Not too long after the NAACP ripped CNN and others for their lack of black prime time anchors, Rev. Al Sharpton, Civil Rights activist and sayer of uncomfortable things, has been made the new afternoon host of some random news program on MSNBC. He's replacing Cenk Uygur who was kind of terrible in the same slot. Sharpton, while not a polished broadcast journalist, brings a much more unpredictable sense to the program, as conservatives, barely able to contain their disgust, attempt to have a debate with him on air.
It has the car crash/ambush feel of Chris Matthews with the "I can't read the teleprompter so I'm just going to start ranting now" edge of a conversation with your very not-PC grandfather who, while normally can keep it together, will, at some point, bring up a conspiracy theory or two that may embarrass you in front of your more cosmopolitan peers.
I find it entertaining. But as a professional sayer of words who studied word saying at one of Americas just barely OK state universities, it's also a little frustrating.
Sharpton, love him to death, is an advocate for many civil rights causes. It kind of annoys me, just a little, that when it came time to advocate that "Hey, there sure are a lot of great black journalist type people running around, wishing they could get a guest anchor shot that would lead to something more substantial. Maybe they'd appreciate it if rattled some cages for them?" he did not do that. Instead he just took the job for himself. I'm sure he'll do a serviceable job. He's fun to watch. But, yet again, hoards of black broadcasters and media types were overlooked for someone who hasn't toiled away at a low market local news station in Albany, shooting and editing their own video, living off of Top Ramen while trying to get out of a horrid three-year $28,000 per year contract, hustled their way to a major network or cable newser, worked their way up to major on-air time, only to find that they can never, ever get a guest hosting spot to demonstrate their skills.
Part of what made Rachel Maddow's ascension on MSNBC so exceptional was that she was a former Air America radio personality who was given the opportunity to guest host Keith Olbermann's former show on MSNBC during a time when that show was the biggest success the network had. That opportunity lead to her own show. The same thing happened to Lawrence O'Donnell. Guesting on a popular show is the easiest route to proving you can lead your own show. The only African American I remember getting a guest hosting spot on Olbermann was Alison Stewart, formerly of MTV News in the 90s, now with PBS. While Stewart is funny, smart and was an incredible stand-out when she was with MTV, she, like many, many black broadcasters before her, never seems to get that shot at the big time, a real chance to fail or succeed on the basis of her talent and skill with a show of her own.
And she's not alone.
There's a long, long list of folks I feel could really do wonders with a show if given the opportunity. From Michel Martin on NPR and Farai Chideya formerly of NPR, to CNN's Don Lemon, TJ Holmes and Soledad O'Brien, to my friend and peer Keli Goff who regularly appears on The Dylan Ratigan Show on MSNBC, to another friend of mine, Christina Brown, formerly of MSNBC. Current MSNBC midday anchor Tamron Hall could work, or Carlos Watson, formerly of MSNBC would be nice. As well as Gwen Ifill of PBS' Washington Week. Even pop culturalist and author Touré, sportscaster sometimes pundit Stephen A. Smith or my "Uncle Rolly Rolls" Roland Martin who has a show on TV One, your "obvious" choices as they have an established reputation and are well-known should be given near annual chances to sink or swim with a show based on their clout alone. Even if they just wanted a "political" person, there are lots of political pundits and experts with news experience under their belts like Jamal Simmons or Michelle Bernard or Sophia Nelson or Tera Setmayer ... hell, Amy Holmes. She drives me batty at times, but she can read a teleprompter and get a reaction, which matters a lot when it comes to making good TV.
If conservative talking person Tucker Carlson could be given show after show when I barely know anyone who actually enjoys watching him on television, I don't know why someone like Stephen A. Smith or Toure would ever be considered a "risk." None of these individuals are risks. They're all competent, qualified people of diverse talents and personalities. They all get a reaction. You either love them or hate them or love to hate them -- the mark of the "it" factor. I get tired of how when it's a black host it's always some "experiment" with someone who doesn't have a journalism or broadcast background. Like D.L. Hughley on CNN or Jesse Jackson and Alan Keyes on MSNBC before. Say what you will about ol' Juan Williams, but at least when FOX threw him up on the television he had worked for years in radio and was a well-known writer. The debate over Williams was never about whether or not he deserved to be on TV, but about the words that came out of his mouth.
Too often the individuals who are thrust into the cable news spotlight are African Americans who are great in their respective fields but are essentially glorified color commentators (pun intended) in the world of cable news. And then, when these experiments fail, it's black journalists who get lumped in with the non-journalists and all are labeled as failures or risks. As if a white man failing at a TV show meant no white man, period, could carry a TV show.
Why is it that others get the benefit of the doubt, but Oprah Winfery's success doesn't lead to networks searching across country for the next experienced and engaging African American female broadcaster to make the queen of all media?
Stereotypes never seem to work in the other way. When you're black or a woman (or both), if you fail, you're the rule. If you succeed, you're an outlier and nothing should been discerned from your success.
Which brings us back to Sharpton. I hope he does well -- even though his show is not a prime time show and MSNBC has not been anywhere near as diverse as CNN when it comes to developing African American, both on-air and as producers and writers. If anything, I felt the NAACP should have cut CNN some slack. I know so many African Americans who either work at CNN or used to work there. Yes, they don't have a black person in prime time, but they have black people just about everywhere else. Including as executives. CNN, love it or hate it, has actually dared to tackle programming targeting African Americans. Has it been perfect? No. But have other networks been non-existent on these issues? Yes. When MSNBC threw together its "race" special they had Ed Schultz host. The most black people you'll see all day on the network is during the 10,000 showings of "Lock Up" that air over the weekend.
It's not enough to give some lip service about diversity when arguing with a conservative on air. You actually have to hire some folks. For Sharpton, it seems the squeaky, preachy wheel got the grease, but for a lot of other black journalists, opportunities keep rusting out.