One of the most shocking MSNBC moves was the decision to hire the highly controversial political activist Al Sharpton as a host on its "Lean Forward" network. Despite the clear conflict of interest of a so-called "news network" hiring a man to anchor his own show as he leads highly charged political and racial marches, both MSNBC and the Washington Post can barely recognize the serious ethical and professional problems with employing Sharpton.
On July 20, the Post ran a 20-paragraph puff piece on Sharpton's "many hats" on the front page of the Style section, offering no real criticism of his role as activist/host. (Nobody found the ethical mess anything harsher than an "interesting case study.") Author Paul Farhi began his piece highlighting Sharpton's hands-on role in the Trayvon Martin case, describing how he messily blurred his roles:
In just a few short hours, Sharpton, 58, played several parts in the Martin story virtually at once: national TV host, Martin-family advocate, rally organizer and promoter, and newsmaker.
After detailing Sharpton's different roles in the Martin case, Farhi bizarrely compared the MSNBC host to Karl Rove, claiming that he is the only one who "comes close to being such an active participant in the news stories a he goes on TV to talk about." Farhi fails to inform his readers that unlike Sharpton, Karl Rove doesn't have his own show on Fox News, but merely appears as a contributor to the network.
Farhi barely mentions the criticisms of Sharpton's New York career, ignoring completely the violent Crown Heights riot, which due to Sharpton's anti-Semitic comments, inflamed racial violence. Instead of adequately detailing the controversial and violent past of Mr. Sharpton, Farhi passed on any history lesson, only choosing to highlight how he "has helped to raise money for the Martin family."
While Farhi does point out that Sharpton's unique role, carved out by MSNBC President Phil Griffin, has raised questions from outside sources, the harshest critic was journalism prof Lucy Dalglish of the University of Maryland who says Sharpton's blur in the Trayvon case is a question that will "make for an interesting case study for a journalism ethics class." She seemed to hold back, concluding “there have got to be some people at NBC who are very troubled by this. Or there should be.”
Instead of really challenging Sharpton's role, Farhi seems content accepting Griffin's response that "We didn't hire him to be just another news host. I knew who we were hiring. He brings to our channel a different voice, and a voice who speaks about issues that are not being talked about regularly anywhere else."
Even when Farhi makes note of Sharpton's personal role with the Trayvon Martin family, he brushes them aside as nothing special: "But Sharpton's involvement with Martin is so extensive that full disclosure isn't always made. During an appearance this week on NBC's "Today," Sharpton said that "ministers" were organizing Saturday's rally, ignoring his own role."
To Farhi, just like the folks at MSNBC, the attitude seems to be "nothing to see here, folks" as Sharpton continues to ignore the line between news anchor/activist. The puff piece ends with a quote from Gregory Lee Jr., president of the National Association of Black Journalists, who defends Sharpton's dual role: "Reverend Sharpton has never claimed to be a journalist, so therefore, as to the question of the ethics of his participation in protests and rallies surrounding the Trayvon Martin tragedy, I'm not sure that the same rules apply as it would to, say, a reporter or anchor."
Maybe that question can be answered in a college journalism class, but for now it seems that the folks at the Post and MSNBC are perfectly content allowing an extremist race-baiter drive the news and report on it at the same time.