Melissa Harris-Perry last week on the set of her MSNBC show, which has its debut on Saturday.
I've been closely following and admiring Melissa's work in a number of different formats for over a decade now. She's VERY smart, really knows her stuff politically inside and out and is a genuine and truly forward thinking progressive in every sense of that often badly misunderstood word. A brilliant academic with a strong activist consciousness and deep public commitment is always welcome anywhere but is especially very much needed and appreciated in television which, as we all know, is far too often a notoriously racist and sexist medium when it comes to political journalism, cultural critique, and social thought. Ms. Harris-Perry is a very refreshing change in the right direction for once and I seriously urge all of you to tune in to her show on MSNBC at 10am (EASTERN STANDARD TIME) AND 7AM out here on the west coast. I promise you won't be disappointed and you will definitely learn a lot. MSNBC is to be commended for this move which was long overdue on many levels. Kick ass and take names Melissa (I know you will sister!)...
Her program started today February 18 and will air for two hours every saturday and sunday morning for two hours on MSNBC. In fact I'm watching and digging her program at this very moment as I type this missive to you. Please check her out when you get a chance (if you haven't already)...ENJOY...
At MSNBC, a Professor as TV Host
By BRIAN STELTER
February 12, 2012
New York Times
Week seven of Melissa Harris-Perry’s introductory course in African-American studies at Tulane University includes a lecture about “the hollow prize” — a theory that African-Americans tend to be elected as mayor only after a city has tipped into economic decline.
One day last summer, when Ms. Harris-Perry was filling in for Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, she recast the class lecture as a television segment, invoking Detroit; her adopted home, New Orleans; President Obama; and tax policy.
“I’ve given that lecture a million times — a million times,” Ms. Harris-Perry said in a recent interview. “But I do it once on Rachel’s show, and it was everywhere the next day. It was up on Web sites, people were e-mailing me — that, for me, was a really clear indication of how powerful television is.”
Now, MSNBC is about to introduce a progressive talk show called “Melissa Harris-Perry” on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Ms. Harris-Perry will be the only tenured professor in the United States — and one of a very small number of African-American women — who serves as a cable news host.
Is this a sign of the rise of the academic on TV? Though cable news is still stereotyped by some as a 24-7 screaming match, there are now pockets of intellectual stimulation that did not exist a decade ago.
The significance of cable news is growing. A survey released last week by the Pew Research Center found that cable news channels have, for the first time, eclipsed local television newscasts as a regular source of campaign news for the American people.
At MSNBC, “Morning Joe” with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski has become must-see television for politicians and journalists, while Ms. Maddow, a Rhodes scholar, has been lauded for her long, carefully argued essays. Recently, the channel has added several shows with similarities to those two, including “Now With Alex Wagner” at noon on weekdays and “Up w/ Chris Hayes” on the weekends. Ms. Harris-Perry’s show is set to start on Saturday morning and run from 10 to noon.
“Today, our audience thrives on being smart,” said Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC. He said he used to worry about outsmarting the audience, but does not anymore, because MSNBC has moved from being “all things to all people” to being “a much more specific channel.” That change was propelled by the popularity of its left-leaning programs.
“TV answers to the audience,” said Rick Shenkman, author of “Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter,” which blames television in part for dumbing down the American political process. He said MSNBC had been branding itself “as a partisan network to draw a partisan crowd, following the Fox model.”
“That’s proving to be a successful model,” he said. “It’s the Huffington Post model.”
The newest hosts at MSNBC, Mr. Hayes and Ms. Harris-Perry, like to say they are Harry Potter and Hermione. Both were groomed by Ms. Maddow and her 9 p.m. program, first as unpaid guests, then as paid contributors and finally as substitute hosts.
Mr. Hayes, an editor for the liberal newsmagazine The Nation, started hosting the unapologetically specialized “Up” in September, in MSNBC’s first expansion of point-of-view programming on the weekends. “Up” has averaged about 375,000 total viewers, 25 percent more than the newscast shown previously in the time slot, and about 130,000 viewers ages 25 to 54, on par with the previous newscast.
Mr. Hayes said last week: “The postbroadcast universe is incredibly liberating. The show I’m doing now, I can’t imagine a universe in which it would get two million viewers. But we can beat CNN. And increasingly, we are.”
And so Mr. Hayes has spent 25 minutes on the subject of mass incarceration, and 30 minutes on Internet antipiracy legislation, and two hours on the consequences of the war in Iraq — topics that are rarely tackled at length elsewhere on television.
Sometimes it has taken five minutes, he said, to get past the talking points that are familiar to any cable news viewer. “But we have the luxury of time,” he said. In one recent segment, he and his guests stopped assessing the possible electoral effects of a reignited national debate about abortion and tried to answer something more fundamental: is a fetus a person?
“When we get it right, it’s in making the subtext the text,” Mr. Hayes said.
A typical hour of “Up” features a panel of four, and at least some of the panel members are people rarely seen on other TV shows — another benefit of the postbroadcast news universe Mr. Hayes describes.
With more hours of political talk comes more on-air time for guests of diverse backgrounds. During a Feb. 3 visit to Ms. Harris-Perry’s windowless office at Rockefeller Center, a whiteboard bearing unfamiliar names gave evidence of that. In an interview that day, she recounted numerous times when she had watched political strategists on TV and wondered why political scientists had not been booked instead.
“Part of the way I end up here is, I think the ivory tower has a ton of brilliant information that doesn’t show up for ordinary people,” she said. She has studied media stereotypes in the past, including for a book about black political thought.
Ms. Harris-Perry herself has had little trouble getting booked on TV throughout the years, first on the Chicago station WGN while teaching at the University of Chicago and later on CNN, “Democracy Now” and “Bill Moyers Journal” while teaching at Princeton.
Although she had attained tenure at Princeton, the Center for African American Studies there declined to promote her to full professor — a vote of no confidence that led her to leave for Tulane in 2010. Her second husband, James Perry, who ran for mayor of New Orleans in 2010, already lived there. She plans to spend Monday to Thursday in New Orleans and fly to New York for her show on the weekends.
Ms. Harris-Perry never used a teleprompter until she was asked to fill in for Ms. Maddow for a week in July. (She practiced with an iPad teleprompter application during a trip beforehand, “which led to hilarity on the part of my then 9-year-old,” she said.)
Mr. Griffin and his MSNBC colleagues were immediately impressed, and talk began about a regular TV show for Ms. Harris-Perry. But she had ruled out a five-day-a-week show commitment until her daughter, now 10, was in college.
Then Mr. Hayes’s program began. “When Chris blew open the weekends, I thought, ‘Oh, well I’m not doing anything on Saturdays and Sundays,’ ” she said jokingly. Her husband and daughter plan to join her in New York each weekend.
Ms. Harris-Perry says she wants to be very careful not to let her television voice — one of nearly instant opinion — affect her academic writing. But she does want to bring the academic world to television, and even imagines showing portions of her classes on her show someday.
Mr. Griffin’s advice, she said, was straightforward: “You have to earn the trust of your audience.”
Rephrasing it her way, Ms. Harris-Perry said, “They’ll go with you to nerdland, but you have to earn their trust.”