A panel of media critics took turns roughing up MSNBC’s Al Sharpton on CNN on Sunday for his dual role in the Trayvon Martin case. The civil rights agitator-cum-television host has hopped back and forth across that line in recent weeks. One moment, he’s speaking at a rally; the next he’s on MSNBC, holding forth on the case. One moment he’s at an important meeting with Trayvon’s family; the next, he’s back on air.
Now there’s some journalistic blurriness. Eric Deggans of the Tampa Bay Times said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources”: “The problem is that MSNBC has to cover this as a news organization. And as I said, we’re getting to the point now where George Zimmerman is starting to speak up. . . . He has an attorney; he has a side. Is he going to feel like he can talk to NBC News or MSNBC and be treated fairly when one of their signature on-air personalities has spent weeks talking about how he should be arrested and should be in jail?” WUSA-TV’s Derek McGinty, another guest on the show, chimed in: “It’s definitely a conflict.”
Host Howard Kurtz hammered MSNBC for allowing Sharpton to pack multiple hats on his trips down to Florida.
Ethical tsk-tsking is well placed here. Sharpton’s multitasking is unseemly, even with the caveat that he’s an MSNBC commentator and makes no pretense toward objectivity. That’s the card that the network is playing, anyway. An MSNBC statement sent to me yesterday:
When Rev. Sharpton joined MSNBC, it was with the understanding that he would continue to do his advocacy work. We’re fully aware of that work and we have an ongoing dialogue. His participation in these events is very public and our audience is completely aware of where he stands on the issues. It’s because of this work and his decades of activism that Rev. Sharpton brings such a unique perspective to our line up.
Now to pull this issue out of the sleep-inducing swamp of media ethics. Let’s talk strictly about good television. That’s where this Sharpton experiment really fails.
Yesterday evening, Sharpton hosted a special edition of MSNBC’s ”Politics Nation,” a segment that featured an interview with Trayvon Martin’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, along with family attorney Benjamin Crump.
Here are some of the questions that Sharpton posed to the guests, along with their initial answers:
Sharpton: Let me ask you as a mother and father, is Trayvon the type of person that would have attacked some stranger unprovoked?
Fulton: No, what Trayvon would have done is defended himself.
Sharpton: Now, Attorney Crump, when we look it I`m sure on the live screen of the record of Mr. Zimmerman who had been arrested for domestic violence, and also an altercation with law enforcement, why are they asking about Trayvon, even if you were believe the story that he had an empty bag of marijuana which is not violent and not material to this, there is no violence connected to Trayvon, why are we talking about Trayvon? The one who has some documents in violence is Mr. Zimmerman?
Crump: Absolutely, Reverend Sharpton.
Sharpton: I watched here as we did the press conference, and one of the things that strike me, Sybrina, if this is an unauthorized lead, that they put this out on the month anniversary of your son’s killing, does this enhance your distrust of the police? I mean, why in an unauthorized would they put this out on a day like this?
Fulton: I don’t quite understand it.
Sharpton: The phone log of Trayvon talking to his girlfriend has the time in which he was talking to her right almost to the time of the death. So there is no lack of documentation from the story as your attorney put it. So, are you — do you feel they’re trying to cover up? Do you feel like they got it by mistake? What is your real feeling that is going on here?
Fulton: I actually feel that they were trying to cover up, but with so much information in the public eye, or so much attention to this case, they’re forced to try to do the right thing, but they have refused to.
Sharpton: And now the same department, unauthorized, releases this information allegedly about Trayvon even though it has absolutely nothing to do with the case. Is there a pattern here? And you met with the state prosecutor, do you more confidence in them than obviously, you have in the local police department of Sanford that keeps one error after another error?
Crump: Absolutely, Reverend Sharpton.
One “pattern” here is Sharpton’s inability to conduct a meaningful interview about this case. In no way am I suggesting that Trayvon Martin’s parents deserve a thorough grilling. They do not; they are grieving the killing of their son in a tragic and pointless incident.
That said, plenty of TV personalities can conduct a sensitive, compelling and neutral interview of the Martin family. Sharpton just happens not to be among them. His role in the segment above hewed more toward teeing up talking points than toward probing the issues at hand in the case. He conducted a press conference, not a cable news segment.
Sharpton may be positioning MSNBC as the media focal point for national outrage over what happened to Trayvon Martin. The price the cable outlet may have to pay is a lot of predictable television.