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Al Sharpton's Two Hats: Cable News Host And Activist


The big demonstration set for tomorrow in Washington is called the Justice For All March. It's being organized by the National Action Network, an organization led by the Reverend Al Sharpton.


AL SHARPTON: I have been involved in the last four months in dealing and rallying and supporting the call for justice.

CORNISH: And that clip was actually taken from Sharpton's other job. Five nights a week, he hosts a show on MSNBC where he is also reporting on the same issues.


SHARPTON: Breaking news tonight - no indictment in the NYPD chokehold death.

CORNISH: NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us now from New York to talk about the tension that arises from Sharpton's intersecting roles. And, David, to begin, what's the problem here that critics are pointing out? And why should viewers care?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, I think critics - and I've been among them at times - have noted that he is really wearing at least two hats. You know, there's the Al Sharpton who appears next to the family of an Eric Garner or a Trayvon Martin when a wrong has been identified and alleged. And he's the same guy who's then opining on it for an hour on MSNBC, one of the nation's top cable news channels. I don't think anybody's been fooled. Nobody's going to confuse him with Brian Williams anytime soon. And - by the way, you know, Al Sharpton's performance in front of the camera as a host shows that there won't be so much confusion in the sense that he's not that good when news breaks, as it did, say, during the Boston Marathon bombings. But, you know, nonetheless, it's as though there's no conflict of interest possibly envisioned. Everything is a confluence of interest, and they all feed into the same stream, allowing him to serve as an advocate, as a player and as a commentator all on the same drama that's playing out in front of our eyes.

CORNISH: And he's not the only media host with a political past, political ties. How is this different?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you've seen certain episodes bubble up, right? MSNBC had to sanction Keith Olbermann back when he was a host and then Joe Scarborough, one of the hosts of "Morning Joe," for giving money to political campaigns. Fox's Sean Hannity has gotten in mild trouble every now and then for appearing at political rallies or supporting candidates. But - and there are some folks on the air, like MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, who really made his name in part as being a clearly quite liberal aide on the Capitol Hill for prominent lawmakers up there. But this is of a different magnitude. What Sharpton is doing has endured - you know, his activism has - covers decades, but it persists even in his role now as a host.

CORNISH: And you mentioned his history of activism - obviously long, sometimes troubled. He's confronted not only police departments but media companies, too.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah, you know, he's been among those who argue in favor of diversity in media as well as in the corporate landscape - and more particularly the media landscape - arguing against certain kinds of consolidation of media. But in 2010, he supported Comcast taking over what was then NBC Universal, the parent company of MSNBC, and suddenly, you know, not only did Comcast support the National Action Network financially but also he had his own show. In addition, you know, you've noticed as Comcast attempts to take over the nation's second-largest provider of cable services - Time Warner Cable - this summer, the chairman of National Action Network wrote a letter to the chairman of the FCC, which regulates such matters, saying, we support this. Comcast has been good for diversity.

CORNISH: Meantime, what have Sharpton's bosses at MSNBC had to say?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, Phil Griffin - I reached out to today - is the president of MSNBC - not available to talk to me for this segment. But nonetheless, they argue that his involvement, his activism is a plus. And as you've seen in the last half-decade, MSNBC really bank fairly sharply to the left. It has tried to broaden and tap into the same kind of demographics the Democratic Party has. Al Sharpton is a way to speak not only to party faithful, perhaps the most liberal folks, but also people of color to signal that both symbolically and to do so quite directly by trying to draw in the people he appeals to as viewers as well as supporters of his activism.

CORNISH: That's NPR's David Folkenflik. David, thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.