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Al Sharpton: Rat Or Cat?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are Arsalan Iftikhar, founder of TheMuslimGuy.com, with us from Chicago. In New York City, we have Pablo Torre. He's a senior writer with ESPN. TELL ME MORE editor Ammad Omar is here with us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. And also in D.C. and sitting in the hot seat is Corey Dade, contributing editor for The Root. He's playing shopkeeper today while Jimi Izrael takes a much-needed break. Take it, Corey. Do that thing.

COREY DADE: Thanks, Michel. My dudes, what is good?

AMMAD OMAR, BYLINE: All right. The secretary in the house.

PABLO TORRE: What's happening?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Big shoes to fill.

DADE: I'm going to try. I'm going to try. OK, so Reverend Al is in the news, folks. We got, you know, a website, The Smoking Gun, published a report claiming that Sharpton was a paid informant with the FBI - a confidential informant back in the '80s.

Now Sharpton admits, you know, he worked with the FBI. He recorded conversations with mobsters for the bureau. But he claims he didn't do anything wrong. So here's what he said in his press conference this week.


AL SHARPTON: I was not and am not a rat 'cause I wasn't with the rats. I'm a cat. I chase rats.


MARTIN: I think you can hear some supporters in the room.

DADE: Oh, man. Where's the cheese?

IFTIKHAR: I know, right.

DADE: All right, Arsalan, you're an attorney here...


DADE: ...You know, rat or a cat?

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, it's important. It's a multi-faceted conversation. You know, when you talk about policing in America, community policing is has always been an integral part of law enforcement. Now community policing is when members of a community would report suspicious criminal activity to law enforcement officials.

Now what the police have done in the United States for decades is something called confidential informants, CIs - what are known as snitches on the street. And essentially, what they do with CIs - these are primarily people who have been caught in some sort of criminal or pseudo-criminal activity that are then very nicely coerced into turning into informants for the police departments. But what that ends up doing is that ends up on the slippery slope towards entrapment. And we most recently saw that high-profile concept of CIs and entrapment at the NYPD.

The Associated Press, in 2011 with reporters Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo actually won the Pulitzer Prize when they uncovered the NYPD spying program on Muslim communities in New York City after September 11. What they had done was they had essentially turned Muslim criminals - you know, people...


IFTIKHAR: ...Who were arrested on a marijuana possession - and turned them into mosque crawlers and essentially were snitching on community members. They were trying to entrap people into saying inflammatory things so that they could get out of their crimes. And, you know...


IFTIKHAR: ...What's important to keep in mind - very quickly - is that Al Sharpton was easily turned into the confidential informant because he was caught on videotape talking about some potential drug deal, not with him. But the words cocaine and $35,000 were mentioned in that video as well. And so I think that's something that's something that has to keep in mind as well.

MARTIN: Well, so what, though? What is - so what? I mean, he wrote about this himself in his autobiography. I mean, this kind of reminds me of - you know, I'm thinking back - I think partly maybe 'cause the Anita Hill documentary is out now, taking a look at those hearings where the same comments that she made when she reported direct behavior directed at her was then turned, you know, around on her years later at these hearings, saying, I have in front of me these documents. She said, yeah, because I told you. So what?

TORRE: Right.

MARTIN: Well, so what?

IFTIKHAR: Well, but it's completely different paradigms here, you know.


IFTIKHAR: Al Sharpton was saying that he never turned into a CI. He was never paid. He said - and then he said, well, I was paid, but it was only for, like, gas money and things like that. I mean, if you're a CI, you're a CI.

MARTIN: OK, so the question here is who are you mad at, if anybody?

IFTIKHAR: Oh, I'm not mad at any...

MARTIN: Who's wrong here?

IFTIKHAR: I'm not mad at anyone, but what is important to keep in mind is, you know, that there is this phenomenon that's going on in primarily communities of color in terms of, you know - do you report criminal activity that you see to the police? Are you considered a snitch if you do? And if you don't, you know...

DADE: Yeah, I think you're right. I think you're right in so far as there is, especially among black people, there is a question about whether or not it's OK to be a snitch. And I think Al Sharpton here is sort of, you know, pushing right up to the rails to admit kind of he was a snitch. But really, who's the victim here? There is no victim here. Pablo...

TORRE: Yeah.

DADE: ...You're in New York. You're a New Yorker. What do you think about your fellow New Yorker here?

TORRE: Well, look, the CI system, as Arsalan said, might be problematic. But the upshot here is that - I mean, I'm focusing here on Sharpton's response in this wildlife sort of analogy because to me - look, bringing down the mob or helping bring down the mob is arguably a virtuous thing.

