Political reporters have spent a lot of time this campaign cycle crafting delicate ways to explain the voting behavior and candidate preferences of an electorate that seems angry, economically frustrated and convinced that the country’s changing demographics and social mores are somehow to blame.
Some of the reporters covering these voters share the same anxieties. The sense among some journalists that they too are living and working in an increasingly unstable, topsy-turvy, mystifyingly diverse world is not exactly a secret. Some media companies outperform others in efforts to to diversify their staffs. But, to allow that staff diversity — at whatever level it exists — to truly shift internal priorities, set agendas and shepherd resources? Well, that would be something else entirely. And, as such, it remains rare.
It could, until this week, generally be found on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show, an MSNBC news and public affairs program that has aired on the network since 2012 with its eponymous host. The show has generally brought to the cable network’s 10 a.m. to noon Saturday and Sunday time slots a diverse array of academics, journalists, activists and others who hail from, write about or live in our rapidly transforming country rarely included or represented on other weekend political shows. They often sit at points up and down the age register and across the race, ethnicity and gender spectrums. But they typically come to discuss a variety of events and developments in the news. Sometimes, this is the news that is everywhere; sometimes, it is the news largely ignored elsewhere.
And as of Friday, it seems there has been a bit of a problem. Harris-Perry, a political scientist at Wake Forest University, asked a former staffer to publish an email she sent to her current show team explaining why she would not be on the air this weekend. Then, she told the the New York Times that, at least for now, she will not appear on the show.
Here are some of the critical bits of Harris-Perry’s email. (And a note that “nerds” is a term Harris-Perry often uses affectionately on air in reference to her audience and staff.)
As you know by now, my name appears on the weekend schedule for MSNBC programming from South Carolina this Saturday and Sunday. I appreciate that many of you responded to this development with relief and enthusiasm. To know that you have missed working with me even a fraction of how much I’ve missed working with all of you is deeply moving. However, as of this morning, I do not have any intention of hosting this weekend. Because this is a decision that affects all of you, I wanted to take a moment to explain my reasoning.
Some unknown decision-maker, presumably Andy Lack or Phil Griffin, has added my name to this spreadsheet, but nothing has changed in the posture of the MSNBC leadership team toward me or toward our show. Putting me on air seems to be a decision being made solely to save face because there is a growing chorus of questions from our viewers about my notable absence from MSNBC coverage. Social media has noted the dramatic change in editorial tone and racial composition of MSNBC’s on-air coverage. In addition, Dylan Byers of CNN has made repeated inquiries with MSNBC’s leadership and with me about the show and what appears to be its cancellation. I have not responded to reporters or social media inquiries. However, I am not willing to appear on air in order to quell concerns about the disappearance of our show and our voice.
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 purpose of this decision seems to be to provide cover for MSNBC, not to provide voice for MHP Show. I will not be used as a tool for their purposes. 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. I have wept more tears than I can count and I find this deeply painful, but I don’t want back on air at any cost. I am only willing to return when that return happens under certain terms.
You can read her entire email here.
Perry told the New York Times that she is unsure about the network’s future plans for her show. The show has been preempted for at least two weeks and Harris-Perry says she was told to dedicate the bulk of a Super Bowl Sunday show to the election. MSNBC has struggled with its ratings, and company officials have talked openly about making changes to move the network away from its reputation as a home for liberal commentary rather than straight or breaking news. So, whatever is going on might be related.
When The Fix reached out to MSNBC, the network’s answers amounted to the polar opposite of Harris-Perry’s claims.
The show was not and is not slated for cancellation, Mark Kornblau, an MSNBC senior vice president of media relations, told The Fix. And then he clarified a few other things. There has been no awkward or cultivated silence between Harris-Perry and the network’s leaders. Harris-Perry has a full-time job in academia, and he was not personally aware that Harris-Perry was available or discussed with the network her availability to participate in caucus and primary coverage. And Harris-Perry’s show is one of several that, since early presidential voting began, have been preempted by breaking political news coverage. Harris-Perry’s show has not been taken over or singled out. Close coverage of politics is consistent with MSNBC’s “brand” and what “viewers expect,” Kornblau said.
There are a lot of details still developing here. Harris-Perry did not, indeed, appear on MSNBC during her show’s time slot Saturday. Fans of the show and, no doubt, the staff would very much like to know more about its future.
This much is clear: A program that has broken the staid mold for weekend political shows is not on the air with its intended host and architect. That the status of a show on which guests and content have provided context and rare insight into a changing nation passes strange. Finally, that the show has been relegated to the realm of the non-essential during a presidential election in which who and what matters in the United States seem to be central questions, well, that just seems fundamentally unwise.
South Carolina voters are heading to the polls — even as this blog post went up — in a Democratic primary in which issues that matter to black Americans have been front and center in a way that hasn’t been seen in recent history. The fact that the MSNBC show most devoted to such issues effectively went on hiatus the same day is really a sad coincidence.