With debut of Melissa Harris-Perry, MSNBC continues slow diversification of anchor ranks
It may be the best reason of all to root for academic Melissa Harris-Perry as she enters the rough-and-tumble world of cable TV news as MSNBC's newest weekend anchor.
Told that MSNBC president Phil Griffin praised her for "holding the numbers," Harris-Perry had an uncomfortable admission to make.
She had no idea what that means.
"I literally have no idea what you're talking about," she added, laughing. Griffin was saying that when she appears as a substitute anchor for MSNBC star Rachel Maddow, the viewership numbers hold steady.
In other words, the same people who like Maddow, currently MSNBC's biggest star in prime time, also seem to like her.
"I don't even know what the numbers are, I don't even know how one would get them," said Harris-Perry, a professor at Tulane University who still considers herself an academic with a second (or third) job in television. "Who knew?"
Harris-Perry has a steep learning curve ahead. At 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, she begins hosting her own weekend show on MSNBC, Melissa Harris-Perry, taking the helm after appearing as a panelist and guest host on other shows.
"(While guest-hosting) I'd bring my own voice, pitch my own stories but, you know, it was their show and I was baby-sitting it," she said. "So we'll see whether or not people actually would like a Melissa show, because Melissa's show is not Melissa in Rachel's seat, right?"
Her ascension also helps answer a prominent critique of MSNBC and cable TV news channels in general: that they aren't diverse enough in important, on-camera anchor jobs.
Before civil rights activist Al Sharpton began hosting his PoliticsNation show last year, MSNBC didn't have a person of color anchoring a show anywhere near the high-profile prime time news hours. Competitors CNN and Fox News still haven't broken that color line, though all channels have anchors of color who appear in the morning or afternoon and on weekends.
"The current lineup of hosts (across cable news) certainly is not reflective of the demographics of our nation," said Harris-Perry, who is, like President Obama, the child of a interracial couple who self-identifies as African American. "(But) it feels to me like MSNBC is going for substance and … who we are racially is part of a larger package of what we can bring for a larger, more diverse conversation."
Last month, the National Association of Black Journalists announced its 2011 Thumbs Down award for worst practices in journalism would go to all the major cable news channels, for their inability to hire African-American journalists to appear in prime time hours (generally defined as 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.).
(Full disclosure: I am currently head of the NABJ's Media Monitoring Committee and served on the panel when it recommended candidates for this award.)
But that perspective didn't sit well with MSNBC president Griffin, who insists Sharpton's show falls inside MSNBC's definition of prime time — 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. — while pointing to efforts to develop a bench of African-American guest hosts who might become full-time anchors.
Besides Harris-Perry and Sharpton, MSNBC has featured Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson and Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson as guest hosts or contributors on the channel.
While critics like me and groups such as NABJ worry that just one among those four black people under development is a professional journalist, Griffin swats away that notion as unfairly limiting and borderline elitist.
"I'm sorry, I don't care about journalists. … I want fair-minded, smart people who understand the world and can interpret it," he said. "If they're journalists, great. This notion that you somehow you have to have done something to earn so-called journalists' credentials? Stop."
For Griffin, the process is simple. He puts on someone as a panelist/expert, and if they do well, they get a shot at guest anchoring. If that works, they might get a shot at a show.
It's the way Maddow met the MSNBC audience, guest-hosting then-MSNBC star Keith Olbermann's Countdown before earning her own show, and it's the way Lawrence O'Donnell progressed to hosting his show, The Last Word.
"People kept saying 'You need diverse anchors' and I said we're going to develop them," Griffin added, citing CNN's hiring of former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer — who lasted just nine months anchoring in prime time — as an example of what he hoped to avoid.
"The notion that you just take somebody your audience doesn't know and put them on in a key role is a direct way to failure," he said. "MSNBC did that for a decade, whether it was Jesse Ventura or Deborah Norville or other people. We'll never do that (again); I've learned."
It's a lesson that comes for a reason. Turns out, MSNBC was the highest-rated network among African-American viewers last year, according to data from the Nielsen Co.
In 2011, MSNBC drew an average 67,000 black viewers from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., while CNN attracted 51,000 and Fox News drew 15,000, Nielsen reported.
(As evidence of how different viewership patterns can be, Fox News last month celebrated 10 years as the most-watched cable news channel, averaging 1.8 million viewers last year in the traditional prime time hours, according to the Washington Post.)
But Harris-Perry has faced her own critics, including academic and pundit Boyce Watkins, who has accused her and Sharpton of getting a jobs at MSNBC because they support President Barack Obama and help suppress more aggressive criticism of him by other black people.
Acknowledging that plans for her show were still a work in progress — MSNBC delayed its debut from Feb. 5 after our interview — Harris-Perry also noted that her show is an experiment of sorts, for both her and MSNBC.
"I think none of us really quite know whether or not … (black anchors in prime time) bringing you the news will work," she said. "But, I mean, (white people) did vote for a black guy for president. … I think that's pretty remarkable, actually."