I caught quite a bit of flak for my recent piece on Melissa Harris-Perry’s angry meltdown and subsequent departure from MSNBC. That’s not a big deal; I’m paid to get yelled at on Twitter by strangers and being disappointing to friends and family is the kind of thing I’ve long-since perfected. It’s worth noting, though, that my point wasn’t that Melissa Harris-Perry was a bad host or that she deserved to be a second string player at MSNBC. It’s simply that, fair or not, she was considered second string by MSNBC and NBC management — rather than being prime-time marquee talent — and that meant she was in no position to demand editorial autonomy or expect that her show will never be preempted during live coverage the way so many others often are. You can argue all you want about whether Chris Matthews deserves to be extended any deference whatsoever, but the fact remains that he is, because at MSNBC he’s a star. Melissa Harris-Perry wasn’t.
But with Harris-Perry’s departure comes a lot of talk about the changing face of MSNBC. Since the mid-00s, MS has been regarded by some as a “liberal” network, the left-leaning answer to Fox News. It’s a label the network embraced and began promoting once it realized that there was the potential for money and ratings in taking a political stand opposite the most successful cable news network in the country. Now, however, with the return of once and current NBC News chief Andy Lack, the ground is shifting at MSNBC, something he promised would happen. It’s obvious to anyone watching — all 17 of you, on some days — that MSNBC is moving back toward the center and more toward breaking news coverage. Why it would do this given that CNN already exists is anyone’s guess, but Lack isn’t a stupid person at all. He led NBC News during the 90s, which was a period of cultural, ratings and creative dominance for the network and was brought back specifically to right the ship after the catastrophe that was Pat Fili-Krushel and Deb Turness’s tenures.
At issue now is whether moving back toward objective news coverage means an upheaval and ousting of people of color at the network — their shows at the very least. Al Sharpton’s “PoliticsNation” was already exiled to Sunday mornings — although, to be completely honest, Sharpton shouldn’t even be on the network at all — and with Melissa Harris-Perry gone there are questions about the future of Jose Diaz-Balart and Alex Wagner. The latter had her weekday show canceled but was supposed to be moved to weekends alongside Sharpton, but it looks like that plan has now been scrapped. The former, meanwhile, has seen his weekday morning show preempted over the past several days in favor of campaign coverage. He still hopes to return. To be fair, MSNBC has also culled plenty of white faces as well — people like Ed Schultz, Abby Huntsman and Ronan Farrow — but some are already angry over what they perceive as a color purge at MSNBC as it places itself firmly in the hands of political and journalistic hacks like Mark Halperin and John Heilemann and, inexplicably, gives Morning Joe even more airtime.
Here’s the important thing to keep in mind, though: MSNBC was never going to be the kind of liberal network liberals wanted it to be. And no, I’m not talking about people on the far-left for whom it was always part of the “establishment machine.” I mean center-left types who simply wanted a network that specifically and concretely took their political side. True, Keith Olbermann started the move leftward and the network still gives feature positions — and will continue to — to Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell. (And perhaps even Chris Hayes, who miraculously keeps avoiding being Ned Starked for low ratings.) But as long as the last three letters of MSNBC are “NBC,” the network will remain hamstrung by NBC News’s need to appear entirely objective. Unlike Fox News and CNN, which aren’t attached to a larger editorial mothership, MSNBC has a reputation to uphold that isn’t its own. The network can’t be seen reflecting poorly on NBC News — and in the eyes of network management “poorly” is synonymous with “overly biased.”
Now, is this fair? Probably not when you consider that, as Stephen Colbert famously said, reality itself has a liberal bias. Is it bad for TV journalism and the discourse? Oh, hell yes, given that MSNBC’s new direction — or redirection — will almost certainly mean much more of the phony objectivity and both-sides memeing that’s done real damage to us as a country, as most cable news abdicated its responsibility to call liars and bullshit artists to the carpet. Is it bad for diversity of race, ethnicity and opinions? Opinions most certainly, but at the moment MSNBC chairman Phil Griffin is still swearing that the changes going on won’t pull the network away from its responsibility to racial and ethnic diversity. There will probably be people of color as part of the lineup once the dust settles, but it’s doubtful there will be people of color talking about issues affecting people of color through a strongly liberal prism — at least not as a regular feature of a regular show. The NBC News mothership and its management will likely see to that. But if you change the subject to almost anything else, the result will be the same. It’s the strongly liberal prism that’s the issue.
Earlier today, Melissa Harris-Perry launched into a scorched earth diatribe on Twitter aimed at MSNBC and its executives. She directly attacked Phil Griffin and MSNBC Senior V.P. Yvette Miley — a black woman, close personal friend and legitimately one of the most talented news managers I’ve ever worked with — seeming to accuse them of leaking to the press the e-mail she sent to her staff last week declaring she was boycotting her own show. She mocked and rejected the non-disparagement agreement the network tried to get her to sign (which is standard operating procedure for on-air talent being let go). She appeared to tweet from inside MSNBC during her exit negotiations. She apologized directly to Martin Bashir, Touré and Karen Finney for, I guess, not standing up for them when they lost their shows (keeping in mind that Bashir resigned after making a crude remark about Sarah Palin). Read between the lines of her comments and you can see that at some point MSNBC managers referred to her as “challenging” and “unpredictable.” I can’t imagine why they’d say something like that.
Look, MSNBC is indeed corporate media. As such it’s interested in two things: objectively reporting events to the best of its ability and honoring its bottom line. The latter of those is an unfortunate fact of life and it can absolutely come into conflict with the former, but that’s how it is. MSNBC was never going to be Melissa Harris-Perry’s one-woman bullhorn because she was never the one in charge — NBC News was and is — and there would always be network considerations far beyond the issues most important to her. And that’s really the key here: MSNBC is a network. The last time it was anyone’s personal soapbox, and that person was adamant about it being that, he was fired unceremoniously. This is how NBC News wants it and this is how it is. That should’ve been obvious to Harris-Perry coming in since, despite a short-lived period of experimentation with its red-headed cable stepchild, NBC News’s reputation for straight news is baked into the walls of 30 Rock. And NBC News is in charge of MSNBC.
It’s obvious Melissa Harris-Perry is thrilled to be done with MSNBC. She admits now that she had no specific indication her show was going to be canceled just because it was preempted for a couple of weeks, which means all of this could have been avoided — but, hey, good for her regardless. The thing is Harris-Perry shouldn’t think she got shafted any worse than anybody else who came before her, worked with her, or will come after her, regardless of race, ethnicity or just about anything else. MSNBC’s dealings with her were standard. And while the network may occasionally run left-leaning opinion, it isn’t a liberal network. It never has been and it never will be. That should be clear by now.