The newest opinion host on cable news channel MSNBC is the Rev. Al Sharpton, a figure much better known for a past in which he cast more heat than light.
F. Scott Fitzgerald notwithstanding, Sharpton is now on at least his third act in public life: as a civil rights activist with a history of divisive and confrontational tactics; an increasingly accepted player in Democratic Party politics; and now, cable news pundit and host of PoliticsNation, which airs weeknights at 6.
Sharpton says he wants his show to offer a hearing for racial justice and the plight of the working and middle class on TV.
"You can do that with a bullhorn on the corner at Washington Square Park, but that's not going to compete with a Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or a Bill O'Reilly," Sharpton says. "You can't bring mid-20th-century techniques to a 21st-century fight and expect that you're going to win."
Sitting at an empty desk in his starkly bare office at MSNBC — he had just moved in the day before — Sharpton scrolls through his Blackberry to catch up with a crush of email. He says he thought MSNBC President Phil Griffin was joking when he offered him the gig.
But Sharpton says he wanted the TV job badly because of how conservatives have been dominating cable television and talk radio.
"They've been able with that domination to push a certain kind of political thought that I think is contrary to a lot of the things that I have fought for — and continue to fight for — all my life," he says.
Sharpton has repeatedly — and unsuccessfully — run for public office as a Democrat. But in recent years, he has increasingly found politicians eager for his public support.
The announcement of his new show sparked criticism from conservatives, but some black journalists also voiced reservations, asking why a black news professional was not selected for the job. That controversy quickly faded, but viewers may not be able to get beyond his record so easily.
The Al Sharpton Of Old
A generation ago, Sharpton sported a James Brown bouffant hairdo, brightly colored tracksuits and a medallion around his neck. More significantly, he repeatedly struck an inflammatory tone amidst moments of racial tension. At a press conference in 1988, for example, Sharpton publicly defied a special prosecutor on behalf of a black teenager who had accused a group of six white men of raping her
"As far as your subpoena's concerned, you can take it and shove it up in the garbage pail," Sharpton said, tearing papers before the cameras for maximum effect.
A grand jury investigation subsequently found no evidence the young woman, Tawana Brawley, had been raped at all. One of the accused, a prosecutor who was exonerated, ultimately left his job and later partially blamed the charges for the collapse of his marriage. That attorney, Steven A. Pagones, sued Sharpton for defamation of character — and Sharpton lost.
Sharpton says he simply disagreed with the grand jury investigating Brawley's case, just as a friend of his disagrees with the verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
Still, Sharpton says, he has few regrets.
"Maybe some of the theatrics could have been handled different — but the basic point of me standing up behind someone I believed, why would I?" Sharpton asks. "If I regret that, then I would have to regret any case that the jury didn't find to be true."
Last month the former firebrand wrote a conciliatory piece in the New York Daily News about his fractious role in the aftermath of the Crown Heights riots. It was a modest recognition, at most, that his public declarations had exacerbated tensions between blacks and Orthodox Jews.
He's 'All The Things That ... MSNBC Is'
I tell MSNBC President Phil Griffin that a lot of people have asked me what he was thinking by hiring Sharpton.
"I get that from time to time as well," Griffin says.
Sharpton has calmed down, slimmed down, adopted business suits, dropped the medallions and become an influential figure in Democratic circles. Hillary Clinton sought his counsel when first running for a U.S. Senate seat in New York in 2000. President Obama courted him as a candidate and again as recently as this past spring.
Griffin says that stature is what made Sharpton attractive as he cast about for a replacement for Cenk Uygur's short-lived show. Sharpton had served as a guest host for Ed Schultz's nightly program on MSNBC earlier this year. (He also filled in some years ago for Chris Matthews on Hardball.)
"I'm a big fan of Rev. Sharpton; I've known him quite a bit," Griffin says. "He's smart. He's entertaining. He's experienced. He's thoughtful. He's provocative — [he's] all the things that I think MSNBC is."
In recent years, MSNBC has registered some of its best ratings by banking sharply to the left in its evening programming and building a model that owes more to the traditions of talk radio than broadcast television. Sharpton has already become a part of that programming as a frequent guest who is favored for his colorful and unapologetic style.
Now, as the new host of PoliticsNation, he's focusing on the task at hand. Sharpton is not yet silky smooth on the air — at times, he evokes Ron Burgundy more than Tom Brokaw. But as Sharpton is quick to note, he's a talker, not an anchor — and his trademark one-liners are starting to resurface.
Griffin points proudly to Sharpton's recent taunting of Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry's statements deriding Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme." Sharpton said Democrats should "put out bumper stickers saying, 'It's not about Obama — it's about your Momma' — and we'll win."
