Folkenflack: NPR Media Reporter Offers Puffy Profile of Al Sharpton, MSNBC's 'Strong Ratings'

Can you imagine National Public Radio putting together a story on Glenn Beck featuring only Glenn Beck and his promoters? No? Then try this: On Friday night’s All Things Considered, NPR media reporter David Folkenflik aired a puffy profile of new MSNBC host Al Sharpton featuring only Sharpton, a clip of Obama, and his new boss, MSNBC president Phil Griffin, promoting “a new chapter...a new Sharpton.”

The race-baiter and white-hater moments – like the Tawana Brawley hoax and the Crown Heights riots – were glossed over briefly, as Folkenflik claimed MSNBC’s increasingly radical left-wing lineup has won “strong ratings”...compared to what? Bret Baier is cleaning Sharpton’s clock nightly.

Take Thursday, for example: among the prized demographic of viewers aged 25-54, Baier drew 366,000 viewers, Sharpton just 93,000 (roughly a four-to-one drubbing). Among all viewers, Baier had about 1.679 million viewers, Sharpton only 565,000 (almost three to one).

NPR may think of itself as the place where people “reason together” (so wrote Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep), but stories like this promote a channel that denounces the Tea Party as terrorists and called President Bush every name for evil they would imagine. NPR anchor Melissa Block began by saying “Al Sharpton made his name more for casting heat than light,” but then the unofficial advertising kicked in:

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: So the question that I get everywhere is: What were they thinking? So, Phil, what were you thinking?

PHIL GRIFFIN: I get that from time to time, as well.

FOLKENFLIK: Phil is Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC.

GRIFFIN: I'm a big fan of the Reverend Sharpton. I've known him quite a bit. he's smart. He's entertaining. He's experienced. He's thoughtful. He's provocative, all the things I think that MSNBC is.

FOLKENFLIK: MSNBC won strong ratings by tilting sharply to the left at night, and Sharpton is its newest gamble. He told me he wanted the TV job badly because conservatives now dominate cable television and talk radio.

AL SHARPTON: And they've been able, with that domination, to push a certain kind of political thought that I think is contrary to a lot of the things that I have fought for and continue to fight for all my life.

FOLKENFLIK: Some black journalists questioned the choice, but that's died down and Sharpton says he wants a hearing for racial justice and the plight of the working and middle class on TV.

SHARPTON: You can do that with a bullhorn on the corner at Washington Square Park, but that's not going to compete with a Rush Limbaugh or a Sean Hannity or a Bill O'Reilly. You can't bring mid-20th century techniques to a 21st century fight and expect that you're going to win.

Folkenflik admitted Sharpton’s race-baiting past may “repel” viewers, but of course, he finds an unrepentant Sharpton. He recounts Brawley’s story was found to be without proof, but Sharpton still claims to believe what no else does.

FOLKENFLIK: He said he simply disagrees with the grand jury that investigated Brawley's case, much like a friend of his disagrees with the verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Sharpton told me he has few regrets.

SHARPTON: Maybe some of the theatrics could have been handled different, but the basic point of me standing up behind someone I believe -- if I regret that, then I would have to regret any case that a jury didn't find to be true.

Folkenflik also avoided a complete puff piece by noting the obvious: Sharpton can be a tongue-tied mess:

FOLKENFLIK: Sharpton's not yet silky smooth on the air, at moments evoking Ron Burgundy more than Tom Brokaw.

SHARPTON: Tonight, Alex, the truth was a real casualty last night.

FOLKENFLIK: But as Sharpton as quick to note, he's a talker, not an anchor, and his trademark one-liners are starting to surface once again.

SHARPTON: And I think the DNC should take the Social Security line of Mr. Perry and the attack on Social Security and the Ponzi scheme and put out bumper stickers saying, 'It's not about Obama, it's about your Mama,' and we'll win.

FOLKENFLIK: MSNBC's Griffin says he wasn't hiring the Al Sharpton of the Tawana Brawley or Crown Heights controversies. It's a new chapter, he says, for a new Sharpton.

This kind of story is especially jaw-dropping considering that Folkenflik's primary obsession of the last few months has been chasing Rupert Murdoch around the British phone-hacking scandal. Visitors to NPR.org can often click on "Lean Forward" ads on the website. But they also run as "news" on NPR's air.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis