RACE

08.12.11

TV News' Next Reverend Al

Al Sharpton is being joined in an MSNBC news-hosting gig by college professor Michael Eric Dyson—hiring moves that have angered black journalists shut out of major TV jobs, says Allison Samuels.

Despite the controversy already brewing over the lack of trained minority journalists in prime-time news, there’s now chatter that the Rev. Al Sharpton could very well get some company on the MSNBC network.

Last week Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson’s late-afternoon debut hosting The Ed Schultz Show was a ratings winner, regularly beating shows in the same time slots on CNN and other networks. Like Sharpton, Dyson has been a political pundit and regular guest on MSNBC and other networks for years and, like Sharpton, was automatically considered the perfect guest host for prime-time duties while Schultz was on assignment.

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Michael Eric Dyson speaks at the Aspen Institute's Aspen Ideas Festival 2011 (Leigh Vogel / Getty Images)

In an age where opinion news reigns supreme and viewers respond in droves to familiar faces with well-known names, many wonder if Dyson and Sharpton, with their visible backgrounds in public service, may just be the new African-American faces of prime-time news. Dyson's clever and often poetic style of delivery when discussing national issues on air seemed to quickly make an impact with the viewing audience.

“With the evolution of social media that includes blogging, Facebook, and Twitter, who and how information is delivered has changed tremendously,” says Dyson. “The landscape for news is a different place and people have to accept that.”

“There is tons of black talent out there, but the networks won’t look to those journalists.”

Eyebrows were raised this past July when MSNBC reportedly pegged controversial civil-rights leader Al Sharpton to guest-host its 9 p.m. news show. Sharpton, a fiery speaker known for his candor on racial issues and for his strong ties to President Obama, began his hosting duties with guest appearances. Positive viewer response to his presence prompted the network to place him in the hour formerly hosted by Cenk Uygur, though MSNBC has not made an official announcement yet. Ratings for Reverend Al’s show remain strong, and his notable connections have paid off with several key Obama cabinet members joining him during the broadcast daily.

Still Sharpton and Dyson’s good fortune and success on air has sent a huge ripple through the world of journalism, particularly among black journalists hit hard by painful cuts in newsrooms around the country. Black journalists have struggled for years to get face time on major networks during prime-time hours, and now many feel the slant toward celebrity-hosted shows has made that goal even less likely. Most admit their anger is at the networks that do little to nurture upcoming minority talent.

“It’s definitely more on the networks,” says Roland Martin, former secretary of the National Association of Black Journalists and CNN political contributor. “There is tons of black talent out there that could be used in those positions, but the networks won’t look to those journalists. They don’t want young journalists they can train and put in that spot.”

MSNBC wouldn’t comment on the possibility of future shows.

Many would argue that CNN used the very same experiment, minus African-Americans, with Eliot Spitzer last year and failed miserably. Spitzer had no journalism background when he resigned his post as the 54th governor of New York after revelations that he’d been a client of a high-priced prostitution ring. Still CNN gifted him with his own show, but canceled it in July due to poor ratings. ABC recently hired Elizabeth Smart as a news correspondent. Smart was 14 years old when she was abducted in 2002 and held hostage for nine months. She’ll report on child-abduction cases for the network.

For his part, Dyson says he understands all the fuss, but thinks people should think in broader terms.

“Of course I get the issues with unemployment and African-Americans,” says Dyson, 53, who formerly taught at Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania. “But to criticize Reverend Al and others for being offered these shows is to ignore Tamron Hall and other African-American journalists that are on air. It’s untrue that African-Americans aren’t on television. Should there be more? Yes, but that’s not the same issue.”

Dyson, who is also an ordained minister, admits that his recent ascent to the small screen from the world of academia was always in his plans. His disadvantaged youth that began in Detroit is one reason he feels there’s been so much major response from audiences for both his radio show with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and numerous television appearances. He proudly adds that both rappers Jay-Z and Nas have texted to congratulate him after appearing on air.

“I didn’t get to college until my 20s, because I was a young father on welfare and had to take all kind of jobs to support my young son,” remembers Dyson. “There’s what frames my view on the topics I discuss on my shows, and the average person relates to that. No matter how many degrees I have now, I lived that life and that comes through to the people watching.”

Indeed in between the moans and groans, many hail the recent additions to MSNBC’s roster and applaud the network’s attempt at all to appeal to African-American audiences and their concerns. MSNBC regularly features African-American academics such as Melissa Harris Perry, who guest hosted for Rachel Maddow.

“First off, can we take a moment and appreciate the end of the ‘white out’ during prime time?” says James Peterson, director of Africana studies at Lehigh University. “Before we get all riled up about who’s a journalist and who’s not, we need to find happiness that it’s more than just white faces on television at night like it has been for so long.”

Peterson adds that MSNBC has been savvy enough to realize the best way to attract black viewers (particularly older ones) is with names and faces like Sharpton and Dyson—respected leaders they trust and enjoy listening to. The network also has tempered its critique and criticism of Obama, something older African-Americans—who often display unwavering support for Obama—appreciate.

“Dyson dominates the pulpit, the classroom, and really, every arena he’s in, so of course audiences are drawn to him,” says Peterson. “Of course MSNBC wants that on air.”

Dyson also dismisses the criticism of his qualifications. He offers that he’s a tenured professor with 16 books under his belt and another due in October on Obama. He’s also written think pieces for several major publications including The New York Times Magazine.

Attacks on Sharpton, whose background does not lie in education, have been deafening. He even canceled an appearance at last week’s NAB convention due to criticism from group members. Sharpton’s response has been that prime time hasn’t featured traditional journalists in years and asks why he’s getting so much blame for a trend that started years ago.

“We can‘t get into that crabs-in-the barrel mentality,” Sharpton told a news outlet. “If someone can advocate nationwide, we need to do that, given the pain of our people.”

One professor of African-American studies at a major university doesn’t quite see it that way. The West Coast–based academic asked not to be identified, but said he wasn’t a fan of the new trend and that the attitude networks are taking reminds him of hip-hop in the 1980s.

“This is like that period where the rappers were taking all the roles from black actors,” says the long-term educator. “It was like Hollywood discovered this gold mine of talent in the rap world that came with its own instant audience and just milked it for what it was worth. This is the same thing.”

Whatever the pros and cons, most see the addition on television of more African-Americans with little journalism experience but major names continuing as we get closer to Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

“Can you imagine Reverend Al and Dyson on air with their own shows during that time?” says Peterson. “Black folk will love that!”