Both Sharpton and Griffin reject the idea that the new host was being rewarded for supporting cable giant Comcast's takeover of NBC Universal from General Electric. Sharpton's National Action Network signed a compact with Comcast to promote diversity in its programming and initiatives. The National Urban League and NAACP were also partners in the agreement and have subsequently supported Sharpton's presence as a host.
According to Griffin, Sharpton is now sparking and guiding debate, rather than stoking controversy.
"Obviously, 20 years ago, Rev. Al was a different guy. And I'm not sure that guy either would have wanted — or we would have wanted — to give him a show," Griffin says. "But he's evolved. And he's taken on a different persona over the last decade. He wants to do something different and reach people in a different kind of way."
MELISSA BLOCK, host: Al Sharpton made his name more for casting heat than light. The civil rights activist has a history of confrontational tactics. More recently, he has become a player in Democratic Party politics. Now, he's the newest opinion host on MSNBC.
NPR's David Folkenflik spent some time recently at the cable news channel and he wanted to know one thing from the network's top executive.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: So the question that I get everywhere is: What were they thinking?
So, Phil, what were you thinking?
PHIL GRIFFIN: I get that from time to time, as well.
FOLKENFLIK: Phil is Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC.
GRIFFIN: I'm a big fan of the Reverend Sharpton. I've known him quite a bit. he's smart. He's entertaining. He's experienced. He's thoughtful. He's provocative, all the things I think that MSNBC is.
FOLKENFLIK: MSNBC won strong ratings by tilting sharply to the left at night, and Sharpton is its newest gamble. He told me he wanted the TV job badly because conservatives now dominate cable television and talk radio.
The Reverend AL SHARPTON: And they've been able, with that domination, to push a certain kind of political thought that I think is contrary to a lot of the things that I have fought for and continue to fight for all my life.
FOLKENFLIK: Some black journalists questioned the choice, but that's died down and Sharpton says he wants a hearing for racial justice and the plight of the working and middle class on TV.
SHARPTON: You can do that with a bullhorn on the corner at Washington Square Park, but that's not going to compete with a Rush Limbaugh or a Sean Hannity or a Bill O'Reilly. You can't bring mid-20th century techniques to a 21st century fight and expect that you're going to win.
FOLKENFLIK: Sharpton's past may repel some viewers. A generation ago, Sharpton sported a James Brown bouffant hairdo and brightly colored track suits, and he repeatedly struck an inflammatory tone - as at this 1988 press conference in New York City, when he publicly defied a special prosecutor on behalf of a black teen who had accused a group of six white men of raping her.
SHARPTON: (unintelligible) is concerned, you can take it and you can shove it up in the garbage pail.
FOLKENFLIK: That sound there was Sharpton tearing the pages of the subpoena. The problem was, the grand jury investigation subsequently found no evidence the young woman, Tawana Brawley, had been raped at all.
One of the accused men was a prosecutor who was exonerated, but he ultimately left his job and later partially blamed the charges for the collapse of his marriage.
Sharpton was sued for defamation of character and lost. He said he simply disagrees with the grand jury that investigated Brawley's case, much like a friend of his disagrees with the verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Sharpton told me he has few regrets.
SHARPTON: Maybe some of the theatrics could have been handled different, but the basic point of me standing up behind someone I believe - if I regret that, then I would have to regret any case that a jury didn't find to be true.
FOLKENFLIK: He has since calmed down, slimmed down, adopted business suits and he has become an influential figure in Democratic circles.
President BARACK OBAMA: Some things have changed a lot since 1991.
FOLKENFLIK: This is President Obama, here speaking this past spring to Sharpton's organization, the National Action Network.
OBAMA: I told Reverend Al backstage, he's getting skinnier than me.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FOLKENFLIK: MSNBC turned to Sharpton as a frequent, even favored, guest for his colorful and unapologetic style. And so, F. Scott Fitzgerald not withstanding, Sharpton arrived at the third act in public life.
Last month, the former firebrand wrote a conciliatory piece in the New York Daily News about his fractious role in the aftermath of the Crown Heights riots, a modest recognition that he had exacerbated tensions between blacks and orthodox Jews.
Now, as the new host of PoliticsNation each night at 6:00 p.m., he's focusing on his task at hand. Sharpton's not yet silky smooth on the air, at moments evoking Ron Burgundy more than Tom Brokaw.
SHARPTON: Tonight, Alex, the truth was a real casualty last night.
FOLKENFLIK: But as Sharpton as quick to note, he's a talker, not an anchor, and his trademark one-liners are starting to surface once again.
SHARPTON: And I think the DNC should take the Social Security line of Mr. Perry and the attack on Social Security and the Ponzi scheme and put out bumper stickers saying, it's not about Obama, it's about your mama, and we'll win.
FOLKENFLIK: MSNBC's Griffin says he wasn't hiring the Al Sharpton of the Tawana Brawley or Crown Heights controversies. It's a new chapter, he says, for a new Sharpton.
David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.