By giving up her MSNBC show and refusing to take the cable net’s money to stay quiet about it, Melissa Harris-Perry delivered what many of us have missed on the ostensibly progressive channel: media criticism that exposes how corporations limit speech. In their own very different ways, that’s what Trump does by self-funding and Bernie does by relying on small donations rather than Wall Street largesse. Harris-Perry’s departure from MSNBC, her TV home for four years, spurred not only #MSNBCSoWhite, but also #FreedomOverMoney.
The dizzying sequence of events over at “The Place for Politics” last week went roughly like this:
For a couple of weeks in a row, Harris-Perry’s two-hour Saturday and Sunday show was preempted for election coverage “without comment or discussion or notice,” she says. Harris-Perry (a Nation contributing editor) made public an email she wrote to her #nerdland staff, explaining that she refused to later go back on air and pretend nothing had happened. “I told my team, we can’t allow our own show to go off air and then provide racial cover by having me continue to host the show so people see the little black girl up there,” she said to CNN’s Dylan Byers.
That sort of talk was too much for MSNBC. It canceled her show, and offered to buy out the remainder of her contract as long as she honored its non-disparagement clause. She refused.
Like, who doesn’t take the money? Apparently, even Keith Olbermann signed a nondisclosure agreement as part of his severance when, in 2011, he was booted from the network he shaped into a left-leaning anti-Fox. Such agreements, as Seneca Doane wrote back then in Daily Kos, highlight “the larger problem of the silencing of progressive voices in the mass media.”
If there’s anything progressives—or a democracy—must be able to talk about freely, it’s how consensus is formed, how the sausage of the dominant wisdom is made.
“They wanted us to cover politics in the narrowest sense,” Harris-Perry said. “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,” she wrote in the email.
Instead of obsessing over the political horse race, her show tended to the stables—examining up close the racial, gender, and language issues underlying politics.
MSNBC maintains that it’s still committed to the sort of “thoughtful and probing” approach Harris-Perry took. “That’s why MSNBC gave her a platform,” a network insider told me. “And she would have continued to enjoy that platform, but she just blew herself up.” And the suits say none of this had to happen, that all shows are subject to being preempted for election coverage, and besides, most daytime and weekend shows have already lost their individual on-air branding to come under “The Place for Politics” umbrella. In fact, they’re not so much “shows” in the old sense as they are part of ongoing, streaming team coverage.
In the process, MSNBC has itself become less distinctive: Now it’s less the anti-Fox than, along with CNN, the not-Fox, a numbing onslaught of polls and predictions, and a ceaseless punditry almost as annoying as its pseudo-regal election-time bumper music (something, to their credit, Fox and CNN don’t indulge in nearly as much). I’ve come to think of that brassy little number as Trump’s theme song, since it frequently introduces Il Ducerino’s rallies, which cut into MSNBC’s programming like civil alerts (which in a way they are).
We still get great analysis and reporting in prime time from Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, and Lawrence O’Donnell. MSNBC, and everyone, cites Maddow’s reporting on the poisoning of Flint as what journalism is all about. But the trio’s daily three hours equals the three for the increasingly angry and rightward tilting Morning Joe. (The possibility of MJ going to four hours is still being “explored.”)
The overall narrowing of how politics is presented has also amounted to a whitening. I don’t think it’s racist, or deliberate, and neither exactly does Harris-Perry. Still, she believes “that the decision to cancel her show ‘has strong racial implications’ because it silenced a show that promoted diverse perspectives,” writes Byers. It’s hard to miss: Where once many shows were hosted by people of color, it’s now down to two, Tamron Hall and Jose Diaz-Balart (three-ish, if you count the Reverend Al Sharpton’s one hour on Sunday). Plans for Alex Wagner, who is Asian American, to take over the weekend “Up,” have been scrapped. And for most of last month, Diaz-Balart was missing from his two-hour, daily morning show.
“It’s very hard to justify why you’d sideline someone like Jose, when you have the Florida primary coming up and two Republican contenders who are Cuban Americans,” Felix Sanchez, chair of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, said of Diaz-Balart, who does double-duty for Telemundo and is based in Miami.
But, possibly because of pressure, Diaz-Balart has been back on the last two days, and I’m told he will continue anchoring from Florida through its primary. Some of the same groups that protested Saturday Night Live handing Trump a coveted hosting spot last fall are pushing on this, and on Wednesday Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois), citing Harris-Perry, Wagner, and Diaz-Balart, spoke on the House floor next to a picture of NBC’s multicolored peacock logo to launch #NBCSoWhite.
“I just see NBC as being bipolar and shooting itself in the foot on a regular basis,” Sanchez says. “On one hand, they want to be positioned as the most diverse channel, but in reality, there doesn’t appear to be a very strong commitment to it.”
Diversity, the network insider said, “is essential to MSNBC, it’s part of who we are.” But by ending the liberal-talk show habit in daytime, and aggressively blending the MSNBC and NBC sensibilities—personified in Rachel Maddow and Brian Williams amicably but awkwardly anchoring election updates—MSNBC has enjoyed improved ratings. Presidential election years usually raise all boats on every cable news channel, but MSNBC daytime has seen especially large growth, 166 percent in the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. period over a year ago. (Numbers for the 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. period are climbing more slowly, with Chuck Todd’s MTP replacing Ed Schultz’s show, and the ultimate politico insiders Mark Halperin and John Heilemann taking over from Sharpton.)
But ratings and thus ad revenue trump everything else, just as Trump does. The following quote doesn’t come from NBC, MSNBC, or from the Onion, but from CBS chief executive Les Moonves. The presidential race, he said, “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
“Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now?… The money’s rolling in and this is fun,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Like I said: Who doesn’t take the money? Harris-Perry, I guess. Whatever she says about MSNBC or cable news in the future is going to be worth tuning into.