I’m more than a little heartbroken at the news today about Melissa Harris-Perry’s departure from MSNBC. Her show is set to record on my DVR each weekend. Mostly on weekends, I’m running errands or sometimes at church or just somewhere else when her show airs but I always – always – watch it later (skipping the commercials, thank you DVR). Harris-Perry’s has become for me a kind of touchstone for Where We Are Now in the nation in terms of race, gender and a range of social justice issues. Melissa Harris-Perry is also a the North Star for what it means to a scholar-activist-journalist in the digital era.
“Probably my biggest angst about being an academic is that question of whether or not it makes a difference beyond just your students in the classroom,” Harris-Perry said during a 2012 interview.
Melissa Harris-Perry is, in many ways, a 21st century scholar-activist. She is a respected scholar, a professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University, an activist, and until this weekend, her eponymous talk show on the MSNBC news network gave her a wide reach beyond the traditional classroom.
Calling Harris-Perry the “foremost public intellectual today,” Ta-Nehisi Coates described her show this way:
“[it] brings a broad audience into a classroom without using dead academic language and tortured abstractions”.
Her weekend morning show routinely featured two hours of scholars, activists, journalists, and documentary filmmakers from diverse range of backgrounds discussing the social issues of the day. To augment the conversation further, the show’s producers also curated a conversation on the Twitter hashtag #nerdland, evoking her – and her audience’s – identification as ‘nerds.’
— Melissa Harris-Perry (@MHarrisPerry) February 28, 2016
Twenty years ago, leading academic thinker Ernest Boyer, in his famous remarks on the ‘scholarship of engagement’, conjured a show very much Harris-Perry’s when he sought to reimagine the weekend news show of that day, Washington Week in Review, when he wrote:
I find it fascinating, for example, that the provocative Public Broadcasting Service program Washington Week in Review invites us to consider current events from the perspective of four or five distinguished journalists who, during the rest of the week, tend to talk only to themselves. I’ve wondered occasionally what Washington Week in Review would sound like if a historian, an astronomer, an economist, an artist, a theologian, and perhaps a physician, for example, were asked to comment (Boyer, 1996, p. 25).
What Boyer instinctively knew, and what Melissa Harris-Perry has demonstrated, is that there are productive, vibrant and interesting conversations to be had across traditional lines of journalism or academia and that at least some segment of the public is interested in listening to these. Harris-Perry extended this a step further by regularly inviting grassroots activists on to her show for conversation with journalists, scholars of all kinds, artists and filmmakers.
The fact that many of her guests were people of color, including many African American women, meant that Harris-Perry created a unique and much-needed space within the mostly white and male set of guests on mainstream and cable news shows. Each of her carefully curated and produced shows made liars out of those who only schedule white men (and some white women) as guests, experts and pundits because they “can’t find” people of color to book.
It may have been her critical stance on race and gender that MSNBC executives objected to. There are some reports suggesting that it was a proposed segment on the recent Beyoncé video that prompted MSNBC executives to cancel her show. Of course, Melissa Harris-Perry has not been with out her missteps on the race, such as the cringe-worthy interview with Rachel Dolezal.
Still, Melissa Harris-Perry’s critical and mostly spot-on takes about racism for four years at MSNBC have marked an important shift in the culture. For the four years her show was on the air, an African American woman and a public intellectual led a conversation that elevated the public sphere by bringing in new voices to the conversation that most cable news viewers rarely get to hear. Her show also did the kind of thing that Ernest Boyer imagined twenty years ago, by bringing together people from a range of backgrounds, scholars, activist, journalists and filmmakers.
The decision by MSNBC to effectively disappear Melissa Harris-Perry and her show is a loss for us all and diminishes the public sphere. It also serves as a reminder that being a public intellectual on a corporate-controlled platform is always a Faustian bargain.