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MELISSA BLOCK, host: Al Sharpton made his name more for casting heat than light. The civil rights activist has a history of confrontational tactics. More recently, he has become a player in Democratic Party politics. Now, he's the newest opinion host on MSNBC.

NPR's David Folkenflik spent some time recently at the cable news channel and he wanted to know one thing from the network's top executive.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: So the question that I get everywhere is: What were they thinking?

So, Phil, what were you thinking?

PHIL GRIFFIN: I get that from time to time, as well.

FOLKENFLIK: Phil is Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC.

GRIFFIN: I'm a big fan of the Reverend Sharpton. I've known him quite a bit. he's smart. He's entertaining. He's experienced. He's thoughtful. He's provocative, all the things I think that MSNBC is.

FOLKENFLIK: MSNBC won strong ratings by tilting sharply to the left at night, and Sharpton is its newest gamble. He told me he wanted the TV job badly because conservatives now dominate cable television and talk radio.

The Reverend AL SHARPTON: And they've been able, with that domination, to push a certain kind of political thought that I think is contrary to a lot of the things that I have fought for and continue to fight for all my life.

FOLKENFLIK: Some black journalists questioned the choice, but that's died down and Sharpton says he wants a hearing for racial justice and the plight of the working and middle class on TV.

SHARPTON: You can do that with a bullhorn on the corner at Washington Square Park, but that's not going to compete with a Rush Limbaugh or a Sean Hannity or a Bill O'Reilly. You can't bring mid-20th century techniques to a 21st century fight and expect that you're going to win.

FOLKENFLIK: Sharpton's past may repel some viewers. A generation ago, Sharpton sported a James Brown bouffant hairdo and brightly colored track suits, and he repeatedly struck an inflammatory tone - as at this 1988 press conference in New York City, when he publicly defied a special prosecutor on behalf of a black teen who had accused a group of six white men of raping her.

SHARPTON: (unintelligible) is concerned, you can take it and you can shove it up in the garbage pail.

FOLKENFLIK: That sound there was Sharpton tearing the pages of the subpoena. The problem was, the grand jury investigation subsequently found no evidence the young woman, Tawana Brawley, had been raped at all.

One of the accused men was a prosecutor who was exonerated, but he ultimately left his job and later partially blamed the charges for the collapse of his marriage.

Sharpton was sued for defamation of character and lost. He said he simply disagrees with the grand jury that investigated Brawley's case, much like a friend of his disagrees with the verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Sharpton told me he has few regrets.

SHARPTON: Maybe some of the theatrics could have been handled different, but the basic point of me standing up behind someone I believe - if I regret that, then I would have to regret any case that a jury didn't find to be true.

FOLKENFLIK: He has since calmed down, slimmed down, adopted business suits and he has become an influential figure in Democratic circles.

President BARACK OBAMA: Some things have changed a lot since 1991.

FOLKENFLIK: This is President Obama, here speaking this past spring to Sharpton's organization, the National Action Network.

OBAMA: I told Reverend Al backstage, he's getting skinnier than me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FOLKENFLIK: MSNBC turned to Sharpton as a frequent, even favored, guest for his colorful and unapologetic style. And so, F. Scott Fitzgerald not withstanding, Sharpton arrived at the third act in public life.

Last month, the former firebrand wrote a conciliatory piece in the New York Daily News about his fractious role in the aftermath of the Crown Heights riots, a modest recognition that he had exacerbated tensions between blacks and orthodox Jews.

Now, as the new host of PoliticsNation each night at 6:00 p.m., he's focusing on his task at hand. Sharpton's not yet silky smooth on the air, at moments evoking Ron Burgundy more than Tom Brokaw.

SHARPTON: Tonight, Alex, the truth was a real casualty last night.

FOLKENFLIK: But as Sharpton as quick to note, he's a talker, not an anchor, and his trademark one-liners are starting to surface once again.

SHARPTON: And I think the DNC should take the Social Security line of Mr. Perry and the attack on Social Security and the Ponzi scheme and put out bumper stickers saying, it's not about Obama, it's about your mama, and we'll win.

FOLKENFLIK: MSNBC's Griffin says he wasn't hiring the Al Sharpton of the Tawana Brawley or Crown Heights controversies. It's a new chapter, he says, for a new Sharpton.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

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