NEW YORK — The Rev. Al Sharpton’s activism on the Trayvon Martin case has given him a unique role - some would say unique conflict - on MSNBC. The news network host is in the middle of a story he’s been featuring every evening on the air.
Half of Mr. Sharpton’s “PoliticsNation” program on MSNBC Monday was about the Feb. 26 shooting of the unarmed black teenager in Sanford, Fla., leading with an interview with Trayvon’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin. Mr. Sharpton’s only reference to his own involvement in the case was a remark that “we did the press conference” earlier in the day.
The veteran civil rights activist has spoken at rallies to seek justice for the slain youth. On Monday before the Sanford city commission, Mr. Sharpton testified that Trayvon’s parents had endured “insults and lies” over reports that their son attacked George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain who shot him.
Mr. Sharpton’s dual role would have been unthinkable on television 20 years ago and still wouldn’t be allowed at many news organizations. While opinionated cable news hosts have become commonplace over the past decade, Mr. Sharpton goes beyond talking.
“It certainly represents a change in our traditional view of the boundaries between journalism and activism,” said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank. “Al Sharpton is clearly an activist.”
Mr. Sharpton, a Baptist minister, runs the Harlem-based National Action Network, a civil rights organization. He’s been a frequent presence as an advocate in racially-charged cases dating back to Tawana Brawley’s accusations of an assault that turned out to be a hoax in the late 1980s.
He joined MSNBC’s roster of hosts last summer after extensive discussions about how his activist role would continue while on the air.
MSNBC chief executive Phil Griffin said his chief requirement was that Mr. Sharpton discuss his activism with network bosses so they could decide, on a case-by-case basis, how it would affect “PoliticsNation,” which begins at 6 p.m. ET.
Mr. Griffin, talking before Monday’s show, said he hadn’t seen any conflict with Mr. Sharpton’s role on and off the air in the Martin case. He said Mr. Sharpton had fulfilled his requirement to be honest and upfront about his activities, and credited “PoliticsNation” with helping to make it a national story.
Eric Deggans, a media critic for the Tampa Bay Times who has discussed Mr. Sharpton’s role on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” and elsewhere, recalled being treated like he was “nitpicking” last August when he first raised questions about how Mr. Sharpton’s activism could present conflicts for MSNBC.
He wondered whether Mr. Sharpton would be able to deal with it fairly on the air if questions are raised about the Martin family’s account.
“I don’t know what’s in his head,” Mr. Deggans said. “What I know is that he seems to have become the face of the family’s protest against the police and the process. Is it possible to do that and still be an honest broker?”
Mr. Sharpton was presented with precisely that test Monday following an Orlando Sentinel report that Mr. Zimmerman told police that Trayvon had punched him in the nose, jumped him and began banging his head on the sidewalk. Mr. Sharpton reported that account, noting that “there are serious questions about Zimmerman’s version of events.”