DADE: Right. Right.

TORRE: I would maybe chafe at it if I was somebody who was not revealed to be helping to bring down the mob, but Sharpton seems to have put this out in the open already. He's concerned, it seems, more about his brand as being Al Sharpton, this guy who's still, you know, a radical - obviously - guy who is agitating the system.

But to me, the reason why that rings a little bit hollow here is that brand-wise, Al Sharpton isn't that guy in the same way as he used to be in these photos that are posted when you see these documents. I mean, Al Sharpton, beyond the weight that he lost, he's a host of MSNBC. He's hosting a daily show.

DADE: Right.

TORRE: He's in people's living rooms.

DADE: He's mainstream now.


MARTIN: He has lunch at the White House. I mean, come on.

DADE: This didn't stick back in 1988. It's not going to stick now. Ammad, weigh in here. What do you think, man?

OMAR: Well, as far as the snitch versus rat, that sort of thing - the interesting thing to me is ostensibly, what are people implying? That if this is wrong, what should he have done? Should he have killed the guys who were threatening him?

Is that the implication here? So moving beyond that, though, the interesting thing to me is this question on whether Al Sharpton was coerced into doing this, as The Smoking Gun claims. Our colleague Joel Rose spoke with William Bastone. He's an editor over there at The Smoking Gun. And Al Sharpton says, you know, I felt I was threatened by these mobsters...

DADE: Right.

OMAR: ...Related to the music industry, and so I turned to the FBI. The Smoking Gun says that's not what happened at all. And like what Arsalan said, they said that he was caught up - the FBI was going after Don King, the boxing promoter, and they caught him on tape in this kind of compromising thing. You know, not to use a pun, but there was no real smoking gun on that tape where this guy was discussing a cocaine deal with Al Sharpton.

DADE: I have seen that video.

OMAR: Yeah, me, too.

DADE: There is a video of him in that meeting...

OMAR: Yeah.

DADE: ...Where they're discussing money.

OMAR: Right.

DADE: And in an interview that I had with him a year ago, I asked him about it. He was very clear in saying - and, you know, he's parsing here - but he's very clear in saying, I didn't ask for money...

OMAR: Right.

DADE: ...But he certainly gave sort of the body language that he was willing to accept it.

OMAR: Yeah, he says that, you know, what am I going to do? There's this powerful-looking guy. I was just kind of nodding my head and going along with him.

DADE: Right.

OMAR: But The Smoking Gun says that was enough for the FBI...

DADE: To put the squeeze on him.

OMAR: ...And the NYPD to put the squeeze on him and say, take this wire, go in and talk to these mobsters.

TORRE: Right.

OMAR: And the question that comes up is, if you're afraid of these mobsters, and you actually were looking for protection, it seems a bit odd that you're then going to go undercover talking to these guys.

MARTIN: Well...

DADE: I mean, at this point, it's a distinction without a difference.

OMAR: Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, I think the bigger thing, though, for me - I mean, Arsalan is kind of pointing out the fact that these kinds of law enforcement relationships can so easily be abused. I mean...


MARTIN: ...That's one of the kind of the points that he's making.

OMAR: Right.

MARTIN: In fact, this is an issue we covered on this program, you know, recently with these two reporters out of Philadelphia who wrote about how police officers in that city, who were supposedly going after drug crimes, started coercing shopkeepers and then even stealing from them, according to their reporting, for which they also won a Pulitzer Prize.

But the other issue that kind of - this points up for me is how many young people faced with difficult options get kind of cornered into these things and then they haunt their lives rest of their lives? And that's one of the things that seems to me we have never come - you know, we say that this is a country of second chances, but we only really mean that for certain people.


MARTIN: I mean, it's fascinating to me how certain actors today who crimes in their youth...


MARTIN: ...Like Tim Allen who sold cocaine in his youth and went to prison now has a flourishing and full, rich career. But there's some other kid out here who's done the same thing who can't even get a job, you know, stacking boxes at a big-box store.

TORRE: Right.

MARTIN: And so that to me is kind of the relevant question here, is that a lot of people are faced with choices they don't have anybody...

TORRE: Right.

MARTIN: ...To talk about it. And they make a choice that, you know, 20 years later, it looks like a weird choice. And that to me is the thing about this.

TORRE: Yeah, that stigma isn't evenly distributed. Definitely not.

MARTIN: No. Well, well said. Thank you, Pablo, you broke that down in Twitter length, and I should have come to you first.


TORRE: That's why they pay me the big bucks - Twitter length.

