by jennifer demeritt | June 25, 2012 | People
“I have the most instant pull of any civil rights leader because I can tell what grabs people”
Outside NBC Studios
Inside the control room at MSNBC
Saal and Sharpton a few minutes before airtime
Matt Saal (LEFT) and Sharpton at the editorial meeting for PoliticsNation
Sharpton hosting PoliticsNation on MSNBC
It’s an especially busy week for Reverend Al Sharpton. In addition to juggling his responsibilities as TV host, radio host, preacher, and civil rights activist, he has also attended his mother’s funeral and led a rally in connection with the Trayvon Martin controversy, which reached national prominence in part due to Sharpton’s activism. But he’s cool and collected as he sits in his office at MSNBC, where for the last year he has hosted the nightly show PoliticsNation. And he’s philosophical about his much-publicized “transformation” from one of the most polarizing figures in New York City race relations to respected dignitary. The visual cues of change are all there: the James Brown-like hair of decades past is conservatively coiffed, the paunch is gone, and he’s wearing an elegant lime-green shirt with gold cuff links. He still advocates for social justice, but he also calls for reason and restraint.
In Sharpton’s view, however, it’s been a natural process of evolution. “Howard Beach was 25 years ago,” he says, referring to the Queens neighborhood where he led protest marches in 1986. “As the body politic has become more tolerant, your tactics change.” As to the hype about this evolution, he says, “Rather than the media saying that I’ve grown like anybody else, it’s always the remaking of Al Sharpton. I’ve been the most reborn guy in the media.”
Sharpton hits the treadmill in his Harlem home for a half hour or jogs in Central Park. Considering that 20 years ago Sharpton’s appearance—big hair, big medallions, and a big, hefty body— was as polarizing as his rhetoric, his metamorphosis into a slim, dignified, conservatively dressed figure makes a powerful statement. He insists, however, that he lost more than 100 pounds for the simplest of reasons. “I didn’t do it to go on television; I did it because I was getting older and wanted to lose the weight.” At age 57, he says, “You get more concerned about your health, more conservative in how you deal with things.”
For more than a decade, Sharpton has breakfasted two or three times a week at The Regency. “When I was a kid,” he recalls, “Percy Sutton, the Borough President of Manhattan, took me there and said, ‘This is where the power elite eats. Come here and be seen, make them uncomfortable. Always be where you can talk to people who get things done.’” His status as a regular and the guests at his table (recently they’ve included City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and head of the state Democratic Party Charlie King) are part of the abundant proof that he’s become a political force to be reckoned with.
Sharpton heads to the National Action Network to attend to his base. He considers himself first and foremost a civil rights activist, and since he founded NAN in 1991 the organization has been involved in issues such as racial profiling, equality in education, and voter ID laws. Today he’s meeting to discuss NAN’s upcoming national convention.
Sharpton and Matt Saal, the executive producer of PoliticsNation, sit at the head of a conference table at MSNBC, while their editorial team presents ideas for this evening’s episode. As a researcher explains the viewpoint of one of Sharpton’s ideological foes, the host declares, “Be. My. Guest.” The team erupts in laughter, loving his ability to whip out a one-liner on the fly. Throughout the meeting, Sharpton keeps the discussion on message, and refines that message in response to new information from his team. As the meeting winds down, Saal sketches out the structure for the episode, then assigns a producer for each segment. In seven hours, guests will be booked, scripts will be written and rewritten, and the ideas on their notepads transformed into live TV.
A burst of soul music opens Keepin’ It Real, Sharpton’s radio show, which has a daily audience of 700,000, mostly in urban markets, and a call-in format that allows him to converse directly with listeners. “I always tell people that I have the most instant pull of any civil rights leader because I can tell what grabs people,” Sharpton says. “When I was called by Trayvon Martin’s family, nobody had heard of the kid. I put his attorney on the radio, and all over the country people said, ‘That’s ridiculous!’ Then it started building. Our radio show is what helped us publicize it and get 30,000 people out to that rally.”
Dressed in a gray striped vest, blue shirt, and red tie, Sharpton hosts tonight’s episode of PoliticsNation. Much of the episode is devoted to Trayvon Martin, but it also touches on the Republican primary and the Supreme Court’s deliberations on healthcare. For all of these issues, Sharpton’s viewpoint is transparently obvious, which is what he and the show’s producers planned from the start. The approach is working: MSNBC’s ratings in the 6–7 pm time slot have doubled since Sharpton started hosting PoliticsNation last year. And Sharpton welcomes the access to a broader mainstream audience. Since the show started, he says, “I can’t tell you the number of people that have stopped me in restaurants or on the street and said, ‘I still disagree with you, but now at least I understand what I disagree with.’ And I think that’s fair.”
photography by sari goodfriend