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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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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.”

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