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The politics of Sharpton’s new gig

Updated: November 4, 2011 10:58AM

In black America’s cacophonous search for its own voice, the Rev. Al Sharpton is a tuba, and Tulane University Professor Melissa Harris-Perry is a flute. America’s leading black journalists can’t even get into the orchestra pit.

That’s the score on cable channel MSNBC’s recent decision to hand a plum prime time hosting gig to Sharpton, America’s civil rights big tuna. Perry, who also has been guest-hosting on MSNBC, was shut out.

After months of speculation, threats and posturing by the media elites, the liberal MSNBC chose a celebrity activist over a prominent academic, and most notably, a whole bunch of journalists who were angling for the job.

For weeks, Sharpton has been filling the spot vacated by Cenk Uygur, who left his hosting spot after a disagreement with MSNBC brass. On Aug. 23, MSNBC President Phil Griffin announced that his good friend was getting the official nod. “I’ve known Rev. Sharpton for over a decade and have tremendous respect for him,” Griffin said in a statement. “He has always been one of our most thoughtful and entertaining guests. I’m thrilled that he’s now reached a point in his career where he’s able to devote himself to hosting a nightly show.”

Not everyone is as tickled. The politics behind the decision serves up some juicy permutations.

Advocacy groups such as the National Association of Black Journalists have been lobbying hard to get more black faces on prime time, but they had someone different in mind.

“We appreciate the support of like-minded organizations stepping up to effect change as black journalists are ignored and in turn, black communities get shortchanged in the coverage of important issues,” said then-NABJ President Kathy Y. Times, according to a July 21 article on the NABJ website.

The article went on to note, “Currently, there are no African American anchors hosting prime time news hours for any major cable network.” While Sharpton was being considered “for his own prime time slot, there are no black journalists who can tout a similar promotion.”

Incoming NABJ Executive Director Maurice Foster pledged that civil rights groups would mobilize if black journalists continue to get the shiv. “We have a machine here poised to do a lot of things,” he said. “We are deeply serious about this.”

Obviously, MSNBC honchos were shaking in their Bruno Maglis.

While I am a staunch proponent of diversity in the media, these “advocacy” efforts seemed aimed more at promoting a few prominent African-American journalists than improving the black condition.

An interesting side-pocket shot: The reputed coziness between Sharpton and the White House. With Princeton rabble-rouser Cornell West, PBS host Tavis Smiley and the Congressional Black Caucus regularly sniping at Obama, the White House needs a water carrier of color. Sharpton is poised to fill the bill.

I am sure it was just a coincidence that Obama stopped by the Martha’s Vineyard digs of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts a couple of days before the Sharpton deal was announced. (Comcast is the parent company of MSNBC). Only your conspiracy theorist knows for sure.

The embattled Obama must solidify his liberal base. Sharpton, a fearsome presidential defender who regularly consults with Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett, is a reliably vociferous asset.

Sharpton may be a bit stiff. His TV skills are not as tailored as his French cuffs. But he will be catnip for the political left — and right.

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