Vieira Hits Jackson With 'Hymietown,' Lauer Softpedals With Sharpton

How big was the Imus story on this morning's "Today"? The show devoted the entire first half-hour and half of the second to it. Both Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira seemed uncomfortable, struggling to sound the right note. But while Vieira had the gumption to confront Jesse Jackson with his own record of having made a bigoted statement, Lauer tiptoed to the edge and backed off when confronting Al Sharpton about his racially-charged past.

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In the first half-hour, "Today" simulcast its show with "Imus in the Morning," and had both Imus and Sharpton as guests. Here's how Lauer's brinksmanship, which came at 7:13 AM EDT, went down:

MATT LAUER: You've also been around a long time, and you have also by the way been the subject of controversy and criticism over the years from various groups. You're also a minister, and in that role preach the teachings of the Bible. One of the teachings of the Bible is forgiveness. How does forgiveness apply to Don Imus?

AL SHARPTON: I think that forgiveness is in order. I think that if he meets with those young ladies and they want to forgive him, that is their moral choice to do, and maybe the right thing to do. A man stabbed me, for leading a march that he disagreed with, a man of another race. I went to jail and met with him and said I forgave him. I didn't say he shouldn't do time for what he did.

Nice jujitsu. Sharpton managed to turn Lauer's allusion to the Reverend Al's own history of making racially-charged statements into a moment of self-congratulation for his forgiveness of another. Sharpton couldn't have slid by so smoothly had Lauer raised Sharpton's controversial past more explicitly.

In the second half-hour, Jesse Jackson was one of four guests [including Imus friend James Carville who said he'd go back on the show]. Meredith Vieira showed some gumption in raising, albeit apologetically, Jackson's past.

MEREDITH VIEIRA: But people do say stupid things some times. And Reverend Jackson, I apologize, but some of your critics reminded me of 1984, and I remember it as well. You were running for president, and you referred to New York City as as "Hymietown." And you were raked over the coals for that. A lot of people said you were anti-Semitic, John Lennon [?]. And it took you seven days to apologize, and then you begged for forgiveness. So what's the difference between that and this?

JESSE JACKSON: Well, if it's repetitious and if it's a pattern, that is one question but the broader context here I must say is Shaquanda Cotton being sent to jail for seven years for pushing a hall monitor. We come out of March Madness, with all the blacks on the basketball court. UCLA had 132 [black?] freshmen admitted last year. And the Final Four, 26,000 freshmen in those four schools, 2,000 were black. Last year, more black men in jail than college in every state. That's a context. In some sense this spark hits a dry field.

This is jujitsu on steroids. Without even devoting a full sentence to "Hymietown," Jackson was off and running on other matters, claiming to put things in "context." In what sense are black incarceration and college admission rates a "context" for his anti-Semitic remark?

Jackson was back at the end of segment, asking whether the Imus situation had set a new standard for NBC and MSNBC. It is a measure of just how charged the entire subject matter is that Meredith Vieira paused over three seconds, an eternity on TV, before thanking her guests and, her voice seemingly choking, sending it over to [a very subdued] Al Roker for the weather.

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