think having Rev. Sharpton on our air is a major plus for this network.”
He adds that MSNBC has been “transparent” with viewers about Sharpton’s activities off the air. The only major restriction MSNBC appears to have placed on Sharpton is fundraising for the Martin family. Sharpton’s effort last year was a “one-time event,” Griffin said. “We talked about it,” and Sharpton hasn’t repeated it since.