• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Subscribe
  • RSS

Melissa Harris-Perry Doesn’t Understand TV

melissa-harris-perry-msnbc

Melissa Harris-Perry, a Wake Forest political science professor who hosts an eponymous weekend show on MSNBC, is angry that the network wants her to talk about the presidential race.

In an unusually public flare-up, one of MSNBC’s television personalities clashed with the network on Friday in a dispute about airtime and editorial freedom and said she was refusing to host the show that bears her name this weekend.

The host, Melissa Harris-Perry, wrote in an email to co-workers this week that her show had effectively been taken away from her and that she felt “worthless” in the eyes of NBC News executives, who are restructuring MSNBC.

“Here is the reality: Our show was taken — without comment or discussion or notice — in the midst of an election season,” she wrote in the email, which became public on Friday. “After four years of building an audience, developing a brand and developing trust with our viewers, we were effectively and utterly silenced.”

In a phone interview, Ms. Harris-Perry confirmed she would not appear on the show this weekend. She said she had received no word about whether her show, which runs from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays and Sundays, had been canceled, but said she was frustrated that her time slot had faced pre-emptions for coverage of the presidential election. She said she had not appeared on the network at all “for weeks” and that she was mostly sidelined during recent election coverage in South Carolina and New Hampshire. (She was asked to return this weekend.)

In her email, Ms. Harris-Perry wrote that she was not sure if the NBC News chairman, Andrew Lack, or Phil Griffin, the MSNBC president, were involved in the way her show was handled recently, but she directed blame toward both.

“I will not be used as a tool for their purposes,” she wrote. “I am not a token, mammy or little brown bobble head. I am not owned by Lack, Griffin or MSNBC. I love our show. I want it back.”

Implying that she is being marginalized because she’s black is serious stuff, which she has walked back somewhat. The network’s rationale seems obvious to me.

For MSNBC, this is unwelcome news during a heated election. Last year, after its scandal involving Brian Williams, Mr. Lack, the former head of NBC News, was brought back to run the news division, and one of his chief missions was to fix the ailing MSNBC, which significantly trails Fox News and CNN in viewership. In the last few months, Mr. Lack has steered MSNBC away from its liberal identity and moved it toward harder news in the daytime hours. Since January, the network has had round-the-clock election coverage (including the reintroduction of Mr. Williams as co-anchor on primary nights), and notched strong ratings gains year-over-year in the mornings and afternoon.

Ms. Harris-Perry, who is also a professor at Wake Forest University, has hosted her MSNBC show since 2012. She has used the show to explore issues like social justice and racism, and diversity has been the centerpiece of the show since its start.

“I care only about substantive, meaningful and autonomous work,” she wrote in her email. “When we can do that, I will return — not a moment earlier.”

She said that last month the onscreen branding for her show was replaced by MSNBC’s slogan, “The Place for Politics.” With the election heating up, her show was pre-empted each of the last two weeks and for the most recent edition, on Super Bowl Sunday, she was told to talk mostly about the presidential race.

She still did speak about other topics, including Beyoncé’s new video for her song “Formation” and how it addressed race. But perhaps in a sign of the network’s shifting priorities, as she and her guests engaged in a lengthy discussion about the video, live video of rallies for Jeb Bush and Chris Christie in New Hampshire played in a box on the screen as well.

Ms. Harris-Perry, who is under contract, said that she was told that pre-emptions and election coverage were going to play out for the “foreseeable future.” Joy Reid will take over her time slot on Saturday, just as she has for the last couple of weeks.

Ms. Harris-Perry said not being able to talk to her viewers felt like a “betrayal.”

I’ve only seen her show once or twice and only because Dan Drezner was on. It’s apparently aimed at politics nerds, a niche I fit into. But the bottom line is that MSNBC has always struggled for an identity and has never been able to leverage the seemingly huge advantage of NBC’s news team to be more competitive in the cable news industry.

