CBS's Stahl Proclaims 'Stately' Al Sharpton's 'Metamorphosis'

CBS's Lesley Stahl played up how Al Sharpton apparently "has gone through something of a metamorphosis" as she spotlighted the "street-protest trusted White House adviser" on Sunday's 60 Minutes. Despite pressing Sharpton for his refusal to apologize for the Tawana Brawley hoax, Stahl gushed, "Take a look at Reverend Al...stately in his tailored suits, commanding a national stage."

The journalist front-loaded her superlatives about the liberal flamethrower during her 12-and-a-half minute report in the bottom half of the 8 pm Eastern hour, emphasizing how Sharpton has supposedly become a new man. She also set the tone of the entire segment of choosing to use non-ideological labels to describe her subject, only hinting at his left-of-center politics:

STAHL: Say 'Al Sharpton' and most people probably think loudmouth activist and provocateur. Well, that certainly was his image in the '80s and '90s. Well, the Reverend Al has gone through something of a metamorphosis. Today, he's downright tame, so much that he's made his way into the establishment. It's been quite a trajectory: from street-protest agitator to candidate for president in 2004, to now, a trusted White House adviser, who's become the President's go-to black leader, campaigning around the country for President Obama and his agenda. Today, Reverend Sharpton looks and sounds like a totally different person.

Despite a firm, yet vague acknowledgment of the activist's past as being "hot-headed in his jogging suits, larger than life in every way, spreading hate and dividing the city," Stahl quickly fast-forwarded past that moments later by using her "stately" and "commanding" labels. She also punctuated Sharpton's close work with President Obama:

STAHL: ...Take a look at Reverend Al today after a meeting with the President: eighty-three pounds slimmer, stately in his tailored suits, commanding a national stage. SHARPTON (from press conference outside the White House): I think the meeting was very candid- STAHL: Not only does he travel to see the President, the President travels to see him. SHARPTON (introducing President Obama at National Action Network conference): Barack Obama- (audience cheers and applauds) STAHL: In April, Mr. Obama was a keynote speaker at Sharpton's civil rights organization, the National Action Network's fundraiser in New York. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA (from speech to the National Action Network): I told Reverend Al backstage, he's getting skinnier than me. (audience laughs) STAHL: This presidential endorsement, this validation, is an acknowledgement of Al Sharpton's influence with the President's African-American base.

As you might expect, the CBS anchor completely omitted how the racially-charged figure's past might be a liability for the President, even though she did press Sharpton a bit from the left on his strategy to go easy on Mr. Obama, especially given the issue of the high unemployment rate in the black community ("Just because he didn't campaign on improving unemployment in black areas, why aren't you out there saying, we need more done?"). She even trumpeted how "given his loyalty and his change from confrontational to accommodating, the administration is rewarding him with access and assignments, like making him a spokesman for their education policy." Speaking of Sharpton's "loyalty" to Mr. Obama, the journalist only made a nebulous reference to his recent involvement in defending the chief executive from left-wing critics such as Cornel West ("Have you told other blacks not to criticize him publicly?)

Later in the report, Stahl further harped on the activist's supposed "metamorphosis" by highlighting his expansion into other liberal causes, all the while omitting any explicit references to his ideology:

SHARPTON: I've learned to pick my fights, and also, to be more strategic about my fight plan. It doesn't mean it's not the same fight, but it means I'm a different and I'm a more seasoned fighter.

STAHL (on-camera): So if someone were to put a couple of adjectives in front of your name today, 'agitator' should not be one of those names?

SHARPTON: Say 'refined agitator.'

SHARPTON (from candlelight protest in Arizona): (crowd cheers) Let your light shine!

STAHL (voice-over): Here's the 'refined agitator' in a candlelight march in Arizona, expanding his portfolio with Latinos, standing up against the state's immigration law.

SHARPTON: This is about a state law that is unconstitutional.

SHARPTON (on-camera): A lot of positions that I take now, no one would've thought I would've taken. Who would have thought, twenty years ago, I'd be leading marches for immigration, or that I would support same-sex marriage, which most black church people don't? So I think that a lot of people are stuck in time. Thankfully, I'm not.

Seven minutes in, the anchor finally delved into Sharpton's lightning rod past in race politics in the New York City area, pressing him on his involvement in the Brawley fiasco, and bringing in former Village Voice journalist Wayne Barrett to blast her subject:

WAYNE BARRETT: I think he has been a hustler all of his career-

STAHL: Wayne Barrett, an investigative reporter with 'The Daily Beast,' has written about Sharpton for more than 20 years.

BARRETT: I think he is in the civil rights business. I don't think he's a civil rights leader. I think he's in the business. He has an organization called the National Action Network. Nobody knows what happens to all that money.

STAHL: An IRS audit would later show that he and his organization failed to pay $2.8 million in federal and state taxes. And then, there was the issue he's most known for.

TAWANA BRAWLEY (from file footage): My name is Tawana Brawley. I'm not a liar, and I'm not crazy.

STAHL: It was 1987. Tawana Brawley was a 15-year-old who claimed she was raped by six white men in law enforcement, and Al Sharpton took up her cause. But there was no forensic evidence of any sexual attack, and there was evidence Tawana made up the whole story. The case, labeled a hoax, was dismissed, and Sharpton was forced to pay $65,000 to those he had named. But in all this time, he has never voiced any regret.

STAHL (on-camera): You have gone back and looked at things with such a clear eye. You've apologized. You've asked for forgiveness, except on Tawana Brawley. I don't get it!

SHARPTON: I'll be honest with you. I have thought about that a million times. I just don't believe they treated that case fair.

STAHL: If I knew that I had, in any way, contributed to falsely accusing someone, I think I would feel an obligation to say, I'm sorry.

SHARPTON: I think you're right. I think the operative word is, 'If you knew that.' I don't know that.

STAHL: If they didn't do it-

SHARPTON: But if- but suppose they did-

STAHL: But you're talking- you're taking-

SHARPTON: Suppose they did-

STAHL: But they didn't. They didn't. You still think they might have done it, is what you're saying.

SHARPTON: But I can't say- I still say that there is area there that makes me believe something happened.

BARRETT: He's not going to apologize because, to him, this is playing to that core constituency, however small it is of his- that white America wants him to apologize, and he is not going to apologize. If you add up Brawley, federal tax liens- you put all these things together, would anybody else be able to transcend that and be this larger-than-life figure?

STAHL: He has!

BARRETT: Only because we let him.

Just before ending the segment, Stahl returned to giving Sharpton a more positive spin:

STAHL (voice-over): He still gets questions about how he makes his money- while he earns over a million dollars a year at his radio show, plus paid speeches, and he's paid of the $2.8 million he owes in back taxes. But he says his big personal transformation moment came the day he picked up the phone and spoke to his father for the first time in 45 years.

STAHL (on-camera): Why did you call him?

SHARPTON: I had a chip on my shoulder, I guess. Why did he leave me behind? And, you know, I went through school and graduations and all, and he wasn't there and I resented it. But I didn't realize how much I resented it until I reached out and realized that all of that, I was carrying in me.

STAHL (voice-over): He told us that he used to think about getting in the newspapers. Now, older, more comfortable with himself, he's thinking about history.

SHARPTON: And history is not made by guys than can just make the headline the next day. History is made by people that can help make change happen.

STAHL (on-camera): And stay in the game.

SHARPTON: And change the game- not just stay in the game, change the game. I've been everything good that my friends say, and mostly everything bad my enemies say. But right now, I think I'm on the right time to help make a difference.

- Matthew Balan is a news analyst at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here.