How Did Al Sharpton End Up With a Show on MSNBC?

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After two months of guest-hosting MSNBC Live at 6 p.m., Reverend Al Sharpton was named the anchor of a new show in the same time slot, retitled PoliticsNation, which premiered last night. Although Sharpton has been doing a similar show for weeks now, he took the opportunity of his first official episode to promise not to be just "a robot reading from the teleprompter robotically,” slighting his biggest opponent so far: a machine. “Well, let me just ask you my way," he said to one guest last night after stumbling over his prompt.

Earlier, in a blustery opening segment, he was similarly rattled and unsteady as he tore through a case against Republican promises of restoring states' rights. It was hard to follow as he shouted and pointed his pen at the camera, speaking passionately, but often in circles. Known first and foremost as a civil rights activist, Sharpton did not shy away from his background, insisting on the importance of the "federal government's role in ensuring all of our rights: civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, immigrant rights, and basic human rights for all of us." His voice echoed in the studio, but his arguments didn't stick. Those wondering how Sharpton ended up in the chair seem to have a point.

In reviewing last night's premiere, Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker called Sharpton "ill-prepared" and noted the host's "booming bombast and near-obliviousness, as he steam-rolled over his guests, interrupting them to ask long, halting questions."

How Sharpton got the job has already been cause for some conspiracy-minded speculation. Writes Alessandra Stanley at the New York Times today:


"[L]ast year, Comcast enlisted Mr. Sharpton to help lobby for its bid to buy NBC Universal, which owns MSNBC. Both Mr. Sharpton and Comcast deny any quid pro quo, and it’s hard to believe Mr. Sharpton’s support would be worth the risk to ratings - besides, back then he was untried, and MSNBC had no vacancies.

Less arguable is the asset of Sharpton's name recognition. "I think what we're seeing increasingly is that cable news executives are looking for people who pop on screen and will get people to watch the shows," one media critic told NPR, which cited Eliot Spitzer at CNN and Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin on Fox News as other examples.

Stanley also notes the redundancy of MSNBC's programming, as the addition of Sharpton makes "the stretch between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. a nonstop lecture on liberal values and what is wrong with the Republican party." In his spot, seen as crucial because it leads into prime time, Sharpton faces off against Special Report With Bret Baier on Fox News and CNN's The Situation Room. Neither are posting Glenn Beck numbers, but both are more polished than Sharpton has shown himself to be so far.

"I’m going to say what I mean and mean what I say," Sharpton insisted last night. Maybe he just needs more practice, but in this medium, it was too hard to figure out exactly what he meant.

Try Sharpton for yourself in the opening segment from last night:

Hiring Of Sharpton By MSNBC Follows Larger Trend [WNYC]
Al Sharpton's new MSNBC show 'PoliticsNation' isn't worth watching. Yet. [Watching TV/EW]
Sharpton Brings His Pulpit to MSNBC [ArtsBeat/NYT]