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Can Melissa Harris-Perry Remove the Race and Gender Blinders from Cable News?

On Saturday, MSNBC debuts the eponymous weekend show of Melissa Harris-Perry, Tulane professor, MSNBC regular and Nation columnist.
 
 
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On Friday, Fox News host Sean Hannity assembled more than a dozen religious leaders for what Jon Stewart dubbed “the world’s holiest sausage fest.” The subject? An Obama administration plan to require contraception coverage in health insurance plans. As The Daily Show described it, “a diverse panel of experts… Catholic men, Jewish men, Baptist men, black men, white men, absolutely everyone who might have something relevant to say on women’s reproductive health” confirmed Hannity’s fear that there is “a war now on religion in America.”

Not a single woman was asked for comment. Not even a nun.

What might it look like if, instead of airing on Fox with a right-wing former Republican Congressman as its ringleader, a cable news discussion about religion and birth control was led by a feminist political scientist with an honorary doctorate from Meadville Lombard Theological School?

We may well find out. On Saturday, MSNBC will debut the eponymous weekend show of professor Melissa Harris-Perry, founding director of Tulane University’s Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South. "Melissa Harris-Perry"—the program, and the scholar who anchors it—will blaze significant new ground. The  Nation columnist and author of Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America , is now the first black progressive woman to ever solo-host her own news and politics show on a major corporate TV news outlet.

This couldn’t be more welcome—or more unusual. Think Hannity’s all-male cable cabal was an isolated case? Sadly, no. According to Think Progress, men outnumbered women by a nearly 2-to-1 margin last week in all debates about contraception on MSNBC, CNN, Fox and Fox Business. The twitterverse seemed shocked to learn that female experts were sought out as commentators only 38 percent of the time on a story about women’s health. As a media critic, I was surprised, too—because that’s actually a higher percentage of women’s voices than typically heard across all news categories, not just in stories involving women's bodies.

To understand institutional sexism within the media, look no further than the systematic sidelining of women’s perspectives in corporate news and public affairs programming. Women are a paltry 14 percent of all guests on influential, agenda-setting Sunday morning news shows on ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX and CNN—more than half of whose episodes feature no female guests at all (White House Project). The disparity is just as stark in nightly news, where women are 19 and 27 percent of cable and network news sources, respectively (Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism).

What’s worse? The sole category to feature female sources equitably is  lifestyle, while their expertise is included least often as experts in foreign affairs. When women’s voices are missing in coverage of war, politics, economics and, yes, even reproductive health—while being present primarily in stories about crime victims, fashion trends or (sigh) Kim Kardashian’s latest hijinx—the public gets the impression that women are flighty beings who lack the intellectual savvy needed to analyze the pressing issues of the day, much less compete in leadership spheres.

Extensive research documents similar marginalization of people of color within broadcast media, with similar implication. As just one example, National Urban League titled its study of weekend news shows Sunday Morning Apartheid , because 78 percent of these programs didn’t feature a single black guest. 

Women of color have been at the nexus of corporate media marginalization for decades. Black and Latina women, rarely sought after as experts, are regularly blamed and shamed as news subjects in stories about crime, poverty, and public policy. (Want proof? Type the phrase “ welfare queens” into the Lexis-Nexis news database.) And when it comes to those in the power seats? Click your remote randomly through every corporate TV news channel: wherever you land, you’ll find conservative white men anchoring news and opinion shows, even on MSNBC—why, hello there, Joe Scarborough. There’s still more diversity in the color of anchors’ ties than in the racial and gender composition of the hosts themselves.

 
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