What We Lose If We Lose Melissa Harris-Perry
We may have seen the final episode of Melissa Harris-Perry's unique weekend morning MSNBC show, one of cable news' most diverse and important editorial programs.
On February 26, The New York Times reported that Harris-Perry had refused to go on her show this weekend “following several weeks of pre-emptions and what she described as a loss of editorial control.” The report described how Harris-Perry had become frustrated with MSNBC's pressure to spend more time covering the 2016 election.
In a letter to her staff published on Medium by a former staffer, Harris-Perry described her reasons for deciding not to host the show (emphasis added):
Here is the reality: our show was taken - without comment or discussion or notice - in the midst of an election season. After four years of building an audience, developing a brand, and developing trust with our viewers, we were effectively and utterly silenced. Now, MSNBC would like me to appear for four inconsequential hours to read news that they deem relevant without returning to our team any of the editorial control and authority that makes MHP Show distinctive.
While MSNBC may believe that I am worthless, I know better. I know who I am. I know why MHP Show is unique and valuable. I will not sell short myself or this show. I am not hungry for empty airtime. I care only about substantive, meaningful, and autonomous work. When we can do that, I will return - not a moment earlier. I am deeply sorry for the ways that this decision makes life harder for all of you. You mean more to me than you can imagine.
In response to the letter, NBC explained its pre-emptions, stating: “In this exciting and unpredictable presidential primary season, many of our daytime programs have been temporarily upended by breaking political coverage, including M.H.P. This reaction is really surprising, confusing and disappointing.” It's unclear how MSNBC will resolve the dispute, but some sources believe the controversy spells the end of Harris-Perry's show.
With the show's future uncertain, it's worth pausing to acknowledge how devastating it would be to lose Melissa Harris-Perry.
In a cable news environment that too often seems geared to the lowest common denominator, MHP has always offered something different. While other programs fixated on flavor-of-the-week political controversies and breaking news, MHP was proudly, unwaveringly, a show for nerds -- centering on stories and discussions typically passed over by the breakneck pace of the 24-hour news cycle. Harris-Perry, a professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University, asked her audience to think bigger, to connect seemingly trivial news alerts to broader discussions about identity, history, representation, and power.
When the Supreme Court voted to legalize same-sex marriage in June, she wondered if the decision might threaten the queer political movement's resistance to tradition.
When Bill Cosby was accused of sexually assaulting dozens of women, she challenged the possibility of finding a “perfect victim” in sexual violence stories.
During the media firestorm surrounding the killing of Cecil the lion, Harris-Perry tied the story to a broader discussion of the history of colonial subjugation in Africa, and the subordination of black bodies in general.
In the wake of the shooting in a black church in Charleston, she asked if focusing on the Confederate flag as a symbol might distract from material challenges to racist policies that impact black people in the South.
At the height of the media spectacle around Black Lives Matter protests in Baltimore, she dedicated an entire segment to breaking down the history of the incarceration of black males in America, highlighting the “intersection between race and criminality.”
These were not the discussions of a typical cable news show.
Termed "America's foremost public intellectual" by The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, Harris-Perry challenged her guests and her audience to think critically about what makes news stories meaningful in the first place.
MHP has also been a welcome break from the persistent whiteness of cable news media. As the only African American woman hosting an editorial cable news show, Harris-Perry offered a direly needed alternative perspective. Her ability to talk about her own experience with race and identity was a huge part of what made the discussions on her show so significant and rare.
MHP's panels consistently featured the most diverse lineup of guests of any of the Sunday morning news show. Her show was unique not only because it featured far more women and people of color than the typical program, but because it gave a platform to people who weren't traditional powerbrokers, people who weren't interested in repeating sound bite talking points about current events.
The power and influence of Harris-Perry's voice is matched only by the space she created to elevate the voices of those who most needed to be heard. Nowhere is this more evident than in her treatment of the transgender community. Harris-Perry has hosted some of the most compassionate and informative segments on the fight for transgender equality on cable news, challenging her audiences to look beyond the issue of same-sex marriage, regularly hosting transgender guests and sharing their stories. Last August, she invited prominent transgender activist Janet Mock to guest host her show, resulting in one of the most significant news segments on violence against transgender women that's ever been aired on national television.
Melissa Harris-Perry worked for years to create the gold standard for what editorial cable news shows should look like.
Every week, MHP asked its viewers to stop, breathe, and be thoughtful. Without MHP, nerds will have lost a key respite from the trending news alerts, commentator screaming matches, and sensationalistic coverage that typically saturate cable news coverage.
It's possible that this rift between Harris-Perry and MSNBC will be temporary -- that the network will once again create space for her thoughtful weekend programming once the spectacle of the presidential election dies down.
It's also possible that Harris-Perry chooses to walk away permanently if she no longer believes she can do “substantive, meaningful, and autonomous work.” If that happens, we nerds will lose what has been a rare bright spot in an ocean of cable news noise.
And that's something worth mourning.
On February 28, CNN senior media correspondent Brian Stelter reported “an MSNBC spokesman confirmed that the channel is 'parting ways' with” Harris-Perry.