By early February, cable news had figured out how to discuss the prospects of Democratic presidential Hillary Clinton. It was all about losing leads, about her trustworthy numbers, about her management of husband and former President Bill Clinton. Over at the “Melissa Harris-Perry” show, a distinct vocabulary was presenting itself. In discussing Clinton’s prospects on her Feb. 6 show, Harris-Perry said that a presidential candidate benefits from having a chunk of the country unfamiliar with you.
“One of the challenges is just people believe that they know everything there is — whether or not they actually do — they believe that they, that they know Hillary Clinton, good, bad or otherwise,” said Harris-Perry. “And I wonder if that lack of space for people to feel like they can learn something about her is the challenge. So you constantly get, will you release this? Will you get like. So everything feels like an investigation rather than a campaign of learning.”
Please ping the Erik Wemple Blog (by clicking on the email icon next to the date at the top of this post) the next time a cable news talking head uses the term “campaign of learning” in the context of campaign 2016. Because it won’t come issuing from the mouth of Harris-Perry at her usual perch on weekend mornings on MSNBC. This weekend, the network announced it was parting with her over a programming spat.
The departure of Harris-Perry looked like a lickety-split affair. News broke Friday that she’d sent an email to fellow “nerds” explaining that she declined to host the program this weekend.
Close followers of her program saw something more gradual. A series of preemptions and breaking-news specials bounced Harris-Perry from her usual slot at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings. For instance: On Sunday Jan. 31, just before Iowa caucuses, MSNBC legal eagle Ari Melber introduced the show. “Good morning to you. I’m Ari Melber in for Melissa Harris-Perry. But she is out in Iowa today as we count down to the last 36 hours to the caucus. With them, the very first votes that will be cast in the 2016 presidential race,” said Melber, before saying, “Hi, Melissa” to Harris-Perry.
The host replied, “Hey, what’s going on?” The two then shared a chuckle powered by extreme awkwardness. Harris-Perry told the New York Times that she “felt like a guest” on the show that bears her own name. In his sign-off that day, Melber thanked Harris-Perry for her input.
Over the following weekend of Feb. 6-7, Harris-Perry was back in her seat. Then she took a leave, as the likes of Joy Reid, Brian Williams and Thomas Roberts alternated in the 10:00 a.m. hour in her stead. Gone, too, was the “Melissa Harris-Perry” intro, replaced by MSNBC’s “The Place for Politics” branding and accompanying music. On her Feb. 6 appearance, Harris-Perry delivered an elbow at switchup. “That music makes it sound like we’re running for president,” she said.
In her email to “Dearest Nerds,” Harris-Perry wrote, “Here is the reality: our show was taken — without comment or discussion or notice — in the midst of an election season. After four years of building an audience, developing a brand, and developing trust with our viewers, we were effectively and utterly silenced.” There was more: “I have stayed in the same hotels where MSNBC has been broadcasting in Iowa, in New Hampshire, and in South Carolina, yet I have been shut out from coverage,” wrote Harris-Perry in the email. “I have a PhD in political science and have taught American voting and elections at some of the nation’s top universities for nearly two decades, yet I have been deemed less worthy to weigh in than relative novices and certified liars.”
Statements out of MSNBC suggest that Harris-Perry acted precipitously. First came this one: “In this exciting and unpredictable presidential primary season, many of our daytime programs have been temporarily upended by breaking political coverage, including MHP. This reaction is really surprising, confusing and disappointing,” said the network.
When the Erik Wemple Blog asked over the weekend about her contributions, an MSNBC spokesperson responded, “MSNBC deserves credit for recognizing her unique voice and giving her a platform on the network. Before her email last week, there were absolutely no plans to cancel or alter the show beyond the very limited and understandable preemptions of the early primary weeks – which impacted lots of shows across the lineup. In fact, MHP would have continued. That’s obviously not possible now.”
We pressed again: Isn’t Harris-Perry’s concern about being a guest on her own show well founded? The MSNBC response: “Before her email last week, there were absolutely no plans to cancel or alter the show beyond the very limited and understandable preemptions of the early primary weeks – which impacted lots of shows across the lineup.”
That last bit is not corporate spin. Those who rely on seeing their regular MSNBC daytime anchors proceed one after another on schedule have had a tumultuous month or two. For example, on New Hampshire primary day (Feb. 9), Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie of NBC News bumped Jose Diaz-Balart; Steve Kornacki and Kate Snow bumped Thomas Roberts; and the “Morning Joe” crew then swooped in to big-foot Snow’s usual two-hour slot. For Harris-Perry, silence exacerbated scheduling mayhem: [N]o one on the third floor has even returned an email, called me, or initiated or responded to any communication of any kind from me for nearly a month,” she wrote in her email.
