By Harry Stein.
NEWS REPORTS SAY that Al Sharpton is in Florida to lead the protests over the shooting of Trayvon Martin. The accounts in USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe all identify Sharpton as a “civil right activist.” The New York Times goes a step further and calls him a “civil rights leader” – presumably in the mold of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. So the question is more pertinent than ever: how in the name of all that is good and decent did that self-promoting racial hustler par excellence ever get to be so respectable? So much so he was handed his own TV show on an NBC outlet?
No, just kidding. Foolish question, because it’s all too clear: we’re talking nearly three decades of mainstream media enabling. Actually, there’s a kind of frightening logic to it. The media has treated Sharpton with kid gloves all these years because, in the end, the view he so tirelessly promotes — of an irredeemably racist America, in which black people’s failures are more society’s fault than their own – is one they share.
Quite simply, whether in ignorance, ideological blindness or simple fear, the media, ever fixated on the racism canard, has doggedly refused to face the harder truths of race in America. Indeed, an excellent case can be made that it is in the racial arena, more than in any other, that its distorted worldview has done the most grievous harm.
FOR IN GIVING credence to Sharpton and other preachers of victimhood, and otherwise buying into the America-as-oppressor narrative, the media mandarins do more than merely salve their liberal consciences; they do their considerable bit to perpetuate a belief system that undermines literally millions. For a community to accept victim status, as for an individual, is to accept the presumption that effort is futile. Such a presumption not only saps energy and initiative, it justifies it.
This is what makes the case of Al Sharpton so revealing. Think of him as the fat, loud-mouthed canary in the media’s tunnel vision: if it is possible to overlook a history as poisonous as his, anything could be overlooked. Why not portray Bernie Madoff as merely a charming rogue? Why not Charlie Manson as just another misunderstood romantic rebel? Why not also give David Duke his own show?
The damage Sharpton has done to this country’s well being is unarguably greater than any of them.
As far back as 1987, Sharpton was covering himself with disgrace as one of the chief perpetrators of the notorious Tawana Brawley hoax, wherein a 15-year old upstate New York girl falsely claimed to have been abducted and raped by six white men. Acting as one of her three “advisors,” Sharpton inflamed passions by naming an assistant D.A. as one of the supposed attackers, and claiming authorities were protecting him and the others because they were white. Once the evidence proved Brawley had been lying in order to avoid telling her step father she’d been with a boy, the assistant D.A. sued and was eventually awarded $345,000 from Sharpton and the others for defamation of character. But to this day, Sharpton has never had the decency to apologize.
FOUR YEARS LATER, when a seven-year-old black child was tragically run down by a car driven by a Jew in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Sharpton again barged onto the scene, staging a rally where he called Jews “diamond merchants” and proclaiming, “If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house.” In the four days of riots that followed, Jews were beaten in the streets and one was stabbed to death by rioters shouting, “Kill the Jew!”
Four years after that, in 1995, Sharpton helped lead a boycott against a white-owned store in Harlem, publicly denouncing its owner as “a white interloper.” Soon afterward, one of the protesters, thus incited, busted into the store, shot four employees and set the place ablaze. The final toll was seven dead.
Over the years since, he has continued to exploit, and worsen, virtually every racially charged incident in the New York area, as well as many far beyond. A mere listing of names of tragic black shooting victims – Amadou Diallo, Ousmane Zongo, Sean Bell – is enough for many to recall the flames onto which Sharpton has hastened to pour fuel.
Moreover, he has continually been in trouble with the IRS for failing to pay his taxes.
Yet, for all this, he is not only treated with seriousness and respect by the mainstream media, but is routinely accorded the status of “civil rights leader.” He is always among the first called upon for his views on all matters racial and is even allowed without challenge to pass judgment on the racial bona fides of others – for instance, declaring Mitt Romney unfit for the presidency by virtue of his Mormonism and urging that Rush Limbaugh be banished from the airwaves for racial insensitivity. “You’ve got to remember that those stations that Rush Limbaugh is on and others are regulated by FCC, granted by FCC; they go back to them to get waivers,” he intoned in November, 2010. “They have the right to set standards. That does not impair your right to speak what you believe, but it does say that you are not going to do that to offend groups of Americans based on their race, their gender, their sexual status – none of that.”
Even when the media passingly acknowledges Sharpton’s many past indecencies, it is by way of claiming he has “grown.” “Take a look at Reverend Al,” as Leslie Stahl put it a glowing 60 Minutes report, “…stately in his tailored suits, commanding a national stage.” Yes, Sharpton has gone through “a metamorphosis,” the former “street-protest agitator” emerging as “trusted White House advisor, who’s become the President’s go-to black leader, campaigning around the country for President Obama and his agenda. Today, Reverend Sharpton looks and sounds like a totally different person.”
MORE THAN MERELY respectable, he is embraced as a lovable, larger-than-life character whose excesses, such as they were, are readily dismissed as inconsequential. Even before MSNBC gave him his own show, the IMDb web site, which lists appearances by actors and celebrities in films and television, had no fewer than ten single-spaced pages of appearances for Al Sharpton, almost all as “Himself.” While most are as a guest on political or late night chat shows, or on documentaries like Obama: The First 100 Days and Moonwalking: The True Story of Michael Jackson, many are variety shows or sitcoms. He has hosted Saturday Night Live, been featured on the Tony Awards, shown up on Boston Legal, Law and Order and My Wife and Kids, and made cameos in such films as Mr. Deeds and Cold Feet.
Of course, it is easy to shrug this off as media business as usual; we all know the media is biased across the board, and has a soft spot for loveable scoundrels, as long as they’re on the left, and even more so if they’re members of “underrepresented minorities.” As conservative columnist Joe Sobran memorably summoned up the ultimate New York Times headline:, “NEW YORK DESTROYED BY EARTHQUAKE: Women and Minorities Hardest Hit.”
Still, the extraordinary indulgence the media has long shown to the loathsome Sharpton speaks directly to a larger and more vital issue: its role in consistently subverting honest racial discourse in this country. The media narrative is that racial intolerance remains pervasive in America – but only on one side of the political spectrum. This has not only justified media bias on behalf of affirmative action and other government programs designed to address persistent racism, but it has enabled leftist partisans, including more than a few journalists themselves, to confidently smear those with contrary views as bigots. Even on those rare occasions when race-baiters on the left find themselves on the defensive, conservatives, so the narrative goes, are the true villains. Thus it was, for example, that during the height of the firestorm over Obama mentor Jeremiah Wright, Wired magazine’s Spencer Ackerman proposed to his fellow leftists on JournoList that they distract public attention from Wright by destroying the reputations of key conservatives. “If the right forces us all to either defend Wright or tear him down, no matter what we choose, we lose the game they’ve put upon us,” he wrote in a message he never expected to see the light of day. “Instead, take one of them – Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares – and call them racists.” Though the revelation briefly provoked outrage on the right, it was largely ignored by the mainstream press and the impact on Ackerman’s career was nonexistent.
Yet, heedless, the media continue to cast themselves as the nation’s racial referees, ruling on what might and might not be appropriately said, and who might say it, and otherwise enforcing liberal orthodoxy.
Harry Stein is a journalist and novelist and a contributing editor to City Journal. This essay is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, No Matter What, They’ll Call This Book Racist: How our fear of talking honestly about race hurts us all, to be published 17 April 2012.
Note: In a previous version of this essay, an editing error caused Rosa Parks’s first name to be misspelled. It has been corrected.