Already under fire for his dual role as civil rights activist and media personality in publicizing the shooting of unarmed Florida teen Trayvon Martin, the Rev. Al Sharpton is receiving pushback against his call for economic sanctions against Sanford, Fla.
Trayvon was shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman on Feb. 26 after Mr. Zimmerman ignored a 911 dispatcher's suggestion to stay in his car in order to chase down what he had called a suspicious black male. The case has sparked a fiery national debate about racial profiling, allegations of police injustice, and self-defense gun laws.
In driving some of the debate, the contentious Rev. Mr. Sharpton represents a new and controversial direction for news organizations, anchoring an MSNBC show, “Politics Daily,” while speaking at protests. Sharpton was scheduled to speak during a rally Saturday in Sanford, Fla., where he is expected to call for sanctions against the city and its police department unless police immediately arrest Zimmerman, who has claimed, so far successfully, that he shot Trayvon in self-defense.
(A special prosecutor in Florida and the FBI are both reviewing the case, and a grand jury is expected to hear evidence on April 10.)
While MSNBC has defended its decision to allow Sharpton to continue his activism as long as he's straightforward about his role, some are concerned that the new phenomenon of personality-driven news activism is inappropriate and could affect innocent bystanders.
On Friday, shopkeepers in Sanford urged Sharpton to reconsider the proposed sanctions. My Fox Orlando, a TV station, also reported that the some in the NAACP have urged Sharpton to tone down the idea.
“Punishing me and the rest of downtown for something? No,” wine merchant Ken Martin told Fox. “We don't do that to you, why do that to us?”
Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly went one step further on Friday, alleging that media organizations like MSNBC and CNN, which has published fiery op-eds on the topic along with straight news coverage, have a vested interest in the outcome of the case.
“They will say racial injustice has been done if he is not convicted,” O'Reilly said, “and that can lead to violence.”
MSNBC is hardly alone in using high-profile public figures and activists to push points of view and inject themselves directly into public debate and controversies.
Fox News itself has hired major Republican politicians like Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and Sarah Palin to give conservative spin to daily news events, including on issues and causes on which they have staked their professional careers, and Ms. Palin has been a well-paid speaker at tea party events.
It is, of course, the role of journalists to unblinkingly report facts and debate context.
Ever since television cameras showed the treatment of black protesters by white police in Alabama in the 1960s, the national media has played a powerful role in shaping perceptions about race, in some ways helping the US become a nation that's on the whole accepting of racial differences and critical of racial stereotypes.
So far, the Trayvon Martin protests – which have been held in cities around the country, including Washington and St. Louis – have been peaceful and, in some cases, have yielded powerful imagery, including protesters wearing “hoodie” sweatshirts like the one that seemed to have raised Zimmerman’s suspicions on the night he confronted Trayvon.
As the criminal investigation has gone on, the protests have raised concerns about how profiling can have devastating consequences, and have forced officials to dig deeper into how, exactly, an armed man came to shoot an unarmed teenager who was doing nothing wrong but looking like "he's up to no good," as Zimmerman told a 911 dispatcher.
Zimmerman told police he was attacked by Trayvon. He said the teenager punched him in the face and beat his head against the ground, causing him to fear for his life.
In defending the protests, CNN contributor Roland Martin wrote on Friday, “Justice is supposed to be blind, but for African-Americans, it has commonly been deaf, dumb and blind. As a result, we've had to live by the admonition of former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who said, 'Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!' ”
But especially in the case of Sharpton, the much-documented ideological polarization of the media has blurred the lines between reporting on those protests and leading them. Business owners in Sanford say they're already dealing with empty shopping aisles and restaurant tables amid the fallout from the Trayvon Martin case and the media spotlight focused on their town.
"People in Sanford are afraid," insurance company owner Steven Lucas told the Orlando Sentinel. "It feels like something is about to happen, and they're holding onto their money."
To some observers, like the Poynter Institute's Kelly McBride, Sharpton's role and MSNBC's support is in part defensible, since few people, given Sharpton's long history in the public spotlight, view him as a professional journalist. Others have said Sharpton's role in the protest has not made his show controversial, but simply predictable.
Yet the image of a major cable news host possibly instigating a boycott for racial justice that could have broad economic repercussions is likely to fuel the debate over the media's role in social unrest.
“Sharpton's dual role would have been unthinkable on television 20 years ago and still wouldn't be allowed at many news organizations,” writes David Bauer of the Associated Press.
The Florida Civil Rights Association said Saturday it supports Sharpton's push for economic sanctions against the city, but urged that local businesses should not be targeted.