Howard Kurtz Wonders 'How on Earth' MSNBC Lets Al Sharpton Be Both Activist and Anchor for Trayvon Martin Case

CNN's Howard Kurtz was astonished that MSNBC has allowed Al Sharpton to be both an activist and a news anchor in covering the Trayvon Martin shooting. Near the beginning of his 11 a.m. Sunday show Reliable Sources, Kurtz maintained that Sharpton should have had to choose between activism and journalism in that case.

Kurtz asked "how on earth can Al Sharpton go there, and be an activist and stand with the parents and he asked people to contribute money and he went to the Justice Department with the parents of Trayvon Martin....And then he does his show and then he speaks at the rally again?"

"How can MSNBC allow that?" Kurtz wondered about Sharpton whom he sees as a "commentator," but one "representing a news organization." As Kurtz pointed out in his Daily Beast column, last Thursday Sharpton called for the suspect's arrest at a rally and then hosted his MSNBC show the next hour where Martin's parents were his guests and he plugged for his rally later that evening. Sharpton then asked for money during the ensuing rally.

"It seems to me that by sandwiching his show between his activism, Sharpton was essentially covering himself," Kurtz wrote. "In what other context would a news organization allow someone to become such an integral part of the story and then represent the organization? Shouldn’t Sharpton have to choose between his dual roles?"

Guest Eric Deggans of the Tampa Bay Times thought as much on Reliable Sources, noting that suspect George Zimmerman "is starting to speak up....He has an attorney. He has a side," and that he could very well turn down an interview from MSNBC because of Sharpton's activism.

"Is he going to feel like he can talk to NBC News or MSNBC and be treated fairly when one of their signature on-air personalities has spent weeks talking about how he should be arrested and he should be in jail? I think that's a real conflict," he insisted.

Kurtz concluded that "it's one thing to have political leanings" but quite another "to be aggressive and rally."

A transcript of the segment, which aired on March 25 on Reliable Sources at 11:10 a.m. EDT, is as follows:

HOWARD KURTZ: Let me turn to Al Sharpton's role. He, of course, is an MSNBC host and, of course, he also has been for decades – and I've covered him for decades, going back to the Tawana Brawley case – a major African-American activist in this country.

And in this particular case, I wanted to play you – we've put together three different clips. This is from Thursday, Sharpton goes down to Sanford, Florida. He speaks to a rally about 5:00 p.m. You'll see that first.

Then you'll see him doing his show from the same location, where he's acting as if not a journalist, certainly a commentator. And then you'll see him speaking to the rally again, the show was at 6. The second tape is in the 7:00 p.m. hour. Let's take a look at that.

(Video Clip)

SHARPTON: We came for permanent justice. Arrest Zimmerman now! That's what this rally is about.

Nearly a month ago, a tragedy took place just beyond the gates behind me. Earlier today, Trayvon's parents, attorney and I met with the Justice Department here. And later tonight, we'll rally for justice for Trayvon.

Trayvon represents a reckless disregard for our lives that we've seen too long. And we've come to tell you tonight: enough is enough.

(End Video Clip)

KURTZ: Lauren Ashburn, how on earth can Al Sharpton go there, and be an activist and stand with the parents and he asked people to contribute money and he went to the Justice Department with the parents of Trayvon Martin.

LAUREN ASHBURN, Daily-Download.com: Right.

KURTZ: And then he does his show and then he speaks at the rally again?

ASHBURN: He's covering himself.

KURTZ: He's covering himself.

ASHBURN: Right.

KURTZ: How can MSNBC allow that?

ASHBURN: It is a little hard to see how that is possible. However, it's not like Al Sharpton is a card-carrying journalist here. I mean, he's an opinionator as we can call them in the business, and everybody knows it. So, it's not as if there's some, you know, hidden, mysterious thing about him. We know who Al Sharpton is.

KURTZ: But here he – it seems to me MSNBC can say, okay, this is such an important case and you can go and you can be an activist and you won't do your show on this subject, or you can do your show on this subject but don't be standing with the parents that are rallying and accompanying them to the Justice Department.

(Crosstalk)

KURTZ: Okay Eric, go ahead. Break in.

ERIC DEGGANS, Tampa Bay Times: Well, you know, we talked about this. We talked about this on your show some time ago. And this is exactly the conflict that I was concerned about.

It's not so much that people don't know what Al Sharpton is. The problem is that MSNBC has to cover this as a news organization and as I said, we're getting to the point now where George Zimmerman is starting to speak up, the man who shot Trayvon. He has an attorney. He has a side.

Is he going to feel like he can talk to NBC News or MSNBC and be treated fairly when one of their signature on-air personalities has spent weeks talking about how he should be arrested and he should be in jail? I think that's a real conflict. And I think that we've gotten so used to him – to this conflict so we don't say much about it when it happens.

DEREK MCGINTY, anchor, WUSA9 TV: I mean, I think you're absolutely right, Eric, and I think it's a good point. Because when you make your bones doing what Al Sharpton does, when you become – when you step over that line and become a journalist, then it's definitely a conflict.

ASHBURN: But I don't think he is a journalist, frankly.

(Crosstalk)

KURTZ: But he is a commentator representing a news organization.

ASHBURN: But he is a commentator. That's right.

MCGINTY: Exactly. And they have been covering the story. As you said, he's covering himself.

ASHBURN: Right. But they also knew – we all also knew going in, that Al Sharpton said he was not going to cover President Obama and say anything negative about President Obama. What else do you expect from somebody like that?

(Crosstalk)

KURTZ: Well it's one thing to have political leanings. Another thing to be aggressive and rally.

Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro was a News Analyst for the Media Research Center's News Analysis Division from 2010 through early 2014