The Rev. Al Sharpton premiered PoliticsNation on MSNBC Monday evening with an hour of booming bombast and near-obliviousness, as he steam-rolled over his guests, interrupting them to ask long, halting questions. At one point he acted as though he was having an argument with his teleprompter and said with exasperation to a guest, “Well, let me just ask you my way: Is the Tea Party going to destroy the Republican Party?” Please, Al, can’t every question be asked your way?
It was an awkward 60 minutes, with a lurching pace that failed to play to Sharpton’s strengths. He raised interesting issues – about new efforts at voter suppression, for example – only to lead aimless discussions of them. Worse, he too frequently fell back on easy MSNBC targets, such as ridiculing Dick Cheney’s new book. Then there was this, directed at The Associated Press’ Kasie Hunt: “Let me ask you the PoliticsNation question of the night: Does [Mitt] Romney take down [Rick] Perry, or does he wait and have Perry take himself down?” The AP reporter actually snickered after the “PoliticsNation question of the night” bit, as well she should have.
I feel comfortable reviewing Sharpton after a mere single episode of PoliticsNation because he’s really been doing this same show in the same time period for weeks now, except the network was calling it MSNBC Live. As such, Sharpton should by now be better able to concentrate on and react to what a guest is saying rather than just running through his list of prepared questions, as he did most of the time on Monday.
MSNBC is going down a wayward road in hiring Sharpton, because it makes the channel look desperate to throw on its screen someone who’s a familiar media face. Sharpton is at this point primarily just a ratings ploy. The host sometimes seems ill-prepared by his producers: Last week, for example, Sharpton’s handling of the breaking-news coverage of Hurricane Irene was a fumbling mess. MSNBC has fared better with the try-outs it’s been giving to two other guests-turned-hosts: Melissa Harris-Perry, an academic, and Chris Hayes, of The Nation. Harris-Perry has had relatively little camera-time, but in her guest spots on Rachel Maddow’s show, she invariably makes cogent comments and offers fresh angles on a variety of political topics. Harris-Perry also has a puckish sense of humor that’s a good quality for any host, as she proved subbing for Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell recently; it’s clear MSNBC is readying her for a prime-time lift-off of her own. Hayes has morphed convincingly from a frowsy-haired opinion-spouter to a more neatly-groomed communicator who engages in debate in a brisk, confident manner.
PoliticsNation’s Fox News competition is Special Report with Bret Baier, starring the suit-wearing side of beef who hammers home his points in a manner that’s the verbal equivalent of a welter-weight’s jab and punch sparring. On CNN, there’s The Situation Room, whose primary situation is that Wolf Blitzer can make any story seem simultaneously urgent and banal. You’d think it wouldn’t be that difficult to field a time-period contrast to take on these guys. But so far, Sharpton hasn’t found the format in which to do it.
The striking thing is, he obviously knows what’s wrong. He ended his debut by telling us he wasn’t going to be “a robot reading from the teleprompter robotically.” Neither, he said, was he going to fall back on his funky slick shtick, with its origins in James Brown, whom he used to manage. Good, Rev. Sharpton, that’s good to hear.
Furthermore, I don’t buy the criticism that MSNBC should have hired a journalist for Sharpton’s spot. After all, the channel’s best host, Maddow, had little-to-no journalistic experience when she started on first radio’s Air America and then MSNBC.
If he can ever become comfortable on-camera and expand his horizons, Sharpton may eventually bring to MSNBC the combination of intellect and passion that has made so many of his press conferences over the years little wonders of argument, controversy, hype, entertainment, and enlightenment. Whether he’ll ever reach that point on PoliticsNation remains to be seen. Or, depending on the ratings, not seen at all.