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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.

Radio host and Don’t Believe the Hype author Farai Chideya anchored a short-lived women’s roundtable on the fledgling Oxygen network, but that was outside the sphere of political influence even before Oxygen decided to ditch news and hitch its wagon to bottom-feeder reality fare like The Bad Girls Club. Oprah Winfrey owns the struggling OWN network, which doesn’t do news programming—and though she has interviewed presidents, CEOs and tabloid faves, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" was entertainment, not journalism. Of course, progressive women of color have anchored independent and public TV news for years, with Gwen Ifill as moderator and managing editor of PBS’ national “Washington Week” and "The Callie Crossley Show" on Boston’s WGBH.

But a black feminist, anti-racist thought-leader given roughly the same kind of job as Bill O’Reilly, within commercial media? Unheard of—until now. This is the void that "Melissa Harris-Perry" will begin to fill.

Equally unprecedented, Harris-Perry will be the first scholar to teach a full course-load during the week, and grill politicians and pundits on live TV over the weekends. (She’ll commute each week from Tulane in New Orleans, where she lives with her husband and daughter.) All this talk of firsts makes this news newbie want to manage expectations. “I am pretty unlikely to come out of the box on day one with something that revolutionizes cable news. It'd be great to grow into that over time. Right now my number one goal is to remember my guests’ names and not fall out of the anchor stool (it's really high and I'm really short),” she jokes in an email interview. “I am completely clear that hosting a television show will not win me any professorial points. One of my Twitter followers wrote 'expect side eye in faculty club.'"

Humility aside, the intersecting personal, academic and political identities of its host will ensure that "Melissa Harris-Perry" is produced with a very different set of priorities than the carbon-copy shout-fests viewers have grown to expect from cable news. A recent exchange with the Tampa Bay Times is telling. When TBT media critic Eric Deggans informed her that MSNBC president Phil Griffin praised her for “holding prime numbers” (retaining Rachel Maddow's ratings when she guest-hosts), she just laughed. "I literally have no idea what you're talking about…I don't even know what the numbers are, I don't even know how one would get them."

For her show to survive on MSNBC’s lineup, that will have to change. But if she isn’t overly concerned with ratings as she steps onto the national stage, what does motivate the host? Being “held accountable to accuracy and sourcing” by “really hard-nosed traditional journalists on my staff in very high level positions,” Harris-Perry says, who understand and support her desire to treat this new platform as if it’s simply the biggest classroom in which she’s ever taught. Take election coverage: rather than clamoring for access to politicians, “I hope that as I cover the 2012 race I will be able to bring insights to the discourse that help reveal rather than reproduce inequality,” she says.

To do so, "Melissa Harris-Perry" will bring a social justice lens to discussions of campaigns, legislation and public policy. “We're not worried as much about what everyone else is talking about. Rather than reacting to the moment, we want to influence it with Melissa's perspective,” Jamil Smith, segment and digital producer of MHP and the editor of the show’s new blog, tells AlterNet. Previously a producer at "The Rachel Maddow Show," Smith plans to use the blog “to involve outside voices – new, young voices – both through video interviews and franchises” to influence the news cycle “seven days a week, not just on Saturdays and Sundays for two hours apiece.”

As for that prime weekend real estate? Smith says MHP staff are making the gender, race and age diversity of on-air guests an equal priority. At a recent dress rehearsal, the guests asked to address Mitt Romney’s professed lack of concern for the poor were African American labor advocate and political science professor Dorian Warren, and a progressive feminist media analyst (full disclosure: me), in contrast to the GOP and Dem insiders more typically heard in campaign trail stories that emphasize the horse race over the issues. That segment was followed by a field report on governmental failures contributing to continued poverty in New Orleans six years after Hurricane Katrina. Earlier, to pay tribute to Don Cornelius, Harris-Perry narrated a piece highlighting the social, cultural and political import of Soul Train, and danced back to the news desk.

