In the 20-plus years I have lived in New York City, there have been few public figures here more reviled than Donald Trump and Al Sharpton. These two gents seem to enjoy a permanent place in our collective consciousness and tabloid headlines. In recent years, Trump, the alleged "billionaire real estate mogul," has enjoyed a dubious kind of success on a host of ridiculous TV "reality shows" that supposedly highlight his "business acumen" and "toughness." He comes across more as a bully and a buffoon.
His doppelganger in absurdity, the Rev. Al Sharpton, has recently transformed himself from overweight street agitator to svelte television news personality on the ultra-liberal MSNBC network. Few people like the orange-haired Trump, and even fewer people take him seriously. He is essentially a vulgar entertainer -- hence, his appearances on all those reality shows and endless grandstanding. But, why then does Sharpton have a nightly bully pulpit on a supposedly “respected” TV news organization? What “credibility” could Sharpton possibly have –- either as a journalist or political commentator?
Let me remind you of some of the “highlights” of Sharpton’s career as a “civil rights activist.”
• In the 1980s, Sharpton championed the “cause” of Tawana Brawley, a black teenage girl who claimed she was brutally gang-raped in upstate New York by a group of six white men, including police officers. Tawana's allegations were ultimately proven to be false, but not before her charges ruined the lives of the accused men, including one who committed suicide.
• In 1991, during riots in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which pitted Orthodox Jews against African-Americans and Carribean-Americans, Sharpton menacingly warned: "If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house."
• In 1995, when a Jewish businessman named Fred Harari planned to evict a black-owned music shop called the Record Shack in Harlem, Sharpton launched protests and called Harari a “white interloper.” One of the protesters later set fire to Harari’s Freddie's Fashion Mart shop, leading to the deaths of seven store employees. (It emerged later that a black Pentecostal church had asked Harari to evict the tenants in the first place.)
• In recent years, Sharpton has embraced gay rights (probably exploiting the changing winds of political discourse), but at one time he was quite unkind to homosexuals. While delivering a bizarre history lesson to a college audience in 1994, he boasted: "White folks was in caves while we [black Africans] was building empires ... We taught philosophy and astrology and mathematics before Socrates and them Greek homos ever got around to it.”
Aside from these gaffes, Sharpton has made himself highly visible in virtually every racial incident the country has witnessed over the decades, from the killings of Amadou Diallou, Sean Bell and Trayvon Martin to the recent outrage over black customers being harassed and profiled at Barney's luxury retail shops. While these were (mostly) worthwhile causes, Sharpton (like his equally dubious peer, Rev. Jesse Jackson) seems to be primarily interested in self-serving self-promotion. There has also never been a protest march nor a TV camera that Sharpton didn't like. There have even been unsubstantiated allegations that the good reverend has worked as an undercover agent for the FBI (i.e., to provide information on other black activists).
So, with all this negative baggage that he carries, one must wonder why MSNBC ever hired Sharpton as one of its political commentators and hosts? Even in the degraded world of contemporary broadcast journalism, Sharpton represents an outrageous new low in standards.
Apparently, according to a report in the Washington Post, when Sharpton negotiated his deal with MSNBC, he insisted that he didn't want his broadcasting duties to interfere with his “activism” (a clear violation of the NBC network's policy of prohibiting its employees from political activities and participation).
I am not the only person mystified by Sharpton's TV job. According to Mediaite, liberal radio talk show host Randi Rhodes blasted Sharpton and MSNBC. “I’ll just be honest with you, okay?” Rhodes told her audience. “I’m not a fan of the Al Sharpton show. I think it looks like, it sounds like a 'Saturday Night Live' parody. I’m sorry, I said it, there it is.”
There is yet another element to Sharpton's dramatic metamorphosis from overweight street preacher to svelte, well-dressed TV star -- he just doesn't look right. According to various media reports, Sharpton, who once tipped the scales in excess of 300 pounds, lost about half of his girth through a serious change in diet and exercise -- he removed all red meat, sugars and starches from his meals and completely altered his appearance.
I have to admit, I miss the old Sharpton, the fat clown with James Brown-like straight hair who wore warm-up suits and huge gold chain necklaces. He was a wildly entertaining (and quite appalling) figure back then. Perhaps this extraordinary "evolution" of Sharpton also serves as an analogy to how New York City itself has changed -- from a dangerous, crime-infested, decaying (but strangely exhilarating and exciting) ungovernable metropolis to a bland, stale, safe Disney-fied shopping mall.
I know which New York (and which Sharpton) I prefer.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.