This weekend, a show that mattered to its audience as few programs on the vanilla ice-milk buffet that passes for news do, The Melissa Harris-Perry Show on MSNBC, was canceled, and it’s a tragic as well as angering turn of events. “Ties were severed,” as an MSNBC executive put it, after Melissa, who I am proud to count as a colleague, sent an email to her staff explaining why she would not be hosting her show this past weekend after several weeks of having the program pre-empted for election coverage. The “scorching” email, now public, is being cherry-picked in articles, particularly the part where Melissa wrote, “I will not be used as a tool for their purposes. I am not a token, mammy, or little brown bobble head.”
I want to encourage people to read it in its entirety, because that one section does not do justice to what she is trying to communicate. The part that stands out to me is when she writes,
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.
Instead of responding to these concerns, network executives chose to simply kill the show, citing the email as “destructive to our relationship.” A nameless exec, speaking to The Washington Post, called her a “challenging and unpredictable personality.” It is certainly true that Melissa fought for her vision of what she wanted the show to be, but it is difficult to imagine that a white, male host would be attacked so personally and called “challenging and unpredictable” for exhibiting similar behavior. It also speaks volumes that such adjectives—“challenging,” “unpredictable”—would be seen as insults in the modern news media world, instead of high praise.
I suppose “challenging and unpredictable” mean decisions like the one she made for what we now know was her final show: a show based around the treatment of homeless people in San Francisco during Super Bowl week and the impact of Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, instead of ever more election analysis with campaign spinmeisters. MHP was the only show to discuss what the possible ramifications could be for Beyoncé if she performed the incendiary song later that day at Super Bowl halftime. It, of course, has caused a firestorm that has yet to die down. Melissa saw it coming. That, in a nutshell, was what made the show so distinctive. Because it discussed issues that other shows would not touch, with guests other shows would never dream of booking, it was able to see and often predict what they simply could not. (For what it’s worth, I was on that last show, a fact that I’ll wear going forward as a badge of honor.)