Melissa Harris-Perry of MSNBC gives new face to cable news
By Anna Holmes,
“And GO! And GO! And GO!”
It’s about five minutes to showtime, and Melissa Harris-Perry, clad in a nautical-inspired dress, navy blue cardigan and matching pumps, is jumping up and down on the highly polished floor of MSNBC’s Studio 3A.
The 38-year-old college professor and former cheerleader (Thomas Dale High School in Chester, Va., late ’ 80s) grabs the hand of her husband, fair-housing activist James H. Perry, before bounding — half stomping, half dancing — toward the set of her eponymous new cable news show, which, in just a few short minutes, will make its series debut.
There is some concern that Harris-Perry, a professor of political science at Tulane University, is going to begin her day by twisting an ankle or doing a face-plant on the studio’s plexiglass floor. (If memory serves, she also engages in some fist-pumping along the way.)
But then she’s seated and flipping through a stack of papers as producers, technicians and assistants fuss over earpieces, lights and the show’s first guest, Edward F. Cox, chairman of the New York Republican State Committee.
“One minute!” the floor manager hollers.
Harris-Perry looks straight ahead at one of the unmanned cameras positioned in her direction.
She’s got this.
The program was signature Harris-Perry, from the counterintuitive opening — in which she made the case for why America needs a strong and competent Republican Party — to the two-minute rant about young women who went online during the Grammy Awards to defend Chris Brown’s assault on his ex-girlfriend, Rihanna. “This has real consequences, especially in African American communities,” she said Saturday. “AIDS is now the leading cause of death for African American women ages 25 to 34, and most infections come from unprotected sex.” Some young women, she continued, have so internalized the message that they need a man that they will do anything — forgo safe sex, invite violence into their lives — in order to keep one.
Though Harris-Perry is at ease synthesizing the complexities at the intersections of race, gender and politics, she’s not quite comfortable training that academic gaze on herself. In fact, the woman who may just help revolutionize mainstream news analysis — last week, writing for Alternet, media critic Jennifer Pozner described her as the “first black progressive woman to ever solo-host her own news and politics show on a major corporate TV news outlet” — seems downright reluctant to provide a Big Picture Analysis of her own success, or her effect on the wider cable news landscape, which tends to be white, male and middle-aged.
“Yes, this is something new, but I don’t want to divorce it from a trajectory,” says Harris-Perry, quick to acknowledge the contributions that such longtime, more classically trained broadcast journalists as CNN’s Soledad O’Brien and PBS’s Gwen Ifill have made to the changing shades of national news. “You know, I think about Oprah, who was obviously doing a very different kind of show, a cultural daytime talk show, but that show was very much about her voice and her opinions and how she read and saw the world.”
“I’m just going to say that we want this network to be the most vibrant, interesting, thoughtful, provocative and colorful channel out there,” adds Phil Griffin, MSNBC’s president. “Others are welcome to judge what this all means.”
“It’s huge,” says Latoya Peterson, the District-based editor of the Web site Racialicious, which analyzes pop culture and politics through the prism of progressive racial politics. “Not many African American women are given the chance to anchor their own shows or carve out a space to have really intelligent racial and gender conversations based on the strength of their intellect and opinion. It’s almost a transformational opportunity — it’s hers to mold and shape. It’s kind of unprecedented.”
Pozner agrees. In her story, she called Harris-Perry’s accomplishment “unheard of” and asked rhetorically, “But a black feminist, anti-racist thought-leader given roughly the same kind of job as Bill O’Reilly, within commercial media?”
Yes, says Hub Brown, associate dean at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School for Public Communications and a former broadcast journalist himself. “I’m not at all objective when it comes to Melissa Harris-Perry because I’m rooting for her, but I suspect she knows how colossal this is,” he says. “She is coming at a great time for the country, for people of color and for women, and I think she’s going to start a lot of conversations that haven’t been happening on television.”
