What On Earth Is Going On at MSNBC?

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Host Melissa Harris-Perry’s fraught, highly publicized split with MSNBC — after she released an email describing what she saw as ill treatment — is hardly the only dramatic departure of its kind in the network’s history. Other shakeups in recent years include the firings of progressive favorites Ed Schultz and notoriously difficult, if popular, Keith Olbermann — who both played a role in MSNBC’s initial leftward drift and then attracted their share of controversy before being given the axe.

Big personalities and big networks clash over money, ego, and autonomy. This is inevitable. But media watchers have noted that Harris-Perry’s acrimonious departure comes as other hosts of color, women, and outside-the-box voices are fading from the once uniquely diverse network.

Jezebel, The Washington Post, and Politico have noted a spate of recent shufflings and dismissals of hosts and other personalities of color, a trend that has made MSNBC’s slate of programs look a lot, well, whiter and blander. The network has rebranded from “Lean Forward” to “The Place for Politics,” and the concern is that its effort to chase ratings with horse race-style political coverage that mimics that of CNN and FOX will also mean altering the demographic makeup of MSNBC to more closely resemble those networks. And that change will come at the cost of nuance and smarts.

Now that its ties with Harris-Perry are officially severed, MSNBC’s spokespeople have officially vowed that they had no intention to let her go until she aired her grievances publicly. But she continues to tweet her own side of the story, which is quite different:

In her initial comments to the press about her fraying relationship with the network, Harris-Perry reported feeling like she was being stonewalled, preempted, and disinvited from participating in election-night coverage, even on subjects on which she was an expert. “After four years of building an audience, developing a brand, and developing trust with our viewers, we were effectively and utterly silenced,” she wrote in her email to staffers, which was later made public at her request. “Now, MSNBC would like me to appear for four inconsequential hours to read news that they deem relevant without returning to our team any of the editorial control and authority that makes MHP Show distinctive”

Harris-Perry has walked back the specific accusations of racism she raised in that email, but continues to discuss the racial implications of the network’s reshuffling. Today, she describes to the Times a night in which the big topic was the black vote in South Carolina, and she found herself sitting on standby while three white pundits discussed the issue. Furthermore, The Washington Post reports,

People close to Harris-Perry compiled a list of names of those with minority backgrounds who’ve been dismissed or assigned to lesser roles in the past year. The list includes program hosts such as Al Sharpton, Alex Wagner and Joy Reid, and African American contributors and pundits such as Michael Eric Dyson, Touré, Karen Finney and Goldie Taylor. Three other African Americans who have appeared as panelists and pundits — Janet Mock, Dorian Warren and the Rev. Jacqui Lewis — now mostly appear on Shift by MSNBC, the network’s little-viewed digital channel. In addition, MSNBC officials have signaled that José Díaz-Balart, who anchors a weekday morning slot, may be reassigned soon to make way for an expansion of “Morning Joe” or the addition of a program hosted by one of “Morning Joe’s” personalities.

The change is evident to political junkies like myself, who can recall the way Rachel Maddow came to prominence as a guest on Keith Olbermann’s show, and then figures such as Harris-Perry and Chris Hayes were groomed as frequent talking heads on Maddow’s show. Thanks to the change in its mission back in those days, MSNBC’s election-night coverage was often filled with quirky personalities. From Chris Matthews, who foamed at the same mouth into which he often stuck his foot, to the wonky, erudite Chris Hayes, seasoned fighter Al Sharpton, and laser sharp Maddow to guests like Harris-Perry, Taylor, and others, there was a palpable sense that the network was building something diverse in the best sense of the word: a cable TV experience that mirrored the Internet’s freewheeling, often raucous, silly, and partisan discourse that occasionally reached sublime heights of smarts and spirit.

This was true on the network as a whole, but even more particularly on Harris-Perry’s show, which, as this Media Matters calculation shows, was completely different in the ethnic and gender makeup of its guests from any other Sunday show. The majority of people who appeared were not white men, making Melissa Harris-Perry the opposite of every competitor besides Chris Hayes, who later moved to primetime. But Harris-Perry’s guests, whether white and male or not, were also just interesting: she often made room for actual activists, as well as religious and academic figures and bloggers, at her roundtable.

Melissa Harris-Perry, affectionately dubbed “Nerdland” by its fans, was certainly the only Sunday show I ever watched, partly because of its engagement with pop culture (the last segment I tuned in to was about the politics of Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, which was fantastic but apparently frustrated brass who wanted all politics, all the time). Already, her regular guests of color are mourning the singular platform the show gave them.

We don’t know what’s in the heads and hearts of MSNBC’s brass, but we do know know what we see — and don’t see — on television. I still prefer MSNBC to execrable FOX and mawkish CNN for settling in and watching election returns, though it has unquestionably lost some of the vibrance and looseness I once loved. Now the focus too often feels like it’s on Maddow and a team of white-guy imports from NBC: Chuck Todd and known fabricator Brian Williams, who are decidedly generic in approach, and have thus far failed to offer much in the way of refreshing perspectives or dazzling insights.