The Melissa Harris-Perry media frenzy: How a white news world sees a woman of color

The disproportionate furor over her transracial adoption segment says a lot about the racial politics of cable news

Published January 6, 2014 6:32PM (EST)

Melissa Harris-Perry             (MSNBC/Heidi Gutman)
Melissa Harris-Perry (MSNBC/Heidi Gutman)

Cable news viewers aren't used to hosts who hold the door open. We are used to formulas, a company line, a clear agenda -- be it right-wing or leftist. We expect hosts to re-invite predictable guests, to welcome insular punditry and to moderate discourse that pontificates about crime, poverty, gender identity and politics from an objective distance.

These sets are closed, in more ways than one. Usually, a host performs his role as a gatekeeper would, ushering in panelists who'll remember not to speak out of turn and who'll spar a bit, but only in benign, defanged or controlled ways. Above all, a host remembers to shut the door behind him.

MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry is unlike other hosts. In just under two years on air, she's invited scores of marginalized citizens, from striking fast-food workers and black teens who've experienced police and civilian profiling to transgender activists and neighborhood dance troupes. She has given space to grieving parents who’ve lost their children in acts of racialized violence, and she’s affirmed and spotlighted the social justice efforts of unsung movement-makers.

Their names are not often familiar -- and that's precisely the point. Viewers need the firsthand accounts of those anonymous Americans struggling to budget a minimum wage income as much as they need the quick calculations of the nation's leading economists. And certainly, viewers need weekly panelists who represent their own cultural, racial, gender and ethnic diversity. According to Media Matters, Harris-Perry’s weekend broadcasts lead in guest diversity on MSNBC by a wide margin.

Without inviting diverse representatives to the table -- and truly allowing them an opportunity to share their truths -- cable news commentary becomes so much sounding brass and tinkling cymbal. Love -- of community and of country -- leaves the door open. And love apologizes when someone is harmed even if no harm was intended, even when the outrage seems disproportionate to the offense.

In a December segment, Harris-Perry's panelists used a Romney family photo that included his adopted African-American grandson as a springboard for jokes about visceral racial difference and the GOP's lack of diversity. This weekend, Harris-Perry herself delivered a tearful apology to the family of Mitt Romney and transracial adoptive families everywhere at the top of her Saturday broadcast. Romney publicly accepted the apology in a Fox News Sunday interview, stating he believed it to be “clearly heartfelt.”

Between the December broadcast and Harris-Perry's on-air apology (which followed two earlier, written apologies on her Twitter account and MSNBC's website), competing cable news networks CNN and Fox suggested that Harris-Perry's job might be at stake, while conservative writers penned angry screeds and conservative social media users trolled Harris-Perry's Twitter account and the accounts of her panelists.

In truth, far more malice was projected onto Harris-Perry’s original segment than was reasonable. Panelist Pia Glenn sang two lines of a familiar children’s song: “One of the these things is not like the other/one of these things just isn’t the same,” and comedian Dean Obeidallah added, “I think the photo is great; it really sums up the diversity of the Republican Party.” Taken literally, Glenn is pointing out the obvious: Kieran Romney’s race is unlike his relatives’. Given how important it is for transracial adoptive families to acknowledge and engage with their racial differences, this isn’t a taboo observation. Obeidallah’s joke is a fairly common one: There are significantly fewer black Republicans than white ones. (Romney won just 6 percent of the nationwide black vote in his 2012 Republican presidential bid.)

No one would argue that Harris-Perry or any other news leader is beyond reproach, but it’s interesting to examine the kind of vitriol that’s been leveled at her in the last week -- an intentional vitriol, it should be noted, that was absent in her original segment on the Romney adoption. The Hollywood Reporter tracks the various insults and rumors that surfaced in the last few days, all of which were harsher in tone than Harris-Perry's initial coverage.

Harris-Perry’s segment drastically differs from the employment-ending comments made by her erstwhile network colleague Martin Bashir, whose disparagement of Sarah Palin was direct and clear in its intent to offend. That her job security was called into question -- however briefly or nebulously -- caused viewers to rally behind her with the Twitter hashtag #StandWithMHP. Scores of supporters shared their reasons for continuing to back the embattled host, and unsurprisingly, many of those reasons underscored her audience’s appreciation of and need for her work, both on-screen and off.

It’s still a mystery to many how this comparatively mild infraction sparked a rumor about the “firing” that CNN’s Fredericka Whitfield hinted could be imminent. Dylan Byers of Politico pooh-poohed this idea, stating that the “some” supposedly calling for Harris-Perry’s firing amounted to a few Twitter users (Whitfield cited just one on air). Still, before Romney’s gesture of forgiveness Sunday morning, the rumor had indeed gained some traction.

Perhaps the least perplexed of us all was Melissa Harris-Perry herself. During a sit-down with black feminist writer bell hooks at the New School in November, Harris-Perry asserted that her show's existence was due in part to a shift in the cultural zeitgeist. “Clearly it's part of a set of very odd circumstances that are part of this moment historically where we have an African-American man as president ... There's a shift that occurs around representation and that shift occurs at the same time when there's a profit motivation to get an audience ... There's no moment in cable news where people are not making any kind of decision based on believing there is audience and income out there." She went on to express, in a moment of remarkable candor, that as a black woman on a network subsidized by powerful white men, she always felt her job was a bit tenuous.

Too often, admissions like hers are dismissed as hyperbole or paranoia by those of us who don't like our lives, not just as minorities in a white/male-dominated space but as those who leave the door open for other marginalized people to join us. But the digital-pitchfork-chase that ensued this week, despite Harris-Perry's multiple apologies and clear regret, makes clear how little grace many -- from anchors at competing cable networks to conservatives online and in print -- are willing to extend to female media makers at major networks.

By Stacia L. Brown

Stacia L. Brown is a mother, writer, and adjunct college instructor. She blogs at

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