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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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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.

 
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