A few hours after the midday news conference, Sharpton could be seen on his daily MSNBC program PoliticsNation. Sharpton’s work as a dedicated advocate on behalf of Martin has played out in protests in Martin’s hometown of Sanford, Fla., in news conferences like the one last week and with increasing frequency on his cable TV program.
This is nothing new for Sharpton. In the weeks before the Martin case burst onto the scene, the minister was in Alabama commemorating the 47th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march. The cause that should stir lovers of civil rights today, Sharpton said, is voter ID laws. “We’re not being beaten on the bridge, but we’re being blocked at the ballot box,” Sharpton said while standing on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in early March.
So much for the dispassionate news-readers of yore. Or, for that matter, the pundits steeped in the practice of journalism who carefully weighed the issues of the day before registering an opinion. Late last week, Sharpton warned that unless the police arrest George Zimmerman, the man who shot Martin, then the city of Sanford can expect more civil disobedience.
Of course, Sharpton is welcome to lend his voice to this or any other matter. (Though your faithful correspondent must add that it’s heartbreaking to see how quickly the unfortunate death of a teen has devolved into another us-vs.-them national shouting match.)
What ought to raise an eyebrow is that Sharpton the activist is the same fellow with an hour-long program airing on a cable channel complete with all the trappings of TV news — an anchor, a desk, graphics and interview subjects. Perhaps we should add that TV news isn’t what it used to be. Local affiliates’ evening newscasts always find time to hype the reality shows their networks air in primetime, blurring the line between news and promotion of entertainment.
The typical ESPN newscast is a fine place to learn about what sports programming will soon be aired on that cable channel. And Fox News, one of MSNBC’s competitors, frequently links its hosts’ activism to their programs.
The uncritical fans of each host’s ideology love it; consumers wishing for information unflavored by activism are left wondering if some part of the story isn’t getting told.
“It certainly represents a change in our traditional view of the boundaries between journalism and activism,” Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, told the Associated Press.
“I think it’s very confusing. But it’s certainly the way we are moving in the journalism industry,” McBride added.
That’s true. Or, as a former newspaper colleague used to say, “The lever only moves one way,” meaning too often in newsrooms the bad can only get worse.
Such is the state of TV news.
Here is one more crying need for our education system to address. Students, a k a America’s future voters, can’t start too early learning the value of the Constitution’s First Amendment. How its guarantees include the freedom of the press. How the Founders saw value in the news media holding government and other large institutions accountable. A thriving democracy depends on its citizens being well-informed, able to help their nation, states and communities make wise decisions. While far from perfect, journalism still strives to serve that calling.
Out of our free press has grown a set of principles journalists should follow — accuracy, fairness, accountability, timeliness, context and credibility. That last measure is strained when the spokesman at the podium and the anchor at the news desk is the exact same guy.
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.