April 13, 2007 — -- As Don Imus tried desperately this week to hold onto his microphone, Rev. Al Sharpton held the megaphone, leading the charge of those who wanted Imus fired. But the extent to which Sharpton was "the public face of this story," as one media observer puts it, has generated a controversy of its own.
Accounts of the storm raging over Imus' future often put Sharpton at the center. A UPI article on Thursday for instance said, "For more than a week, Sharpton managed to refocus the nation's spotlight from Iraq and Afghanistan to Imus."
However, columnist Sylvester Brown, who often writes about race for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, bristles at the credit Sharpton might receive for bringing down Imus.
"Al Sharpton is a convenient diversion from what really happened to Imus," Brown said. "This was so egregious, so over the line, it would have happened anyway, with or without Sharpton."
Sharpton's involvement, along with the involvement of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Brown said, created "an easy excuse for those who didn't want to grapple with the complicated layers of this issue, to just point at Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and say, 'It's their fault.'"
Media critic Susan Douglas, a professor of communications at the University of Michigan, agreed that Sharpton may have gotten more attention than his role merited.
"The public face of this story might look like it was Al Sharpton," she said, and at least for a few days that might have been true, due in large part to Imus' Monday appearance on Sharpton's radio show. But even there, she said it was Imus' own words, not Sharpton, that inflamed the story.
"When he said, 'I can't win with you people,' he was finished," Douglas said.
Others say the Rutgers women's basketball team eclipsed Sharpton as the decisive force in the story when they held a press conference Tuesday.
According to Stephen Metcalf, who writes on the media and popular culture for Slate.com, "Those were powerfully moving voices and images, and once the news cycle got a hold of that, goodnight; [Imus] was as good as gone."
In the wake of the team press conference, sponsors began to abandon Imus, and by various accounts, critical pressure by employees within NBC and CBS mounted. These events apparently finished Imus.
And yet when the end came late Thursday, reaction stories on the major networks featured Sharpton.
Sharpton's talents as an organizer and speaker were important factors that came to bear in the Imus story and his role as a leader in the black community is hard to dispute.
In fact, his leadership credentials may extend well beyond African Americans. Douglas believes the respect he now commands goes back to the campaign of 2004.
"His presidential run gave him a certain veneer of increased dignity. which he didn't have before and increased authority," Douglas said.
But what columnist Brown and others object to is the "practice" by the mostly white-controlled media of "running to Sharpton and running to Jackson as if they are the only ones who can handle every plight in the African American community."
A number of other African American voices were heard and sought out during the course of the story, including Bryan Monroe of the National Association of Black Journalists (who some say was the real leader of the effort to oust Imus), Michelle Moore of the National Urban League, and Angela Burt-Murray of Essence Magazine.
Yet Douglas, the University of Michigan critic, does not see the media's reliance on Sharpton and Jackson in race-related stories ending anytime soon.
"It takes extraordinary events like this to have those other folks get on the air," Douglas said, "and once the event cools off, then it's going to go back to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton."
She sees in the media a "certain low-grade institutional racism in which you say 'Oh, here are the two black folks we can go to. End of story.' And don't even have the imagination to think there's a whole rich community out there."