MARTIN: Exactly. If you're just joining us, we're having our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by journalist Corey Dade - he's in the hot seat today, the shopkeeper - Professor Arsalan Iftikhar, sportswriter Pablo Torre and TELL ME MORE editor Ammad Omar. Back to you, Corey

DADE: All right, thanks, Michel. So from one television show host to another - CBS announced that Stephen Colbert, Mr. Satire himself, will take over for David Letterman who's retiring next year. And Colbert stayed in character last night when he was talking about the succession on his Comedy Central show. Here's a clip.


STEPHEN COLBERT: Dave has been on the air my entire adult life. "Late Night" debuted my first year in college. I learned more from watching Dave than I did from going to my classes...


COLBERT: ...Especially...


COLBERT: ...Especially the ones I did not go to because I had stayed up until 1:30 watching Dave.


COLBERT: This man has influenced every host who came after him and even a few who came before him. He's that good. And I got to tell you, I do not envy whoever they try to put in that chair.

DADE: It is an unenviable position, until you get that first paycheck. But anyway, Ammad, is this a good pick?

OMAR: Well, last week we were talking about kind of who the options might be. And there wasn't a huge pool of people who would, you know, theoretically be ready for this kind of job. And I think, Michel, you mentioned Stephen Colbert is maybe your favorite. And just...

MARTIN: I don't think I took a position on it.

OMAR: Well, not necessarily your favorite...

MARTIN: It was on the list. I don't think I was voting.

OMAR: I'm saying in the Pablo-world, you know, the odds-makers favorite...


OMAR: ...That sort of thing. But, you know, I was talking about - a little bit about the numbers last year. And if you look at all those late-night hosts on cable and on mainstream TV, aside from Conan O'Brien, who's already had a crack at Jay Leno's old show, Colbert has the youngest median age of viewers.

DADE: That's right.

OMAR: It's about 42 years...

TORRE: Right.

OMAR: ...Old, compared to Letterman's 58 years old.

TORRE: He's in the 'demo,' as they say.

OMAR: He's in the 'demo.' And like we said last week, he's got the cultural sway. Him and Stewart do more so than a lot of these other talk show hosts. So it seems like kind of the obvious pick. The interesting thing to me was whether he's going to stay in character and do his shtick...

TORRE: Right.

OMAR: ...'Cause the few times he drops out, he says, my name is Stephen Colbert, and I play a character named Stephen Colbert on my show. And I guess he's come out and said he's not...

MARTIN: He's not.

OMAR: ...He's going to drop the shtick.

DADE: Yepp, that just it. I was just about to say, he has been, you know, this satirical, you know, alter ego as a conservative for years. And he breaks sort of a comedic rule, is you're supposed to stay in character for that moment, for that sketch, and he's brilliantly done it for years now. So, you know, the question that I have is, is the real Stephen Colbert going to be as funny as the satirical one?

OMAR: Yeah.

DADE: I will say that, you know, Rush Limbaugh said something - I can't believe I'm about to say this, but I will - he said something I actually agree with, that, you know, the choice of Colbert means that late-night TV comedy is no longer this covert assault on traditional American values. That's kind of what late-night television comedy has been all these years.

MARTIN: So what is it?

DADE: Now it's going to be a direct assault.


DADE: I mean, it's a direct assault. They have to - CBS is trying to compete with Jimmy Fallon. Jimmy Fallon and "The Tonight Show" has the strongest ratings in 20 years. So, you know, food for thought. But, Arsalan, tell me what you think, man. You were hoping Chris Rock or maybe Amy Poehler would get it. What do you think about this?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah, you know the lily-white male, you know, roster of late-night hosts, you know, stands pat. I'm not hating on the choice of Stephen Colbert. It's interesting because his name is Stephen Colbert (ph), and he says that...

DADE: That's right.

IFTIKHAR: ...He plays a character named Stephen Colbert.

PANEL MEMBER: Fair enough.

IFTIKHAR: So I'm interested to see how they're going to frame the branding of it. Are they going to call it, you know, "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (ph)"? But like you and Ammad said, I think it's going to be interesting to see how he makes his transition from an alter ego to, you know, sort of playing it straight as a regular late-night host.

You know, I think it would've been cool to get a person of color or a female, like Tina Fey or Chris Rock, in that I think it would've been a little too outside of the box for CBS, especially given David Letterman's legacy as well. But again, I think that it's a good choice, and I'm interested to see in how he does.

MARTIN: You know what I was curious about, though? You remember - it's interesting. He was recently in the news for a satirical act that he - sort of a bit that he did...


