JOHN YDSTIE, Host:
This past week, the cable news network MSNBC chose civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton, as a new evening host.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)
AL SHARPTON: Tonight's lead: Tea Party congressmen said they...
YDSTIE: Sharpton will begin hosting the network's 6 p.m. hour, starting tomorrow. The hiring came after weeks of speculation while Sharpton had been guest-hosting in that time slot, and the decision has been about as controversial as Al Sharpton himself. For more, we turn to Eric Deggans, a media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. He joins us from studios there. Welcome to the program.
ERIC DEGGANS: Thanks for having me.
YDSTIE: So do you think there are more risks - or rewards - for MSNBC, with their hiring of Al Sharpton?
DEGGANS: Well, for MSNBC, I think the reward is ratings. According to the channel, ratings have been up something like 18 percent since Al Sharpton began guest-hosting the 6 p.m. timeslot two months ago. So the risk is that they're hiring somebody who will continue - in a very public role - as a civil rights activist while he's also hosting a nighttime show on a cable news channel. So it'll be interesting to see how he negotiates both those roles; and what NBC lets him do, or asks him not to do, once he takes over as an anchor on MSNBC.
YDSTIE: The network's decision was a matter of debate among some members of the National Association of Black Journalists. They suggest a black journalist would have been a better choice. What's their argument and is it persuasive?
DEGGANS: Well, one thing I'll point is that I've been a member of the National Association of Black Journalists for a long time, so I know the group well. We've not have an anchor of color crack the cable news primetime yet. Primetime on cable news is sort of the marquee area. It's where the highest paid and best known people work, like Anderson Cooper and Bill O'Reilly. Now, Al Sharpton's getting close to that timeslot and I think there was a sense that we have so many black journalists that are trying to succeed, trying to add diversity to news coverage, trying to have a real impact on how these issues are covered, and it seems odd that a cable news network would make its first hire adding diversity to that timeslot somebody who's not a journalist and indeed somebody who's mostly known as an advocate.
YDSTIE: It's perhaps something of a trend, I guess, because we've seen networks turn to public figures instead of journalists to host some high-profile programs - CNN with the former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, Fox News with Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. Some of those hires have turned out better than others. But what do you think the general strategy is here and is it successful?
DEGGANS: I think what we're seeing increasingly is that cable news executives are looking for people who pop on screen and will get people to watch the shows. CNN hired Eliot Spitzer, somebody whose media experience mostly consisted of being guests on shows and...
YDSTIE: And being the subject of a sex scandal.
DEGGANS: Right, right, exactly. So, they hired him and they took a lot of flak for it. But I think there is increasingly a sense that perhaps journalists are not situated in a way that they can do what cable news executives want. They want pungent opinions. They want people who will be bombastic. And journalists, by our very nature sometimes, tend to be more even-handed. We tend to want to make sure that our comments are modulated. So, I'm not surprised that there is a hiring trend that's going against it, but the problem, I think, arises when you have people handling information who don't have a background in journalism and, you know, how fair will that information be? So, this is something that I think media critics will have to keep an eye on and particularly watch Reverend Sharpton and see how he does.
YDSTIE: Eric Deggans is a media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. Thanks for joining us, Eric.
DEGGANS: Thank you.