Perry was hired under a different regime which had a very different branding scheme. The notion that it is a “betrayal” for her new bosses to preempt a marginally popular show to cover the presidential campaign—always the bread and butter of cable news programming—or that she is entitled to “autonomy” in what she talks about on their air is laughable. MSNBC isn’t her classroom and she’s not entitled to academic freedom on their time. When Fox and CNN are covering the political horse race during probably the most contentious and surprising presidential contest in my lifetime, all but her most dedicated viewers are going to be changing channels when she’s talking about the sociological implications of Beyoncé videos.

I’m more than a little sympathetic to Perry’s desire for smarter discourse on cable news. There’s only so much that one can say about the political horse race. Bringing in more scholars with substantive knowledge and more voices that aren’t coming from white, Ivy League graduates is a huge plus. But television is a bottom-line business and she has to deliver viewership. If she were winning her time slot, you’d better believe MSNBC would be using her more, not less.

Related Posts:

About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. MBunge says:

    I’ve long been amazed at the series of idiots that have run MSNBC but this seems like the current idiots are simply trying to fix a problem created by the previous idiots.

    Reading that email, it appears that MHP was a part-time employee who was simply handed four hours of air time on the weekend and allowed to do whatever she wanted with it. That email implies she had little to no direction or even communication with MSNBC brass as to what she was doing and that’s how MHP liked it.

    Then a new group of idiots took over and wanted a more focused and directed product on screen. Either they broached the subject with MHP and didn’t like her reaction or, more likely, they thought a low-rated, part-time employee wasn’t worth the trouble and decided to work around her.

    However badly MSNBC handled this, for MHP to reflexively drag race into this and to go public while still technically an MSNBC employee makes her look just as stupid.

    Mike

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  2. Delaware Jack says:

    Be gone and stay gone you massive racist …. and hater and despiser of everyone not black ……. You are and always have been …… a repugnant cesspool of evil prejudice and bigotry ,,,,,,,

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 22

  3. john430 says:

    Dear Ms. MHP: Please note that the definition of “employee” is not the same as the definition of “boss”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  4. stonetools says:

    While I like MHP, in the end it’s about ratings. That ain’t never going to change. She can protest if she wants, and I hope she works things out with MSNBC. But I don’t see her winning this one.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  5. “I care only about substantive, meaningful and autonomous work,” she wrote in her email. “When we can do that, I will return — not a moment earlier.”

    This is the professor in her talking. Further, in reading her bio she apparently left a tenured gig at Princeton because she didn’t make full professor, so leaving something because she didn’t like the way a situation played out, even a really good situation, is not new (and, I would note, she seems to have nonetheless had things work out pretty darn well). Indeed, she is exceedingly successful and therefore doesn’t need the MSNBC gig.

    So, while I do agree wholeheartedly with James that what else is cable news going to want to program right now other than election coverage, I suspect that she fully understands that and is simply engaging in a power play over her preferences because she can afford to lose MSNBC.

    Having said that, the conflict strikes me as silly and certainly didn’t need to unfold like this. It does make her look petty.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  6. Tyrell says:

    She is in the wrong place if she expects to do any of that “substantive, meaningful work” at MSNBC. A better place for that might be PBS.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Agreed all around. Perry is certainly a more successful political scientist than I am and can take or leave this gig. Still, even a low-rated morning show on MSNBC is a helluva platform. I applaud her for wanting to push the envelope on the limits of punditry—in much the same way Larry Wilmore is doing with the late night comedy format—but there’s only so far one can stray from the script during the height of campaign season.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  8. Ratufa says:

    A politically-oriented media outlet has a two hour period on Saturday and Sunday mornings where they are not talking about Donald Trump? Disgraceful!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  9. Anonne says:

    @Ratufa:

    This. The all-Trump-all-the-time shtick has been such a headache. It’s like a mantra now. At what point do we actually educate the electorate?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  10. DrDaveT says:

    The notion that it is a “betrayal” for her new bosses to preempt a marginally popular show to cover the presidential campaign—always the bread and butter of cable news programming—or that she is entitled to “autonomy” in what she talks about on their air is laughable.

    Why is it that all of you allegedly pro-free-market Republican types seem to believe that only one party in a contract is allowed to negotiate?

