Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Federal Racial Discrimination Lawsuit Against Al Sharpton and Comcast

The Reverend Al Sharpton, whatever his other gifts may be, is not a particularly adept television host. His cadence grates. To this Midwesterner he usually sounds as if he's about to punch someone in the mouth. Sharpton mispronounces words and misses cues to open or close segments. He yells all the time. Sharpton's only two emotions are surprise or outrage. He seems to be in a perennial search for the teleprompter. We posted about all this before but Sharpton's shortcomings are obvious to anyone that watches his show for longer than five minutes. For these reasons and many others, Sharpton's ratings on MSNBC have mostly been bad. I can't blame him too much for this. If someone offered to pay me many multiples of my current salary to do something for which I was poorly qualified I might well take the money and cry all the way to the bank. Sharpton has to this point survived the latest reshuffling of talent at MSNBC which saw Joy Reid and Ronan Farrow lose their even less popular shows. This ability to survive purges and even the ability to get hired in the first place had some people shaking their heads and muttering about conspiracy theories. Others laughed at the sheer audacity and tenacity of Sharpton. It takes a lot to survive as a public figure in this world and Sharpton has it. Although his television show is an ongoing dumpster fire I appreciate that Sharpton brings attention to some situations that would otherwise go unnoticed. However someone just recently revealed his belief that Sharpton's hiring and survival at MSNBC was more about corporate payoffs and hiring a spook to sit by the door than it was about Sharpton's hosting talents. So this man filed a $20 billion dollar federal lawsuit.

You may, if you are a certain age, remember Byron Allen as a comedian and co-host of the show Real People. That was a very long time ago indeed but unlike some Hollywood "wasn't that the guy from so-n-so? " fading talent, the Detroit born Allen successfully made the switch into management and ownership. He owns Entertainment Studios, a television distribution and production company which among other things created and Allen and an organization named the National Association of African American Owned Media are suing Comcast, Sharpton's National Action Network, the NAACP, The Urban League, Time Warner and Al Sharpton as an individual, among other entities. The crux of the lawsuit is that Comcast/Time Warner has refused to do business with Entertainment Studios (and other black companies) because it is 100% Black owned. Apparently Sharpton comes in for attack because according to the complaint he and other civil rights organizations entered into voluntary diversity agreements with Comcast/Time Warner which were designed to give the appearance that Comcast/Time Warner was fair minded, when in fact they were not. In short Reverend Al was allegedly selling indulgences for Comcast/Time Warner's allegedly racist business practices. According to this accusation, Comcast, having been criticized in the past for exclusionary actions, decided it was cheaper to buy off Reverend Al Sharpton and associated fellow travelers than to actually change the practices in dispute.

Of the approximately $10 billion in content fees that Comcast pays to license channels and advertise each year, less than $3 million is paid to 100% African American–owned media. Even the token payments Comcast makes to 100% African American–owned media companies are a charade. Comcast pays minimal amounts to license and distribute the Africa Channel, which is owned and operated by a former Comcast/NBC-Universal executive/insider and one of the architects of the MOUs Comcast uses to perpetuate its racial discrimination in contracting.

In connection with its 2010 bid to acquire NBC-Universal, Comcast was criticized for its refusal to do business with 100% African American–owned media. In response, Comcast entered into what it termed “voluntary diversity agreements,” i.e., memoranda of understanding (“MOUs”), with non-media civil rights groups, including the other Defendants herein: NAACP; National Urban League; Al Sharpton; and Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. 

Defendants NAACP, National Urban League, Al Sharpton and National Action Network entered into the MOUs in order to facilitate Comcast’s racist practices and policies in contracting—or, more accurately, refusing to contract—with 100% African American–owned media companies. The MOUs are a sham, undertaken to whitewash Comcast’s discriminatory business practices.

To obtain support for the NBC-Universal acquisition and for its continued racist policies and practices, Comcast made large cash “donations” to the non-media groups that signed the MOUs. For example, Comcast has paid Reverend Al Sharpton and Sharpton’s National Action Network over $3.8 million in “donations” and as salary for the on-screen television hosting position on MSNBC that Comcast awarded Sharpton in exchange for his signature on the MOUs, another blatant example of conflict of interest. 

Read the (lengthy) full complaint here

I have no idea if the allegations which Allen and others are making in this complaint are accurate. This may be something utterly frivolous which will be tossed from the court system. I do know however that it's often important not just to look at the people in front of a camera or the individual people at the lower levels of the organization to see if Black people are getting a fair shake. It's just as important to look at the higher ups, at the decision makers. It's important to see who's making the contracting decisions and if black companies are getting a piece of the pie. Are business decisions about hiring, grooming, and contracting made so that everyone has a fair chance to compete? There are some corporations which are happy to hire a few black executives here or there over the years but which consistently avoid business to business relations with black companies. Although Allen has a few zingers listed in the complaint (a white executive saying that they didn't want to create another Bob Johnson) for the most part the allegations (if true) are examples of how  bloodless racism can work in the corporate world. Few people are going to run around screaming racial slurs or putting up signs. Well, few people compared to forty years ago do those sorts of things. It's just that business decisions that are made which always seem to leave the same people holding the dirty end of the stick. Again, this could all be nonsense. Allen's own company has come under serious attack for hostility to unions and low pay to performers and creators. Allen's said that in a previous interview that he sees his company as "the Wal-mart of television". FWIW, Allen has also stated that nobody ever gave him anything. 

Giving a tour of Entertainment Studios’ newly leased 75,000-square-foot production space in Culver City, Allen says he built his empire from scratch, in part because, as a black man, he had to. “Over the 20 years, I’ve seen my white counterparts have access to enormous amounts of capital, and in 20 years nobody’s ever offered me a nickel,” he says. “It made me stronger, it made me work with different disciplines.”

To conclude, again this could be a pure shakedown initiated by Allen using Sharpton's name for publicity. Sharpton certainly thinks so. He said that the lawsuit was frivolous at best. He also claims that his organization did not receive $4 million in donations from Comcast but instead less than $1 million. Well. Detractors and even supporters of various advocacy organizations concerned with issues of race, gender, sexuality, animal rights etc. have stated that when an advocacy group accepts "donations" from the same organizations it is supposed to be monitoring, it can sometimes find itself politically neutered. Did this happen to Sharpton? Hmm. Is Allen just being a whiner? 

What are your thoughts?

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