By canceling ‘Melissa Harris-Perry,’ MSNBC continues legacy of conformist programming
Last week, I spent a few minutes trying to explain the concept of media hegemony to my international media class.
The question came up about two-and-half hours into our three-and-a-half hour seminar, and, fatigued from a day of student meetings and class discussions, I couldn't find a concrete example of how media elites subtly maintain power over the production and dissemination of news.
This week, I’ll simply ask them to review the weekend lineups of political analysis programming, point to the void created by the absence of MSNBC’s "The Melissa Harris-Perry Show" and ask them to explain the concept to me.
Over the weekend, Harris-Perry, an author and professor of political science at Wake Forest University, sent staffers a message that served as part elegy and part manifesto as she clarified her noticeable absence from her four-year-old show. She’d been missing from the desk for about two weeks, even as she used its website and social media accounts to present point-of-view election coverage from the road.
Jamil Smith, a former producer for "The Melissa Harris-Perry Show" who now works as senior political correspondent for MTV news, posted Harris-Perry’s message to her staff on Medium, the open blogging platform, which included this excerpt:
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.
"The Melissa Harris-Perry Show" distinguished itself dismantling conformist approaches to political punditry through a multi-platform strategy of engaging audiences in dynamic conversations. Drawing on news, history and current events, the show offered analysis through a lens that considered multiple perspectives and diverse sources of expertise.
Guests of "The Melissa Harris-Perry Show" and its topics provided a glimpse of what an intersectional approach to reporting might look like, bravely pushing back on the unspoken convention that “all the men are Black, all the women are white.” Affectionately dubbed #Nerdland, the show broke out of lockstep with the enduring values of news that tend to treat intellectual capital as Bitcoin traded solely by elites in academic, media and political domains. It ushered in the perspective offered by elevating shared and individual lived experiences, offering a take on policy and culture that reflects the way most people decide their personal politics — through firsthand experience.
“There certainly is a void onscreen and online for these kinds of conversations and how they coalesce. How they start, how they grow and how they inform people,” said Sherri Williams, a postdoctoral fellow at Harris-Perry’s Anna Julia Cooper Center whose focus is social television viewing.
“What I think was unique about the MHP Show is that she brought people who weren’t typical Sunday-morning political show watchers to the screen. And not just one screen, she brought them two to - TV and social media. They took that second step. They engaged with her, with viewers and with experts via social media,” Williams said.
And perhaps that’s what we’ll miss most about the "The Melissa Harris-Perry Show" — the effort it put into connecting with diverse audiences through a multi-platform strategy that included a weekly “syllabus,” social-media conversations and source selection that reflected an inclusive approach to news and views from individuals often simultaneously(!) identified as people of color, women, LGBTQ and more.
The show kept pace with the new information democracy created by a 24-hour news cycle and shaped through citizen contributions via digital and social media. It broke the decades-old model of political punditry by calling on guests with lived expertise, not just research acumen.
What it could not bear, however, was the persistent industry neglect of groundbreaking news shows presented by Black women in America.
In the 1990s, PBS failed to secure national distribution for Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s human-rights series, “Rights & Wrongs.” Soledad O’Brien, the CNN anchor who produced multiple complex documentaries on race and ethnic identity in America, walked away from CNN in 2013. When NPR downsized its coverage in 2014, Michel Martin’s “Tell Me More” was silenced, along with voices from the block and the barbershop. It should be noted that Martin has brought her signature style back to NPR as the weekend host of "All Things Considered."
Each limited offering and its subsequent cancellation contributes to a media culture that continues to devalue the work of women of color and the experiences they bring to homes through television and radio. These cancellations, "The Melissa Harris-Perry Show" show among them, are a case study in media hegemony.
While Harris-Perry declined to directly say whether race (or gender) played a factor in the standoff about the show, she didn’t rule out the impact of -isms in a statement issued Monday evening by NABJ.
And admittedly, the issue could very well be driven by economics, as MSNBC struggles to recover ad revenues and stanch years of audience decline, a tacit claim that underscores the cancellation of shows hosted by Joy-Ann Reid, Ronan Farrow and — as of Monday afternoon — Alex Wagner. The network's numbers dropped 8 percent to 568,000 primetime viewers between 2014 and 2015, nearly half of Fox New’s primetime viewership of 1.1 million.
Were it another show that went dark on Saturday, we might expect to see Dr. Harris-Perry perched behind her desk, armed with facts, reports and commentary that would interrogate the network's editorial choices and their impact on audiences who otherwise would not tune in to watch talking heads before Sunday brunch.
But there’s no new syllabus this weekend. No gathering of an organic massive open online course that had the power to bring together activists and academics and deliver intersectional insights on the issues of environmental racism in Flint, Michigan, or analysis of the implications of having a real-estate tycoon turned reality-TV washout emerge as the nation’s leading contender for the GOP presidential nomination.
With the loss of "The Melissa Harris-Perry Show," MSNBC has failed a meaningful lesson in audience studies. The network has abandoned a show that engaged a segment of viewers who have few alternatives for commentary on domestic and international problems that mattered to them.
It’s a sad epilogue that the intellectual freedom and integrity Harris-Perry enjoys as a professor was stripped from her platform as a television host.
I can only hope that my students, tomorrow’s media producers, will take this lesson to heart and go on to develop similarly dynamic programming.
But for now, class is dismissed.
Correction: A previous story stated Michel Martin was the host of "Weekend edition." She is the weekend host of "All Things Considered."