New MSNBC Host Al Sharpton: ‘The Battleground Is Not Just the Streets But the Studio’

“I’m the only one on this station that has run for President and knows what it is to go through a primary and presidential debate”

When MSNBC CEO Phil Griffin announced Tuesday that Al Sharpton would be taking over the 6 p.m. slot with the new show "Politics Nation," he spoke about the decade-long relationship he has developed with the minister and civil rights activist. 

For Sharpton, what seems to have truly cemented that relationship was working with Griffin on “A Stronger America: The Black Agenda,” a special MSNBC aired last year that grabbed headlines for a debate between Sharpton and professor/author/activist Cornel West.

Also read: MSNBC Ends Speculation, Hires Al Sharpton as Primetime Host

Sharpton talked to TheWrap shortly after the announcement about extending his civil rights endeavors to television, seeking a bigger audience for his message and giving MSNBC another opinionated voice to tee up its primetime line-up.

Have you always wanted to go into TV full-time?
It’s a natural fit for what I’m doing. I clearly understand that in the 21st century of policy America, you’ve got to deal with talk TV and talk radio. The Tea Party didn’t come out of anywhere. If it weren't for Fox TV and Fox radio, the right wing would not have had traction. I knew the battleground would not just be on the streets but the studio as well. It worked for where I felt the movement had to go in the 21st century.

Why is MSNBC the right fit for your efforts?
One, we have had a working relationship with MSNBC. The last two years of my civil rights movement (the National Action Network), we’ve had the “Black Agenda” special  – the infamous debate with Cornel West and President Obama was that special. But secondly, the shows after 5 p.m. are opinionated shows like Fox. The other cable stations are more just news down the middle. I’m not a news-down-the-middle journalist. I’m an opinionated person.

The show debuts Aug. 29; will it be any different from what you have been doing filling in for Cenk Uygur at 6 p.m. over the summer?
It will not be different in terms of the focus — dealing with issues in an opinionated way, my expressing my views and others giving their views. But we will do some stuff that will be my signature segments. The focus will be from another point of view, and I will be dealing with those that disagree.

Do you have certain topics or any regular guests in mind?
I certainly want to deal with the issue of the economic disparities in this country, deal with what’s going on in the political season of 2012. I know politics. I ran in 2004. Just like a [Mike] Huckabee knows on Fox, I know it on here. I’m the only one on this station that has run for President and knows what it is to go through a primary and presidential debate. It’s just like why Roger Ailes hired Huckabee.

So have you ruled out any more election campaigns?
No, I’m not ruling anything out, but I wanna be focused on making this as wide an audience as I can. I have arguments that we want the America audience to hear, not just one side. We have been inundated with one side for straight news. When MSNBC a few years ago started to try to give the other side of America, other people started to watch it.

Do you have a favorite MSNBC primetime host?
I watch the night shows a lot, and that’s why I love Ed [Schultz] a lot. I love Rachel Maddow — I think she’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever seen. And I think Lawrence O’Donnell, who was never in talk radio or a journalist, has been exceptional.

Even in the morning. I watch “Morning Joe” every morning. Don’t tell him, 'cause I don’t agree with his politics. He gets me so angry that I don’t even calm down for 18 hours.

You brought up Ed Schultz. Uygur, his initial replacement at 6, had a rather acrimonious departure from the network. He said MSNBC tried to limit what you could say. Have you experienced that?
Nobody has told me what I couldn’t say on the air. We haven’t even had that discussion.

Also read: MSNBC Bids Adieu to Cenk Uygur

You've talked about MSNBC being a counterweight to Fox in opinionated primetime programming. Do you worry about the media furthering ideological polarization?
People relate to people who give them information they feel they can't get elsewhere and that they relate to. The reason I watch MNBC is because if I watch Rachel, she almost always brings an issue and item that I just didn't see somewhere else. It's not just opinion or information. It makes Americans cheap to say everyone goes with what they agree with.

So if Rachel brings in ideas you did not see or think of, what unique perspective will you be bringing?
It's multi-dimensional. I've run for president, I lead a civil rights group. But I have also dealt with a lot of the issues on the ground. A lot of people on talk TV and talk radio have never had to walk the walk. I've led the marches and spent months in jail for protest, so I know what a lot of people are talking about. I've been there, done that, still do that. I can talk about what I know is in the minds of people.

But will a full-time TV job affect your other activities or interests?
First of all, I'm trying to fufill and continue civil rights and put a spotlight on: What is activism? Put a spotlight on injustices and unfairness. To go from just asking people to shine a spotlight here to someone putting the spotlight in your hand … how can that hurt?