Newsweek magazine is so shameless that its response to the Shirley Sherrod saga was to put Al Sharpton on the cover, touting that "in debate, no one has a quicker mind or tongue," and his "political instincts are unmatched" and "his personal charisma has been undimmed since high school." When you want to charge the conservative media with shameless fraud, is it really the ideal week to highlight the man who has never apologized for the Tawana Brawley rape hoax? But in their cover story, Allison Samuels and Jerry Adler pressed ahead with an unconvincing "reinvention" story line:
The election of Barack Obama has provoked an almost hysterical reaction from the far-right media, which last week claimed as its latest victim an obscure African-American official in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Relaxing with a thick Ashton Churchill in a plush midtown cigar lounge, the once-and-still Reverend Al scoffs at the idea that there is, or ever has been, a new Sharpton. “My mission, my message, and everything else about me is the same as always,” he says. “The country may have changed, but I haven’t.”
So, taking him at his word, Sharpton—at 55, a half-generation younger than Jesse Jackson and seven years older than Obama—can serve as a marker against which to gauge the shifting river of American race relations. Contacted in May by the family of a 7-year-old girl accidentally killed by Detroit police, Sharpton called no angry press conference and declined to get himself arrested. Instead, he preached an impassioned, but hardly inflammatory, sermon whose message—“we are all responsible for our children’s safety”—could have offended no one except Mike Cox, a Republican candidate for governor of Michigan, who pronounced himself “disgusted” that Sharpton would come to his state to preach at a child’s funeral.
As if the Republicans don't have any reason to deplore Sharpton coming to a funeral to stir up racial tension. When someone thinks Al Sharpton isn't inflammatory, look for the real speech. Of course, he attacked the police with the race card, insisting that they wouldn't have searched for a murder suspect in a ritzy white neighborhood with flash grenades:
"Do they throw these flash grenades in everybody's neighborhood? Would you have gone in Bloomfield Hills and did what you did?" Sharpton said, referring to a wealthy Detroit suburb. "Have you ever heard of putting on a light and calling people to come out?"
The case is troublesome in that the police had a reality-show crew from A&E tagging along, which suggests something other than racism might be implied. But Sharpton also (shamelessly) proclaimed "I'm disgusted when I look at a 7-year-old baby in a casket, and rather turn to each other, we name-call and ego-tripping and trying to jump in front of a camera rather than stand up and say, 'Enough is enough.'"
Newsweek insisted "Sharpton has been right much more often than wrong in his choice of causes," even as they carefully noted the Brawley rape hoax and several other "grave missteps" where his anti-white rhetoric caused violence and mistrust. They pressed him for another non-apology for Brawley: “I listened to the child, and I believed her,” he says. “When I hear that people are still mad at me about this case, I want to ask them, ‘Have you ever been asked to help a child that’s been hurt?’ I don’t apologize for anything I did to help her. Judge me the way you will.”
But Newsweek never had the gumption to ask: Is this what a man with the name "Reverend" before his name does? Bears false witness and refuses to admit he has sinned? (Bobby Ross at Get Religion also questions Newsweek's utter lack of reporting or skepticism on Rev. Al's preaching career, which started at....four?)
Instead, Newsweek found it tragic that certain white people still object to this: "It is his refusal to apologize over Brawley—or to pay the defamation judgment, which was eventually settled by donations from wealthy friends—that still haunts his reputation among white Americans of a certain age." Newsweek, however, seemed fine with it, placing themselves outside that grudge-bearing camp -- which makes it a little hard to lead a Shirley Sherrod march.
Sharpton brought remarkable gifts to his career. Jackson in his prime undoubtedly could deliver a more effective set speech, but in debate no one has a quicker mind or tongue than Sharpton. His political instincts are unmatched, and his personal charisma has been undimmed since high school, when he had to pull off the trick of charming dates whose mothers had seen him preach in church. These have not, though, translated into success as a political candidate.
It's maddening for readers that after Newsweek has written that in 1995 "his reference to 'white interlopers' at a protest against the eviction of a popular Harlem music store, was followed by a fatal arson attack on the white-owned business that held the lease," they concluded by claiming he has an overwhelming record of nonviolent protest. "White interlopers?" Newsweek found that was just a "tendency to get carried away" at times:
It is, of course, the fate of people like Sharpton to be misunderstood, and his own tendency to get carried away while addressing a crowd has contributed to it at times. He says, accurately, that the innumerable marches he has held over the years have been almost entirely free of violence, except for the time an enraged onlooker stabbed him in the chest. He is also, he believes, partly a victim of history: Jackson and, before him, Martin Luther King Jr. had much more radical black figures to their left, Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X, who made them seem moderate by comparison. There has been no one in Sharpton’s time to play that role for him. He is out there all alone, still standing on the same principle he first enunciated in his housing project in Brooklyn: poor people have the same rights as rich ones, to justice in the streets and in the courts.
Poor Al Sharpton, it is his fate to be "misunderstood," but Newsweek is there to carry his water with little concern for their own reputation for caring about truth and civility.