On Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015, a snowstorm was crippling Ohio. On her eponymous MSNBC show, host Melissa Harris-Perry provided some coverage of the weather event, tossing to NBC News correspondent Kerry Sanders on location. “Yes, it’s been coming down since early this morning. It’s certainly picked up. We have about an inch on the ground and it’s possible we could see according to forecasters, up to six, maybe nine inches all the way over from this area near Toledo over towards Cincinnati,” Sanders told Harris-Perry.
At the end of their chilly discussion, Harris-Perry said, “Kerry Sanders in Perrysburg, Ohio — doing the hard work today while the rest of us are warm and toasty right here in 30 Rock. But enjoy the ice sculptures.”
Hard work? What’s so hard about scooping up a nice network-news salary while reporting on a beautiful snowstorm? Surely it’s not the sort of hard work required to … pick cotton.
That, after all, is the new standard for hard work on Harris-Perry’s thoughtful, in-depth weekend program. Last Saturday, Alfonso Aguilar, a conservative and a former official in the administration of George W. Bush, made the mistake of complimenting Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as a “hard worker.” The comment came in the midst of a discussion about work-life balance and Ryan’s demand that if he was to serve as speaker of the House, his colleagues would have to respect his family time. Against that backdrop, Harris-Perry decided to throw a flag at Aguilar:
HARRIS-PERRY: Alfonso, I feel you, but I just want to pause on one thing because I don’t disagree with you that I actually think Mr. Ryan is a great choice for this role, but I want us to be super careful when we use the language “hard worker,” because I actually keep an image of folks working in cotton fields on my office wall, because it is a reminder about what hard work looks like. So, I feel you that he’s a hard worker. I do, but in the context of relative privilege, and I just want to point out that when you talk about work-life balance and being a hard worker, the moms who don’t have health care who are working–
AGUILAR: I understand that.
HARRIS-PERRY: But, we don’t call them hard workers. We call them failures. We call them people who are sucking off the system.
AGUILAR: No, no, no, no.
HARRIS-PERRY: No, no. Really, ya’ll do. That is really what you guys do as a party.
AGUILAR: That is very unfair. I think we cannot generalize about the Republican Party.
HARRIS-PERRY: That’s true. Not all Republicans. That is certainly true.
For the record, a guest on Harris-Perry’s show should be able to call a congressman a hard worker without getting lectured about historical contextuality. MSNBC viewers are smart enough to know that a congressman’s life is more privileged than that of a slave/agricultural worker or a mother without health insurance. “That is the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard,” said Aguilar in a chat this morning with the Erik Wemple Blog, though the commentator did note that Harris-Perry was a nice and welcoming host.
For more insight on Harris-Perry’s take on the nature of work, we sifted through archives of her program stretching back to the beginning of the year — specifically by searching on Nexis for the term “hard work,” which yielded far more results than “hard worker.” The dive into the host’s transcripts revealed several references to personal diligence that were allowed to be broadcast without such fiery qualifiers. Some examples:
* On Sept. 12, Harris-Perry played a clip of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton saying, “If we women stand together and fight together, we can make our country stronger, we can make our country fairer. We women are not afraid of hard work. And that’s good because we’ve got some hard work to do.”
* On Sept. 6, Harris-Perry, in a discussion about race and policing, said, “What I don’t want to miss is that policing is in fact actually hard work, and there are things that make policing a more dangerous or less dangerous job. And I guess, part of what I’m interested in is, what those sort of facts are, what actually makes it harder or more dangerous to be a police officer.”
* On Aug. 30, Harris-Perry addressed whether a work ethic was critical to the advancement of retired brain surgeon and Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson: “I don’t know whether or not he pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. My suggestion to be actually is that’s probably is not the full story,” said Harris-Perry. When challenged on that assertion, Harris-Perry defended, “I think that hard work is necessary but insufficient condition for success. Which is simply to say, must we work hard? Absolutely. But does hard work necessarily lead to success? No. And so I always want to think about the other side.”
* On Aug. 9, Harris-Perry interviewed actor O’Shea Jackson Jr. from “Straight Outta Compton.” Jackson said, “This is a big-time film that could make or break [producer F. Gary Gray]. He’s not going to just let it go to just appease his friends so they put me through the ringer and all that hard work is building confidence within me, if they needed me I’d do it again.”
* On May 30, Harris-Perry addressed the corruption scandal at FIFA and took this clip from organization President Sepp Blatter: “I will not allow the actions of a few to destroy the hard work and the integrity of the vast majority of those who work so hard for football.”
* On May 3, Harris-Perry highlighted the work of a Baltimore program in which teenagers serve as liaisons to the police. Addressing the youngsters, she said, “Thank you for the work that you are doing on the ground there. Stay safe, stay positive, and keep doing the hard work.”
* On Feb. 28, Harris-Perry focused on labor issues in Gov. Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, and interviewed a union activist who attacked the governor for his policies: “He should apologize to the hard-working men and women of Wisconsin.”
In none of those instances did Harris-Perry uncork any lectures about the historical context of hard work or hard workers. Perhaps that’s because those discussions didn’t fit into the framework of “relative privilege,” which the host cited as the trigger for her outburst against Aguilar. Some clarification on just when guests on Harris-Perry’s show may reference hard workers appears to be in order, given the vague parameters laid out by the host. Yesterday this blog contacted MSNBC in search of an interview with Harris-Perry but was rebuffed. No comment.
Until we get further word, we’ll have to trust the record: When folks who share Harris-Perry’s ideology reference hard work, they’re fine. When a guy who doesn’t share Harris-Perry’s ideology references a top Republican’s hard work, he’s not so fine. “I think she saw me as the conservative on the panel and she let me have it,” Aguilar told this blog.