NBC Touts Al Sharpton's Past as FBI Informant; Glosses Over His Being Forced Into It to Avoid Indictment

Tuesday's NBC Nightly News highlighted MSNBC host Al Sharpton's past as an FBI informant but glossed over serious controversies, ignoring his infamous role in the 1991 Crown Heights riot.

The overall tone of the report was positive. Correspondent Pete Williams lauded Sharpton: "as mainstream as a civil rights activist can be, a frequent visitor to the White House, a friend of Attorney General Eric Holder and nightly cable host on MSNBC." Anchor Brian Williams stated that "tonight, newly released documents are shedding new light on another role from Al Sharpton's past, that of FBI informant."

While Pete Williams did say that Sharpton was once a "firebrand," he skipped over his role as organizer of the Crown Heights riot in New York City.

"He [Sharpton] was once a firebrand in a track suit. He championed cause celebre Tawana Brawley, whose claim that she was raped by whites was later discounted," Pete Williams noted. However, Williams omitted that Sharpton organized the 1991 Crown Heights race riot and warned of Jewish "diamond merchants." The riot resulted in the death of Yankel Rosenabaum.

Also, Williams waited until near the end of his report for some serious context as to why Sharpton helped out the FBI. "Law enforcement officials," according to Williams, threatened Sharpton with indictment if he didn't become an informant. Sharpton had "met with an undercover agent posing as a South American drug dealer wanting a piece of the music business."

Sharpton contested that point, and NBC let him have his say: "Sharpton was never charged with anything and insists he's the one who volunteered to do this, that he needed no veiled threats to help root out criminals who were preying on the black community, Brian."

Below is a transcript of the segment:

NBC
NIGHTLY NEWS
4/8/14
[7:09 p.m. EST]

BRIAN WILLIAMS: He came to prominence as a civil rights activist decades ago, and for a time the words "brash" and "flamboyant" would always be attached to Al Sharpton's name. In the years since, he has also become a radio and talk show host, currently with MSNBC. But tonight, newly released documents are shedding new light on another role from Al Sharpton's past, that of FBI informant. We get our report tonight from our justice correspondent Pete Williams.

(Video Clip)

PETE WILLIAMS: (voice over) Al Sharpton is now as mainstream as a civil rights activist can be, a frequent visitor to the White House, a friend of Attorney General Eric Holder and nightly cable host on MSNBC. But it wasn't always that way. He was once a firebrand in a track suit. He championed cause celebre Tawana Brawley, whose claim that she was raped by whites was later discounted. Now newly-obtained documents add fresh details to a mostly-forgotten part of his past. For nearly five years, three decades ago, he was an informant for the FBI, helping agents build cases against suspected members of the mafia.

(On camera) Was it scary talking to mob figures who killed people for a living?

AL SHARPTON: Absolutely. I'd come out of a church, I'd come out of the civil rights community and I'm talking to a guy who is talking about killing people.

P. WILLIAMS: Documents published by the smoking gun website revealed what Sharpton did to help the FBI gather evidence on members of the powerful Gambino, Colombo, and Genovese crime families. By recording conversations with such figures as mob boss Vincent "the chin" Gigante, known as the "Oddfather." He carried a brief case fitted by the FBI with hidden microphones.

SHARPTON: This is not The Sopranos on television. This is a real deal guys who controlled the music industry in the 80's.

P. WILLIAMS: The FBI referred to Sharpton in court documents only as "CI-7," meaning "confidential informant." His name was never mentioned. Law enforcement officials say the information he gathered helped the FBI get wiretaps for mob hang outs, and he agreed to have a wipe tap phone installed at his house in Brooklyn. Why did he agree to undertake such risky work helping the FBI nail the mafia?

(On camera) Law enforcement officials said the FBI nudged him into it, threatening to indict him as he met with an undercover agent posing as a South American drug dealer wanting a piece of the music business.

(Voice over) But Sharpton says that's not how it happened.

SHARPTON: I think that if a civil rights leader and a minister has to apologize for inadvertently getting bad guys out of the music industry, then we're at a sad day in America.

(End Video Clip)

P. WILLIAMS: Sharpton was never charged with anything and insists he's the one who volunteered to do this, that he needed no veiled threats to help root out criminals who were preying on the black community, Brian.

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