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Opinion The ugliness of Melissa Harris-Perry’s departure from MSNBC

Melissa Harris-Perry. (Heidi Gutman/MSNBC)

Big-time television news operations, as a rule, operate as corporations first, journalistic outfits fifth. That is to say, their anchors aren’t generally available to chat about their work with media reporters, unless cleared by some flack who sees important promotional upside (look how available anchors are just before they moderate presidential debates); when they make mistakes, they don’t turn the matter over to their ombudsperson, who generally doesn’t exist; and when talent heads out the door under awkward circumstances, the response is generally to issue a quick statement, whisper guidance off the record and hope the issue fizzles.

In the case of former host Melissa Harris-Perry’s departure from MSNBC, however, an anomaly is afoot. MSNBC recently announced its “parting” of ways with the host after she announced her intention not to sit in the anchor chair last weekend over concerns that the network had effectively taken away her editorial control. Her concerns took root in an extensive email that left little room for conciliation, saying at one point that “I am not a token, mammy, or little brown bobble head.” Just yesterday afternoon, the two sides clashed in settlement negotiations over a non-disparagement clause. Having failed to come to an agreement, Harris-Perry felt fully empowered to speak about her experiences at MSNBC today with the Erik Wemple Blog. And MSNBC rebutted her claims on the record.

Never one to steer clear of the weeds on any issue, Harris-Perry told the Erik Wemple Blog that MSNBC’s computer system carried evidence of her show’s demise. In January, she claimed, the tags for the “Melissa Harris-Perry” show went poof. “In our archival system, it had disappeared. You couldn’t search our segments under MHP,” she said.

MSNBC spokesman Mark Kornblau countered, “Her show was not being canceled. There was no plan to cancel it. Had she not sent the destructive email … it would have continued at least through the end of her contract” in October.

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There were other things, too: Harris-Perry said her executive producer had informed her that there were no resources for her program to cover the 2016 presidential election. Nor was she dealt in on the proceedings. “In Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina — despite a full build-out for MSNBC and despite the fact that there were two handfuls of hosts on the ground, I was never once invited on air,” she said.

Kornblau: “I can’t speak to a conversation between her and her EP,” he said. “There are limited resources to send shows out on the road,” continued Kornblau, noting that MSNBC’s “Place for Politics” coverage was slated to preempt “MHP” for the early primaries and caucuses only. Then her show would resume as before.

Harris-Perry alleges: MSNBC in recent months has become a far more uncommunicative place — a period of time that coincides with the accession of Andy Lack as chairman of NBC News and MSNBC. The Lack regime has dispatched MSNBC’s daytime tilt to the left, unloaded a number of hosts and pushed an extreme emphasis on 2016 campaign coverage. “There was a discernible change in management style such that the communication lines became harder to penetrate … it was much harder to figure out how decisions were made,” said the former host. “That was almost immediate.”

Kornblau countered: “Not true.”

Harris-Perry alleges: She was shunted aside in primary coverage and wasn’t even given a press pass.

Kornblau countered: “The recollection of people is that she was actually given a press pass,” he said. In New Hampshire, said Kornblau, Harris-Perry showed up on set with more than 27 students. “She was told she couldn’t bring 27 students on set.”

Far from looking to cancel her program, Kornblau said that MSNBC last summer convinced her to stay on after she “expressed a desire to pull out of the show” because of her bulging schedule of family and professional obligations; she’s a professor at Wake Forest University as well as a leader of causes. The two sides agreed that the host would take off seven weekends.

James Perry, the host’s husband and business partner, takes issue with that version of events. Harris-Perry grew frustrated over time with the network’s straitjacketed approach to responding to critics. As an outspoken liberal, Harris-Perry got royal Internet treatment whenever a gaffe occurred on her program — like the time Mitt Romney was ridiculed for having a black grandchild. In too many instances, says James Perry, the network wouldn’t allow Harris-Perry to fight back, either on her show or elsewhere. “At a certain point, if I continue to be attacked and you won’t defend me and I can’t defend myself, then maybe I have to go and defend myself and if that means I have to do it outside of employment, then so be it,” says James Perry, summing up the thinking.

Sure, the she-said/he-said is tedious, but it hints at the stakes involved here. Not only is Harris-Perry an African American scholar in an industry that has diversity problems, she’s also a host whose topical focus for four years on MSNBC has been race and gender.

In the midst of Harris-Perry’s tenure, MSNBC President Phil Griffin sent out a memo celebrating the network’s success in reaching minorities: “We continue to have the most diverse audience in cable television and were the only network to see our Hispanic audience increase over the past year,” wrote the MSNBC president at the end of 2014. “In fact, in 2014 msnbc become the top-rated cable network for Hispanic viewers 25-54 during Monday-Friday primetime -– growth that is especially crucial as we gear up for the next presidential election. For the fifth consecutive year, we were the number one cable network for African-Americans in demo and total viewers. Our African-American audience is double that of CNN’s and more than seven times that of Fox News.” And as we pointed out earlier, the MSNBC lineup toward the end of 2014 was a marvel of diverse faces and voices.

The hosting lineup is less of a rainbow now, thanks to a number of personnel moves that have sidelined people of color at MSNBC. White anchors, it must be said, have also gotten the boot, thanks to low ratings and the like. MSNBC executives claim their commitment to diversity is steadfast, which is a good thing considering that the 2016 campaign is replete with racial issues and, quite frankly, straight-up racism. All-white cable TV panels cannot credibly assess the ins and outs from day to day.

Whatever the races and ethnicities of its people, MSNBC’s programming itself looks to be headed for less diversity and more monotony, as “The Place for Politics” becomes a warehouse. Harris-Perry told this blog that the saturation campaign-trail focus would be in place for the “foreseeable future,” a conveniently elastic term. Along with that programming emphasis comes an industrywide obsession with ratings — an obsession that Harris-Perry shunned in her years at MSNBC: “There was an actual rule that no one was allowed to … talk to Melissa about ratings,” says Harris-Perry. “For me the fun of the show was us being able to decide if we liked a segment, it was because we liked it,” she said, not because it rated well (or poorly).