After Exploiting Prisoners for Years, MSNBC Still Won't Cover the National Prison Strike

The one-month anniversary of the nation’s largest prison strike in history passed Sunday with little fanfare. Since the event began, the strikes—taking place in 29 prisons in 12 states—have received a scattering of coverage, mostly from left-wing press. Though most big media names have ignored it, mainstream publications like the Wall Street Journal and CBS News have chimed in with reporting. But the complete lack of coverage from MSNBC is the most glaring of all: MSNBC is the gatekeeping standard-bearer of progressive media in the U.S., setting the tone daily for what liberals should care about. More importantly, for 10 years the network has kept its ratings afloat on the weekends by exploiting prison labor in its reality TV show "Lockup."

The MSNBC weekend show, now in its 11th year, is a massive profit center for NBCUniversal and its parent corporation Comcast. “[It] rates spectacularly well,” Rachel Maddow told the New Republic in 2013. “They make so much money. It’s like having an ATM in the lobby that you don’t need a card for.”

One of the reasons "Lockup" is such a cash cow? What is, in effect, exploited prison labor. "Lockup" is a reality TV show in which the stars do not get paid, invariably keeping costs low and profits high. Asked in a 2014 Q&A if the prisoners were compensated, "Lockup" producer Susan Carney made it clear they weren’t. When asked why the prisoners participate, Carney speculated, “I believe it is because most people want to be heard and understood and many want their life story known. Also, a lot of inmates have told me they hope that by sharing their own difficult experiences they may help others in similar circumstances.”

"Lockup"’s profit model relies on, and has relied on for years, the most vulnerable exchanging their most sensational moments for a brief moment of being "heard” by the outside world. One possible reason MSNBC has shied away from reporting on the prison strikes is because it practices a slightly more PC version of what the scores of corporations that use prison labor do. Similarly, MSNBC producers must maintain positive relationships with prison officials and private prisons, which they rely on for access to their unpaid reality television labor.

“Prison and jail administrators are pimping out prisoners to production companies who make what they euphemistically call documentaries by filming the most deranged inmates they can find and putting them on the air to satisfy the prurient jaded, and schadenfreude-filled desires of a desensitized public,” wrote author and ex-convict Mansfield Frazier in his 2013 dressing down of the show. “We don’t allow TV cameras into mental institutions—not yet, anyway—so producers do the next best thing and capture the images of these walking wounded where they can: in jails and prisons, which by default have become our nation’s largest warehouses of the mentally ill.”

Obviously, there are barriers to reporting on what happens inside prisons, as the New Yorker's E. Tammy Kim noted last week. Yet there have been several stories on the strikes, in RT and the Nation and on NPR. So we know there’s something there to cover, and certainly if MSNBC really wanted to cover the issue it could do what Democracy Now! and others have done, and interview prison abolitionists and other activists.

Indeed, after a month of coverage trickling in, the biggest indicator of which publications won’t cover the strikes appears to be their closeness to the corridors of power. Thus far, first-tier media New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC have not covered the strikes, the exception being the Wall Street Journal, giving credence to Noam Chomsky’s belief that business press is often more progressive because it is less ideological. What sets MSNBC’s lack of coverage apart, is that none of the other big names built a network partially on the backs of prisoners.

When AlterNet emailed Chris Hayes for comment on his reasoning for not covering the strikes, he passed the question along to MSNBC public relations representative Kristen Osborne, who declined to comment.

For a while it’s been clear that the liberal TV network’s main talent are slightly embarrassed of "Lockup," but their pushback, at least publicly, never went beyond a wink to viewers. On-air talent often snark about it (Chris Hayes ironically segued into it while host of the weekend morning program "Up") and in 2013, MSNBC head Phil Griffin said he was “pulling back” on the show because it “undercut the network’s brand identity.” It’s unclear, however, if any pulling back ever actually took place.

When asked in a Facebook Q&A about the program, Hayes spun the question as an issue of tolerance: “It may be the case that no one you know watches or likes 'Lockup,'” he said. “But believe me, there are LOTS of people who do. That is not, I hasten to add a *substantive* defense of 'Lockup' or any other programming decision, the merits of which I’m not going to comment on one way or another… but it’s a caution not to assume that your own preferences, in political ideology, or TV viewing are necessarily widely shared.”

In other words: "no comment." In June, the Hollywood Reporter hinted "Lockup" would end its run on MSNBC, but the network would not confirm this when reached for comment.

So what does MSNBC owe the millions of people locked up in prison, hundreds of whom provide the raw human capital for one of its biggest profit centers? On its face, quite a bit. By its own admission, "Lockup" has fueled the network’s growth and allowed its less ratings-driven programs to stay afloat. This is often pointed out as an apology, but in the context of the network ignoring the largest prison strike in history, it becomes an admission. It’s one thing for corporate-funded liberals to shy away from the urgent issue of prison labor, it’s exponentially worse for them to do so after making so much money off it.

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