To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
“I am pretty certain that I am solid at the time period that I’m at for the next foreseeable future,” the MSNBC host told me on Friday, responding to a splashy Mail Online story that his 6 p.m. show, Politics Nation, is about to be axed. “And any rumors to the contrary are totally unfounded,” added Sharpton.
Sharpton, who also hosts a daily syndicated radio show, Keepin’ It Real, is said to have recently re-upped for a five-year contract with MSNBC, and a spokesperson for the cable outlet echoed his sanguine prediction: “There are no plans to move Rev. Sharpton’s show.”
According to Nielsen, Sharpton’s numbers aren’t fabulous but, for a third-place cable outlet struggling to recapture an audience, they are respectable enough.
His 445,000 viewers at 6 p.m.—with 61,000 in the key 25-54 age demographic—are far below Fox News and CNN, but well ahead of CNN’s sister network HLN.
More than half of Sharpton’s viewers are African-American, an intensely loyal fan base that helps MSNBC attract an audience that is 34 percent African-American overall—a potentially valuable viewer segment that, at least in this respect, beats MSNBC’s competitors.
The British tabloid’s O’Reilly-esque embellishment of my story last week that included speculation about Sharpton’s longterm future—which proved once again that the good reverend is Human Velcro for hairballs of controversy—capped an especially eventful few days for the 60-year-old cable news personality and civil rights impresario.
The week began with news of a $20 billion lawsuit filed against Sharpton and MSNBC’s corporate parent, Comcast, as well as the NAACP and the Urban League, among others, by African-American television entrepreneur Byron Allen.
The 53-year-old comedian/producer, best remembered as a cohost of the 1980s NBC comedy series Real People, alleges that Comcast’s refusal to carry his television content amounts to racial discrimination.
This has been enabled, he claims, by the cable giant’s generous donations to the civil rights groups and Sharpton’s National Action Network as well his lucrative MSNBC salary, in return for their support of Comcast’s 2011 acquisition of NBC Universal from General Electric and its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable.
The oft-repeated anti-Sharpton narrative of a quid pro quo—that he was given his own MSNBC show as a reward for consistently backing Comcast’s merger ambitions, even as Sharpton’s civil rights group honored MSNBC President Phil Griffin as one of the National Action Network’s 2011 “Keepers of the Dream”—has a certain appealing elegance.
Harvard Law School Professor Susan Crawford, a communications industry expert and severe critic of the Comcast-TWC merger, said of Sharpton-MSNBC backscratching scenario: “I do find this credible, but I’m sure it was done more graciously and less directly than you describe. Still, I don’t doubt that it was done.”
Sharpton—who declined to discuss Allen’s lawsuit with me on the record—has called it “frivolous” and vowed to file a countersuit for defamation, while an argument can be made that if he’d really wanted to shake down the $152 billion company, he could have wrung a lot more out of it than a reported $750,000 salary for his labor-intensive cable show.
A Comcast spokesperson, meanwhile, emailed The Daily Beast: “Comcast has long supported the National Action Network (and many other national diversity groups). Rev. Sharpton was a frequent MSNBC guest prior to having a show on the network. That decision to give him a show was MSNBC’s decision alone—Comcast had nothing to do with it. In our transaction with NBC Universal, we pledged to take the same non-interference with the news divisions that GE had.”
Allen’s attorney, Skip Miller, dryly retorted: “Tell it to the jury!”
The day after the lawsuit headlines, a right-wing group called Project Veritas—headed by dirty trickster and hidden-camera agitator James O’Keefe—released an anti-Sharpton video in which various African Americans, including the daughter of New York Police Department choke-hold victim Eric Garner, were shown describing Sharpton as basically an opportunist and provocateur and who leverages other people’s misfortunes into personal celebrity and cares first and foremost about pocketing cash.
The Sharpton-disparaging New York Post went to town on the story.
O’Keefe has a history of producing deceptively edited political hit pieces, and Garner’s daughter, Erica Snipes, issued a statement expressing gratitude to Sharpton, whose group paid for her father’s funeral, and claiming her “comments were taken out of context, edited and released to partisan outlets for nefarious reasons.”
Two African-American community leaders shown distancing themselves from Sharpton on the Project Veritas video—Bishop Calvin Scott of the Believers Temple in St. Louis, Missouri, a few miles from the fatal police shooting of black teenager Michael Brown; and Troy Wright, executive director of the Trayvon Martin Foundation—didn’t respond to my phone messages.
“It’s silly,” Sharpton told me over the phone, responding to the Project Veritas allegations. “First of all, what money is there in police brutality? What are they talking about? It’s insane. Are you telling me that if a family sues, then an Al Sharpton would say, ‘All right, I’m gonna lay out all this money and three years from now—if you may get some money, which nobody knows—y’all will give me a kickback.’
“I would risk my seven-figure salary from NBC and from radio? For what? I mean, come on! If you don’t think I’m ethical, at least say ‘He’s got good sense.’…It is the most ridiculous thing in the world!”
The imperially slim, stylishly dressed Sharpton, meanwhile, was calling from the White House, where he is a frequent and welcome visitor.
What a transformation from his long-ago days as an overweight, track-suit-wearing street preacher and protégé of soul icon James Brown, inciting racially divisive demonstrations and once getting stabbed by a white man in a racial attack, and promoting those notoriously bogus Tawana Brawley rape accusations!
Sharpton told me he’d just met privately with his friend President Obama and various civil rights leaders.
“I’ve been accused of many things,” he said. “Stupid ain’t one of them.”