    MSNBC gave her a show, and told her she could do what she wanted. After a while, they came back and said they’d changed their minds, and that she should do what they want instead. She is currently telling them to go pound sand.

    The ball’s back in MSNBC’s court, to decide whether they would rather retain Ms. Harris-Perry’s services (and back down on their demands), or show her the door and put in someone who will do what they want. They will make that decision based on which course they think will make more money.

    This is how contract negotiations work in the world of free agent talent. The fact that the talent in question is a TV host rather than (say) a baseball player or movie star is irrelevant. There is no moral high ground here, no right or wrong side, except to the extent that one side or the other may have violated a verbal contract. The innuendo that Ms. Harris-Perry is clearly just being (for lack of a better word) uppity only serves to give credence to her rhetoric.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  11. MBunge says:

    @DrDaveT:

    MHP is the one classifying this as a betrayal, demanding autonomy and throwing an accusation of racial bias into the mix. Try that with your boss at your next evaluation or your next request for a raise. Let us know how he or she responds to your idea of negotiating.

    Mike

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  12. dazedandconfused says:

    FWIW, if one of the cable “news” channels showed anything besides the horse race I might actually watch one again. They lost me as a viewer entirely. For the past few months it’s been “surf through” only territory on the tube, takes one or two seconds tops see it’s political gossip and I’m gone, searching for news somewhere else. Been months that since I’ve caught anything else from all three.

    Twenty four hour “news” on one and only one subject is an oxymoron. For me, also unwatchable. I would suggest they may be making a mistake of mindless competition for one narrow demographic, but it’s their business.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  13. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: I’m not arguing against her right to negotiate, I’m responding to her public stance on the negotiation. If she’s not interested in doing the show under MSNBC’s model, she can quit. She can also demand that they let her do the show her own way or fire her. But to claim that what they’re doing is racist or “a betrayal” is simply absurd.

    @dazedandconfused: I’m with you. The Internet has made television talk shows unwatchable to me. That’s true not only of news but sports. I don’t have the patience to sit around for an hour hoping they’re going to talk about something that interests me now that I can sift through a couple hundred stories during that time.

    Perry didn’t captivate me with her persona the couple times I tuned in but the basic concept of the show is one I could get behind. But we’re almost certainly not sufficiently large a demo to build a show around.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  14. bill says:

    more likely, who would even notice let alone care what she does/doesn’t do?!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. An Interested Party says:

    more likely, who would even notice let alone care what she does/doesn’t do?!

    Perhaps your alleged black girlfriend…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. DrDaveT says:

    @MBunge:

    MHP is the one classifying this as a betrayal, demanding autonomy and throwing an accusation of racial bias into the mix.

    To quote John Larroquette’s character from Night Court, “What’s your point?” Why is this somehow qualitatively different from other negotiating postures where public opinion might be relevant?

    Try that with your boss at your next evaluation or your next request for a raise.

    If I were a talent with sufficient perceived market appeal that networks were offering me shows where I could do what I want, I might do just that (or equivalent). You missed the “free agent” part of my comment.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  17. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’m not arguing against her right to negotiate

    No, you’re just trying to limit how she negotiates. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to listen to you.

    I’m responding to her public stance on the negotiation. If she’s not interested in doing the show under MSNBC’s model, she can quit.

    That is, essentially, what she is threatening to do.

    She can also demand that they let her do the show her own way or fire her.

    That too. So far, you are endorsing her strategy in every detail.

    But to claim that what they’re doing is racist or “a betrayal” is simply absurd.

    No, it is simply negotiation when public opinion matters. If portraying MSNBC’s actions as being influenced by her race helps her prevail in the negotiation, there is nothing ‘absurd’ about it. If portraying MSNBC’s threatened actions as a breach of contract (verbal or otherwise) makes MSNBC more likely to compromise or cave, then there’s nothing ‘absurd’ about it. Public opinion can certainly affect MSNBC’s decision here. That makes efforts to sway public opinion a logical part of the negotiation strategy.

    She might even be right, in either or both cases, but that’s not really the point here.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0