MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry brings her analytical POV to cable news
As a tenured professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans, a columnist for The Nation magazine, and, as of February, host of an eponymous weekend talk show on MSNBC, Melissa Harris-Perry maintains a schedule that would make even the most intrepid working mother break out in hives.
During a lunchtime interview in her spartan office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, Harris-Perry provides an exhaustive rundown of her jam-packed week. The explanation itself takes close to 10 minutes, during which time Harris-Perry barely pauses to take a breath — much less a bite of her salad.
From Monday through Thursday, Harris-Perry is in New Orleans, where she lives with her husband of just over a year, politician and housing activist James Perry, and her 10-year-old daughter, Parker. Wednesday is her marathon day: She teaches two classes, conducts office hours, then takes a conference call with her team of MSNBC producers while en route to a “Women and Politics” reading group. By noon the next day, she’s on a plane to New York, where she spends the ensuing 36 hours frantically prepping the her show, which airs live on Saturday and Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. Pacific time. Perry and Parker fly out on Friday evenings and, once Harris-Perry’s show wraps on Sunday, the whole family returns to New Orleans to start the process all over again.
“It really did blow up my entire life,” admits Harris-Perry, 38, whose distinguished resume includes stints at the University of Chicago and Princeton University.
But as a black feminist and academic, Harris-Perry says the opportunity to bring her unique perspective to a broad television audience, particularly during a heated presidential campaign -- and to be one of just a handful of African-American women anchoring a cable-news program -- makes the grueling schedule worthwhile. “It is more than I could ever do with my books,” she says.
Harris-Perry’s windowless office does double duty as a conference room for the show’s production staff. On the wall hangs a white board where words like “Syria” and “Spanx” are scrawled in black ink. The space is evocative of the show Harris-Perry is trying to create, one that mixes political prognostication with thoughtful analysis of cultural trends — especially ones that relate to women and minorities. She’s used the same approach in her more scholarly work, including the book “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women In America,” published by Yale University press last fall.
A primary goal for “Nerdland,” as Harris-Perry self-deprecatingly calls her show, is to expand the very idea of what is considered “political,” meaning she covers pop-culture trends almost as closely as the presidential horse race. On the weekend before the Oscars, for instance, she convened a panel of experts to discuss “The Help.” In another segment typical of her high-low sensibility, Harris-Perry and “Scandal” actress Kerry Washington talked at length about Nicki Minaj, Michelle Obama and black female identity.
When it comes to guests, Harris-Perry avoids the usual D.C. pundits, relying instead on her Rolodex of academic friends and activist-minded Hollywood stars. At the end of her very first broadcast, Harris-Perry made an impassioned plea to her dream guest, Beyoncé, to appear on the show, even offering her producers as babysitters for Blue Ivy. (The pop star has yet to bite.) At the opposite end of the spectrum, she also strives to hear directly from the under-represented, with recent panelists like Barbara Young, a domestic worker, and Bonita Cuff, a mother of five who relies on food bank donations to feed her family.
Similarly, Harris-Perry aims to talk about politics well beyond the beltway. “I always define myself as a Southerner,” explains the host, who grew up in Charlottesville, Va. and later studied at both Wake Forest and Duke. “I have a vision of myself sitting on a porch in Arkansas with Mike Huckabee and Bill Clinton, talking about the South.”
Harris-Perry’s unique approach has earned the praise of her MSNBC colleagues. “[Melissa and her producers] are beating their own path through the news in a way that is super-ambitious, totally unafraid, nuanced, aggressive,” says fellow academic-turned-broadcaster Rachel Maddow. “Melissa has a quiet confidence about her that allows her to do stuff that nobody else could do. She really raises the bar.”
Following in the footsteps of Chris Hayes, whose show “Up” leads into hers, Harris-Perry is the latest wonky and telegenic Nation magazine veteran to land a show on MSNBC. And, like Hayes, Harris-Perry got her start as a network contributor and guest host for Maddow before MSNBC president Phil Griffin convinced her to come onboard.
They provide a buoyant and brainy counterweight to the network’s more bombastic primetime personalities, like Ed Schultz and Chris Matthews, and despite their decidedly progressive politics, their shows rarely descend into partisan screaming matches.
“Sometimes I think to myself, ‘Do they know what they’ve done?’” Harris-Perry laughs.
“I think what we've created with her and with Chris is a new kind of television on the weekends,” Griffin says. “This is about ideas, about depth, about interesting people from broad backgrounds who maybe don't look like the traditional anchorman or woman, but really have a lot to bring.”
Despite her lack of experience in hard news, Harris-Perry is oddly well-suited to the current presidential campaign, with its revived focus on social issues. Since her show debuted two months ago, the news cycle has been dominated by controversies steeped in identity politics, from Rush Limbaugh’s unsavory remarks about Sandra Fluke, to recent barbs directed at stay-at-home-mom Ann Romney, and, most pointedly, the killing of Trayvon Martin. After Fox News personality Geraldo Rivera suggested that Martin's hoodie was “as responsible for his death” as George Zimmerman, Harris-Perry presented the “MHP dress code for black safety” in a segment that went viral online. “Listen up young men, no red or blue, no sagging pants, and certainly no hoodies. If you want to play it safe, dress like, you know, Skip Gates,” she suggested, a sarcastic reference to the African-American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, arrested trying to get into his own home in 2009.
Asked if she feels obligated to speak for any one particular group — whether women, African Americans, Southerners, or liberals — Harris-Perry replies, “I feel a lot of pressure but it’s not about representation. My pressure is just more kind of the standard perfectionism.” She does, however, “hope that women of color feel particularly excited about [the show].”
And despite her rising profile, Harris-Perry has no long-term plans to abandon academics for a broadcasting career. “Phil Griffin can fire me any time he wants after I have Beyoncé,” she says. “I just need a TV show long enough for that.”
-- Meredith Blake
Photo: Melissa Harris-Perry. Credit: Heidi Gutman/MSNBC