Ideas: The real outrage

The media need Al Sharpton more than black America does

August 26, 2014
August 26, 2014

The recently noisy streets of Ferguson got a rest today, as the family of Michael Brown finally laid him to rest. And for a time, perhaps, demonstrations will give way to reflection. But one among those who protested will remain in the spotlight through the coming days and weeks: the reverend Al Sharpton.

And how did Sharpton—an MSNBC commentator and close confidant not only of the mayor of the New York but of the president of the United States—get to be the one leading loud and angry demonstrations protesting the police killings of black men, one after the other?

Answer: The media put him there.

Mainstream journalists delight in their ability to get Al Sharpton on the phone for a quote. He returns calls from Staten Island or the sidelines of a protest in Ferguson, Missouri, where earlier this month unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot six times by a white police officer.

Three decades ago, a Newsday investigation revealed that Sharpton had tapped telephones and was turning over to the feds information he picked up about gangsters, assorted other ne’er-do-wells and even a few local black politicians. The word was out all over town. So how did Sharpton divert attention and still save his hide in the process?

In the late 1980s, Sharpton latched onto the story of a young lady named Tawana Brawley, who claimed to have been sexually attacked by white cops in upstate New York. The press had a ball for countless months, even as they labeled Sharpton anti-white and anti-cop.

As the story unraveled, it eventually was proven that the story and allegations were manufactured. In the process, two black lawyers who had bonded with Sharpton on the case, C. Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox, lost their attorneys’ licenses and  are, to this day, searching for alternate means of livelihood.

Let me be clear. I’m a black man with a black son and two black grandsons, so I feel gratitude for those standing up against the police killers of Eric Garner on Staten Island or Michael Brown in Ferguson. I once told Sharpton that I greatly admired his ability to muster angry black crowds to protest police actions. I remember, too, that in 1991 a white man stabbed Sharpton as the reverend was protesting the killing of Yusuf K. Hawkins, a black youngster, by a white mob in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

But I—and, I would venture to say, many thousands of black people—feel an irrepressible queasiness watching Sharpton on MSNBC, or when he ventures into the political arena. Mostly this is based on knowing his past and assuming that while people change in many surface respects—for instance, shedding 150 pounds and a James Brown hairdo—there are some things having to do with character that remain implanted, and presumably determine underlying motives.

Last week, Politico Magazine ran an article that created a stir among the political elite in Washington and their friends. The piece, supposedly a serious examination of the reverend’s rise to power and “credibility,” did not offer more than a passing mention of his FBI associations of years back; nor did it say anything about relationships that have caused concern for many Sharpton skeptics—for instance, the reverend’s partnership over many years with attorney Sanford Rubenstein, the go-to lawyer for families suing New York City after police killings of black men.

My former Newsday colleague, Politico writer Glenn Thrush, blithely passed off legitimate questions as the concerns of “a Greek chorus of 50- and 60-something Gotham journalists determined to make sure Sharpton’s past isn’t lost in all the New Al talk.”

There was also the Daily News article by Juan Gonzalez of two weeks ago (Headline: “Rev. Al Sharpton on trail of justice in Missouri shooting”).

I recall fairly vividly the time in 2003 that I went to report on an event at which attorney Alton Maddox was trying to raise money to pay off his fine related to his involvement in the Brawley case. I wrote in Newsday:

In 1998, Maddox, Sharpton and Mason were ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for defaming [Steven Pagones, an upstate prosecutor whom Maddox, Sharpton and Mason had accused of being involved in the attack on Tawana Brawley]. Maddox and Sharpton, with assistance from supporters, paid their fines, but Mason, now a minister working at New York Theological Seminary, has paid only $13,300 and owes about $230,000, Pagones’ attorney said.

But here’s the thing about that evening that stuck as in character for Al Sharpton. He showed up and took the podium, announcing that he was making a contribution of $2,500 to Maddox’s charity fund. Curious, I afterward went up to Maddox and asked if the donation had been a check or in cash. “Cash,” Maddox told me. In other words, there was no way to trace the origins of the money. Classic.

Sharpton’s relationship with president Barack Obama raises concerns also. Sharpton on MSNBC will never say an unkind word about Obama. To the contrary, it’s clear to anyone listening that he considers it his job to defend the president whenever the opportunity arises. It’s quid pro quo that has given Sharpton envied access to the White House and made him a regular at events like the White House Correspondents Dinner.

Of course, many are concerned that a quid pro quo defines Sharpton’s relationship also with New York City mayor Bill de Blasio also. The top aide of de Blasio’s wife is Rachel Noerdlinger, formerly Sharpton’s communications person at the National Action Network.

Granted, I’m biased. I happen to know the people who were Sharpton’s targets when Sharpton was working with the FBI in the early ‘80s and it indeed set the foundation for my feelings about him. Black activists recount the way he situated his briefcase near them and how they feared Sharpton was working with the FBI to entrap them, so they cut off their meetings. Time, along with government documents and interviews with former federal agents, would prove their fears were based on facts. The briefcases, it is now known, had recording devices in them. 

But contrary to what Al Sharpton defenders say, it’s not only the Greek chorus of senior citizen New Yorkers who raise flags about Al Sharpton. Because I teach journalism at Brooklyn College, I get a chance to learn what thoughtful young people are thinking about controversies of the day.

I’ve found a great deal of caution on the part of the students, typically in their late teens and early 20s, when it comes to the reverend. More than anything else, they wonder why they did not know the things mentioned above about Sharpton. It is as if he has erased his record.

In a sense, there is nothing new about this news. It’s always been a danger of journalism that we tend to be gentle with those who give us access and good quotes, especially when the personality in question is tight with the big powers-that-be, in New York City or Washington.

But given that Sharpton is fighting for justice, or so he claims, a little history lesson every now and then would only be fair.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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