Rev. Al Sharpton reportedly enjoys an “open line” to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, which raises ethics concerns regarding the relationship between journalists and politicians.
“There hasn’t been a thing that we have asked Mayor de Blasio to do that he hasn’t done,” Rachel Noerdlinger, a top aide to Sharpton told Newsday.
Newsday noted that Sharpton–the toned-down, self-referential Sharpton that has evolved as host of MSNBC’s Politics Nation–has never had quite the relationship to any politician in office that he does with de Blasio. Noerdlinger described the relationship as “an open line of communication, always.” She now works as chief of staff to first lady Chirlane McCray, but she described Sharpton’s team as “we” and Mayor de Blasio’s as the “other.”
Most notably this week, Mayor de Blasio appeared in the opening ceremony of the annual National Action Network conference, praising Sharpton for organizing the event.
The relationship, in many ways, benefits both. Mayor de Blasio, whose tenure has been marred by low polling, confused staff, crying children and angry parents, has a guaranteed ally on national television who will blindly disagree with any criticism of the Mayor. Sharpton, meanwhile, can demand space for National Action Network rallies, receive exclusive interviews, and influence policy. Notably left out of the symbiotic relationship are the voters who put de Blasio into office.
The relationship between the Mayor and the activist recalls much of the controversy surrounding Sharpton’s initial foray into hosting television at MSNBC. When his new gig replacing The Young Turks host Cenk Uygur was initially announced, many on both sides of the aisle expressed concerns that an activist hosting a news show eliminated any credibility MSNBC had as a news network and cemented its position as a propaganda outlet. At the time, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald noted that Sharpton had made a vow never to criticize President Obama, comparing the hiring of such an ideologue to “hiring a physician who vows never to treat any diseases, or employing an auto mechanic who pledges never to fix any cars, or retaining a pollster who swears never to make any findings about public opinion.”
Sharpton himself has never–even in his statement on being hired as an MSNBC host–portrayed himself as an objective journalist, and cable news in the 21st century is widely reviled as more of a lowbrow entertainment medium than a news service. Nonetheless, the ethical implication of a television host essentially playing puppet master to the most powerful mayor in America is deeply unsettling.
The nature of New York City is such that lines between journalists and politicians will always be blurred. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, after all, was first and foremost the proprietor of one of the most sophisticated news organizations on the planet. But no host on Bloomberg TV was ever openly described as receiving everything they ever wanted from Bloomberg or having an “open line” to him. Bloomberg’s many flaws aside, it was abundantly apparent–even more so in his failings–that no one but Bloomberg was calling the shots at City Hall, and Bloomberg did no one’s bidding but his own.
With de Blasio, residents cannot be altogether certain. Sure, de Blasio has gone out of his way to demonstrate to the people of New York that he is not beholden to the Democratic Party, but that has only served to taunt New York Governor Andrew Cuomo into humiliating him politically. Mayor de Blasio has also alienated unions; despite his steely ties to groups like New York Communities for Change, de Blasio managed to turn unions against him with his call for a ban on horse-drawn carriages. The only person who seems to have full control of the de Blasio agenda is television show host Al Sharpton.
A political tenure defined by close ties to Al Sharpton will at least have a predictable style of amorphous political “progressivism” and shameless self-promotion. That Mayor de Blasio is willing to take the risk of associating with Sharpton so early in a term already considered a failure after four months is a danger to his legacy. Above all, however, it is extremely worrisome to New York residents who now have to contend with Sharpton as de facto political adviser.