MARTIN: ...Really trying to call out Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington football team, because the name of that team is a term that a lot of people consider racist. And he had kind of a twist on that using some term that a lot of Asian-Americans consider racist by which another - an Asian-American blogger started this hashtag, you know, #CancelColbert. Now a lot of people thought, though, that's ridiculous because, you know, it's obviously a satire. But a lot of people still felt that they didn't want to hear those words.


MARTIN: And I'm just wondering how you navigate something like that.

TORRE: Yeah.

MARTIN: I don't know. Pablo, do you want to talk about that? How do you navigate something like that?

TORRE: Well, as someone of Asian-American descent, I mean, I thought that the joke was not problematic. I thought that the movement that was sprung up, the #CancelColbert movement, was trying to address some real systemic issues that were valid but itself was arguably more problematic than the joke in terms of the logical cohesion of what they were trying to say.

But to me, I mean, the point of Stephen Colbert, why I think he's amazing and a great choice for this is because he is subversive. You know, and I thought David Letterman, honestly, was quite subversive as well, the most subversive of late-night hosts. And that's beyond the entire premise Colbert's show. Look at what he did at the the White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2006.

DADE: Oh, yeah.

TORRE: When he, you know, eviscerated George Bush who was sitting next to him. I mean, I don't know how much...


PANEL MEMBER: And it was vicious. It was vicious.

TORRE: Exactly. Everybody. I don't know much he'll get into politics, but the fact that he has those tools, the ability to cut deep and go over some heads and really hit at the heart of issues, and he's been doing this on a nightly basis - I've been watching him, he's fantastic - I'm interested to see in how that toolbox gets applied because Jimmy Fallon has this niche, right? He's going to create viral videos. That's what he's really, really good at.


TORRE: Jimmy Kimmel is out in LA. Stephen Colbert might have this niche as being this guy who was - maybe contrary to Rush Limbaugh - actually still quite subversive.

MARTIN: Can I just briefly, Pablo, just ask you this? I just have to point out that RussellMania (ph) - RussellMania, sorry - WrestleMania held their 30th annual show last weekend. And The Ultimate Warrior passed away this week. And he is apparently one of a large number of wrestlers who have died untimely deaths. And it seems like this hasn't gotten as much attention as, you know, the football-related injuries or people who, you know - deaths that a lot of people think...

TORRE: Right.

MARTIN: ...Are related to football. And I just have to briefly ask you about this. I mean, is this starting to be, like, a thing?

TORRE: Yeah, I know. It's been a thing for a while. And, look, I'm not a wrestling fan, but I know plenty of diehard wrestling fans. And, look, wrestling - pro-wrestling is male soap opera. It's four dudes who really like to follow these storylines. And the issue...

OMAR: Junior high school male soap opera.

TORRE: The issue with WrestleMania and with wrestling cultures is it's a male soap opera that's clearly - you know, it's currently staged - spoiler alert - but it has real consequences. These guys are often like boxers. And we did see some penetration of this into the pop culture. The movie "The Wrestler" with Mickey Rourke sort of hinted at these things.

But it's very similar. There are the same issues of injury and drug abuse and struggling with getting out of the spotlight and how you adapt, how do you age, how do you get out of being this character? In some ways, it's the most acute version of being an athlete actually. Your identity is not simply being on the field, it's being an entirely different person. And struggling with that transition is incredibly difficult.

MARTIN: Corey, before we let you go, I understand you used to be a WWE fan.

DADE: I was. I used to...


DADE: Well, not WWE...


TORRE: No, no, no. WWF, dog.

DADE: ...WWF...

MARTIN: Sorry. I'm sorry.


IFTIKHAR: That's a copyright violation, gentlemen.

DADE: And the N.W.A. And I mean the rap group and the wrestling group - wrestling organization. But, you know, once I realized it was fake, I was done with it. I mean, it was over for me. It was - at that point, it was men in tights jumping around, and at that point, I was so over it. And I still am.

MARTIN: You're still over it.

DADE: I still am.

TORRE: How old were you, Corey, when you figured that out?

MARTIN: Oh, snap.

DADE: I was a kid still. I was still a kid.

IFTIKHAR: Like, 12 minutes ago.

DADE: Don't do that.

MARTIN: Oh, ouch.

DADE: Don't do that.


MARTIN: All right. Corey Dade is a contributing editor for The Root. He runs the political blog "The Take." Pablo Torre is a senior writer for ESPN. Ammad Omar is an editor with TELL ME MORE. And Arsalan Iftikhar is founder of TheMuslimGuy.com and an adjunct professor of religious studies at DePaul University. Thank you all so much.

OMAR: Thank you.

IFTIKHAR: Thank you.

TORRE: Peace.

DADE: Yes, sir.

MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our Barbershop podcast. That's in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Join us for more talk on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.