Among the compelling promises of "Melissa Harris-Perry" is its intention to shine a mainstream spotlight on people, topics and ideas under- or unexplored in public debate. Many broadcast journalists consider academics ivory tower-dwelling stiffs, while academics often discredit popular media as fluff unworthy of intellectual engagement. Harris-Perry bridges that divide, considering the Oscars’ embrace of The Help as relevant a site for dissection as Newt Gingrich’s advice to put poor kids of color to work as school janitors. “There will be a lot of high and low culture happening on MHP. It is not at all unlikely that I will talk to tenured professors in one segment and play a clip from a hip-hop video in the next. I am really excited about the idea of putting together on a single panel the people who produce culture and those who analyze it. I have a little fantasy of you and Andy Cohen together on my set,” she says.

For those without a passport to "Real Housewives" country, Cohen is a Bravo exec who hosts “Watch What Happens,” a late-night chat show where reality stars and sporadic legit celebrities drink cocktails and dish about daily gossip. I wrote a book exposing how reality TV functions as political and commercial backlash against women’s rights and social progress. That Harris-Perry fantasizes about throwing me and Cohen together into the cable news lion’s den is simply an extension of the way she structures her classes and her penchant for using Twitter for popular educationher account has attracted 64,000 followers and counting.

In Sister Citizen, Harris-Perry offers clues to the unique role her presence could play in shaping politics in America. The book opens with a detailed discussion of the way mainstream media coverage misrepresented and maligned poor and middle-class black men and women in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. She unpacks the racialized baggage behind journalists describing African American storm survivors as "refugees," calling their desperate search for food and water “looting,” and reporting unsubstantiated rumors of violence by supposed gangs of roving rapists and thugs (all eventually debunked).

Many of the concerns about Katrina reporting raised in Sister Citizen have been addressed at AlterNet, WIMN’s Voices, ColorLines, Extra! and other non-commercial outlets. More than half a decade of independent reporting and analysis documents how inaccurate, bigoted corporate news coverage hindered the relief and recovery efforts and impacted public policy responses in Katrina’s wake. Unsurprisingly, this critique has remained largely unexamined in the corporate press.

Now, imagine if "Melissa Harris-Perry" had been on air when the disaster struck in 2005. Instead of keeping the people of color, low-income people and women most affected nearly invisible on our TV screens, we might have heard directly from race scholars, feminist economists, community organizers and progressive leaders who could have provided much-needed context, balance and calls to action. The cable news cycle might have actually given a hearing to stories that appeared primarily in print and online outlets, such as land-grab attempts by real estate developers, reduced housing opportunities for low-income New Orleanians to return to their city, and efforts to privatize schools.

Would that scenario have made a difference in the day-to-day lives of Katrina survivors, or the long-term economic and environmental recovery of New Orleans? It’s impossible to say. But that’s just the kind of question that makes "Melissa Harris-Perry" such a needed addition to the broadcast body politic.

Smith is hopeful that the more diverse, more intellectually rigorous approach to news and public affairs will have an educational and transformative impact not only on the “Melissa Harris-Perry” audience, but on his industry.  

Peter Hart, activism director at Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting and co-host and producer of FAIR’s syndicated radio show, "CounterSpin," isn’t so sure. “These viewpoints tend to be excluded for a reason: Major advertisers and corporate owners do not want to embrace or promote them,” he says. “It would be naïve to confuse MSNBC's current approach with deeply held convictions about progressive politics. This is the same network that a few years ago tried to outfox Fox News, pinning its hopes on the likes of Joe Scarborough, Tucker Carlson and hate-radio host Michael Savage. They fired Phil Donahue for being too anti-war. Even Keith Olbermann talked about management concerns about his show being too left-wing at times. This says nothing of Harris-Perry or Chris Hayes' commitment to doing a different kind of television program. It's a question of whether a major corporation will let them do the shows they want to do.”

Hart’s concerns are grounded in the economic motives that propel the corporate media machine. Smith hopes to prove that producing quality journalism can also be good business: “If we're successful doing the show that we want to do, the powers-that-be in this corporate-media business will hopefully seek to replicate that success.”

Jennifer L. Pozner is a media critic, speaker, and the founder and executive director of Women In Media & News. She is the author of "Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV."
 
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