MSNBC’s statements reflect how a new strategy is gobbling up mindshare at MSNBC. Last year, the network phased out its lefty daytime tilt and proposed to use its familial ties to NBC News to compete with CNN as a straight-news provider. It accomplished this repositioning by bumping Ronan Farrow, Alex Wagner, Ed Schultz and Reid from their afternoon programs and replacing them with less opinionated fare. Another prong moved the Rev. Al Sharpton from his 6 p.m. daily show to a Sunday slot.
Combine those moves — and others — with MSNBC’s politics obsession, and the result looks a lot like CNN. As this blog noted, the network’s up-to-the-moment coverage of the 2016 presidential race has hyperventilated to the point that a campaign trail staffer drove right alongside the Ted Cruz campaign bus just so viewers could see it on the road, in motion. The screen’s chyron read, “LIVE NOW: TRAVELING WITH CRUZ ACROSS SC.”
That’s the direction in which MSNBC’s coverage is heading.
Compare that with what Harris-Perry was doing in her weekend slots. “Nerdland” was an appropriate descriptor for the programming that the host put forward each weekend. If the face-offs between Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton raised questions about the meaning of progressivism and capitalism, Harris-Perry and a slew of very smart guests were going to explore each one. If the water crisis in Flint, Mich., raised questions about race and U.S. infrastructure, likewise. If the San Bernardino massacre raised questions about the approriateness of prayer in public life, likewise. If the makeup of Stephen Colbert’s staff at CBS’s “Late Show” raises questions about race and comedy in the United States, likewise.
Here was a show addicted to substance. The notion, too, that “MHP” had to be preempted to cover the 2016 presidential race is a touch silly considering that the show did plenty such work, though perhaps not in the “polls-polls-polls!” spirit of the Fox News-CNN-MSNBC axis. For instance: Last September, a few Republican presidential candidates, in response to a question at a CNN debate, said they’d put Rosa Parks on the $10 bill, a launching pad for a Harris-Perry lesson:
Rosa Parks? Really? Because I’m thinking they don’t actually have any idea who Rosa Parks was. Because I suspect the Rosa Parks these candidates hope to enshrine on American currency is a quiet old tired seamstress who one day in 1954 just got tired of Jim Crow and decided not to give up her seat on a segregated bus at Montgomery, Alabama.
After noting that Parks, in fact, was a lifelong activist, she continued, “So when the Republican presidential candidates fall all over themselves to nominate Rosa Parks for the $10 bill, they aren’t talking about the real Parks who spent a lifetime organizing against the very kinds of policies they just spent three hours for posing as the basis of their campaigns. They mean a fully sanitized…illusion of Parks.”
No more of that, at least on MSNBC.
There’s a malaise in opinion on cable news, one that Harris-Perry counterprogrammed. When you give people license on television to deliver opinions, dumb things happen. Those dumb things happen frequently and systematically when the schedule calls for ’round-the-clock coverage, as cable news requires.
Over on Fox News, there’s “Fox & Friends,” where President Obama is featured as a supporter of violent riots. At the noon hour, there’s “Outnumbered,” a semi-circular firing squad that shoots poorly substantiated random thoughts, including the idea that Hillary Clinton is headed to the “glue factory.” In prime time, King of Cable News Bill O’Reilly uses the network’s airwaves to advance the network’s agenda — for example, getting Donald Trump to attend a Fox News debate — with thoughtful meditations about their history of enjoying vanilla milkshakes together.
At CNN, infractions are less serious. But still: As The Intercept’s Lee Fang noted, the network has failed to disclose key financial and political ties of a CNN political commentator and a guest as they offer their opinions on Hillary Clinton and related topics. That omission aligns with a history of refusing to identify the conflicts of on-air opinion personnel.
MSNBC’s real mishap in the opinion realm isn’t a Harris-Perry thing, it’s a “Morning Joe” thing. After giving Republican candidate, racist and bigot Donald Trump repeated opportunities to reach his people with minimal resistance, co-hosts Joe Scarborough (now a Post contributor) and Mika Brzezinski sat in horror as Trump, following his victory in New Hampshire, called them “supporters” and/or “believers.” Ever since then, the “Morning Joe” duo has been best to dispel the idea, with dubious results.
Whatever you may have thought of “MHP,” it bucked most of the rest of cable news’ offerings, and that in itself is a credential.
To finish with an apology: This blog has covered Harris-Perry primarily by highlighting her show’s less glorious moments, which is an unfortunate tendency in this media-criticism racket. Herewith a resolution to highlight the good stuff now and then.