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Harris-Perry’s confidence comes from experience. The child of two Charlottesville area academics and activists who regularly appeared on local television to discuss their work, TV is in her blood. “I didn’t think it was particularly odd,” she says. “It wasn’t totally unexpected for them to have a public voice.”
Harris-Perry can’t remember the first time she appeared on TV — “probably in college,” she says — but she’s been a regular on the national television news stage since about 2004, when she made appearances on PBS and CNN as a talking head. In 2006, she began appearing on MSNBC, first as a guest and then, in 2010, as a regular contributor and substitute-host for such stars as Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell. Griffin, impressed with her smarts, decided last fall to groom her for bigger things.
“She had it,” said the MSNBC president, talking by phone from his office in New York’s Rockefeller Center last week. “What you see a little bit at other channels is executives hiring brand names, thinking they’re going to get big numbers and a big audience, and it not working. What we’re doing here is building from within.”
Harris-Perry says that, until Griffin approached her in October, she’d never really considered hosting her own show. But her best friend, Blair L.M. Kelley, who has known her since their graduate school days at Duke University in the early aughts, says that, despite a career focused on scholarship, Harris-Perry’s ascension to the anchor’s desk feels like an inevitability.
“I remember sitting in class and thinking, ‘Who is this tiny little woman down at the end of the table who is talking as if she’s on television, spouting out facts and weaving things together so beautifully?’ ” says Kelley, an associate professor and director of graduate programs in the history department at North Carolina State. “I’d never seen anything like it before. No one was filming us, of course, but it seemed like someone should be.”
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If her show’s debut broadcast was any indication, those conversations include Whitney Houston, same-sex marriage and the paternalistic tone of the debate over birth control. The topics themselves weren’t exactly unheard of, but their diversity — and that of her guest list, which on Saturday included two white men, four black men and one white woman — signaled that, when it comes to challenging the racial and gender ratios of cable news programming, Harris-Perry and her colleagues put their money where their mouths are.
It was also a rebuke of sorts to the rest of the cable news landscape, which, maddeningly and inexplicably, continues to hew to the middle-aged, white and shouty male demographic. Two weeks ago, the political news blog ThinkProgress reported that American cable news channels covering female reproductive issues that week featured almost twice as many male commentators as women. And, as Pozner notes, in 2005, the National Urban League released a study of the racial diversity on American Sunday morning talk shows that was so discouraging, the organization titled it “Sunday Morning Apartheid.”
“If cable is to now be competitive, executives have to really embrace this whole idea of a multiplicity of voices,” says Ron Simon, a curator of TV and radio at New York’s Paley Center for Media with a special focus on news. “Melissa’s influence and success might just open up the field. It’s an especially nice counterpoint to the older, male-dominated shows you see on the weekends, like ‘Face the Nation’ and ‘Meet the Press.’ ”
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It was about a quarter after noon, the premiere episode was over, and Melissa Harris-Perry was standing in a third-floor hallway clutching a bouquet of yellow roses given to her by her husband and chatting animatedly with a guest, the comedian and writer Baratunde Thurston. A production assistant appeared and beckoned Harris-Perry and her husband to a champagne toast — Veuve Clicquot, and lots of it — hosted by MSNBC Vice President and Executive Editor Yvette Miley. (Miley, 44, is one of the highest-ranking African American news executives in the country.) Flutes were clinked, compliments extended and jokes made about MSNBC’s other weekend programming: prison documentaries.
On a nearby table sat a hard-bound black autograph book, the creation of Harris-Perry’s daughter, Parker. Inside, the show’s guests penned short notes and good wishes to the 10-year-old, who was spending the day in Brooklyn as part of her research for a school report on the late African American congresswoman and presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm.
How is Parker? And why isn’t she here? someone asked.
“Parker has seen her mother on TV many, many times,” explained Perry, chuckling. “This is nothing unusual for her. So she’s sort of unimpressed.”
To read Anna Holmes’s previous columns, go to wapo.st/anna-holmes.