Al Sharpton, one of the most recognizable names associated with black politics and civil rights, and host of MSNBC’s Politics Nation, would seem to represent a sort of antidote to the overzealous opposition to Obama from right-wing media like Fox News. But Sharpton does a different disservice to the public perception of Obama and to communities of color. While supporting the president and almost exclusively attacking the GOP and the Tea Party, he shields the president from accountability not only as a TV host, but as a representative of black America.
Sharpton has for many years been a polarizing figure in the national consciousness. Many appreciated Sharpton and his National Action Network for their work in black communities, but others despise him. His work in the community is real, but many have questioned and critiqued Sharp-ton’s intimate relationship with political power. Black Agenda Report (4/13/11) had a scathing take on Sharpton:
The corporate cable industry...could have no interest in fostering a black conversation that might include criticisms of the White House and Demo-crats from the left. With Republicans safely back in control of Congress, MSNBC decided they could trust Reverend Al...to keep a small number of guests in line, and divert the criticisms to the Tea Party, and ungrateful parts of the Democratic base.
Sharpton replaced Cenk Uygur in that MSNBC time slot after Uygur was let go by the media giant. Uygur (Huffington Post, 7/25/11) claimed that he was shown the door for challenging power, including his sharp criticism of the White House—adding that Sharpton would be “friendlier” to Obama.
This isn’t the first time MSNBC has been seen as being too friendly to the president (Extra! 6/12), but Sharpton adds another element. By having a noted civil rights activist so vigorously defend the president, the network leaves the impression that because Obama is at war with the racist right, he must be supported—no matter what. Fox News’ Michael Meyers (Extra! 3/13) serves a similar purpose for the conservative audience at Fox that appreciates a civil rights figure like Meyers buttressing their own notions by absolving conservatives of racism—although Meyers doesn’t have his own show.
Framing the debate as Obama vs. the racist right means criticism of the Obama administration from a less partisan perspective gets lost in the shuffle. The Nixonesque investigation into the sources of journalists by Obama’s DOJ (Slate, 5/14/13) were downplayed by Sharpton amid a mostly White House–friendly segment on Sharpton’s show (Politics Nation, 5/14/13) that cast Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder as “under attack” from the right.
Conservative media (Town Hall, 5/15/13) have a point about MSNBC’s use of race to insulate Obama from criticism. When Chris Matthews (Politics Nation, 5/15/13) suggested that race was behind criticism of the IRS singling out Tea Party groups for scrutiny, claiming the right “can’t stand the idea that a black man is president,” Sharpton agreed: “That’s what white supremacy is.... Clearly there’s an element there.”
But again, circling the wagons around Obama and his administration doesn’t only repel attacks from the right, racially motivated or not. Sharpton came to Obama’s defense (Daily News, 8/8/12) when the president made clear that he wouldn’t prioritize the problems of black America. He (Politics Nation, 5/24/13) stuck up for Obama after the president’s speech at historically black Morehouse University offended some who felt he was using his bully pulpit to chastise African-Americans—but not fight for them (Atlantic, 5/20/13).
Progressive critics of Obama, like Tavis Smiley and Cornel West (Progressive, 4/30/11; Democracy Now!, 11/9/12), have criticized Sharpton and fellow MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry as Obama “apologists” who fail to take him to task on issues like poverty and black unemployment. For Sharpton, Obama’s critics in the black community have an “agenda” (Wall Street Journal, 5/6/11) or seek “publicity,” and he insists he will not criticize Obama “in a way that unfairly targets him” (Huffington Post, 5/20/11).
But what is fair? There are undoubtedly racist critics of Obama, but is the flip side to consider a place for him on Mount Rushmore, as Sharpton pondered (Politics Nation, 1/11/13)? Or to have such unbreakable confidence in the president that he “decided not to criticize the president about anything,” as 60 Minutes reported (CBS, 5/19/11), so as not to “aid those who want to destroy him”?
After all, some may remember (Salon, 7/27/11), this was Fox’s approach during the George W. Bush years.