MSNBC Fires Host Melissa Harris-Perry Over Controversial Memo
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The TV host Melissa Harris-Perry and her network, MSNBC, recently parted ways, and the split was pretty ugly. The network fired Harris-Perry after she wrote a sharply worded note to colleagues. In the note, she accused NBC executives of attempting to silence her. Both sides spoke to NPR's David Folkenflik about the breakup.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: As she'll be the first to tell you, Melissa Harris-Perry's day job involves academia. She's an endowed professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. She has also had a two-hour show on Saturdays and Sundays for the past four years on MSNBC. Her show's focus on the intersections of race, history, politics, popular culture and gender made her a distinct presence on cable news.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY")
MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: W.E.B. Du Bois described in the soul of black folks the veil behind which black life takes place.
FOLKENFLIK: Under new NBC News Chairman Andy Lack, the cable network shifted toward a newsier sensibility, sort of NBC cable news during today. Several liberal opinion shows went by the wayside, though primetime stayed the same. MSNBC rebranded itself the place for politics and has won stronger daytime ratings as a result. Melissa Harris-Perry says she didn't want to become yet another political anchor just reading the latest polls.
HARRIS-PERRY: You get larger audiences during an election year, and so that is exciting but also, you know, a little bit of, you know, irritation for us as a show because although we certainly care about elections, we don't love horserace coverage.
FOLKENFLIK: In that now-infamous memo, Harris-Perry wrote, quote, "our show was taken without comment or discussion or notice in the midst of an election season." She continued, quote, "I will not be used as a tool for their purposes. I am not a token, mammy or little brown bobble head." Phil Griffin takes exception to those words. He's president of MSNBC.
PHIL GRIFFIN: We have both feet planted in the 21st century, in the changing face of America and how things look. And we should. That's important. And we have been there (laughter) for several years, and I'm proud of what we've done.
FOLKENFLIK: He says MSNBC's shift to rolling coverage of politics through all parts of the day was real but temporary. In fact, Griffin says, the Melissa Harris-Perry show was safe.
GRIFFIN: You know, I was surprised by the memo only in the sense that we had a four-year relationship with Melissa where, you know, we created, really - you know, this really terrific program that we loved and that brought different voices and that was sort of a big part of the MSNBC sensibility.
HARRIS-PERRY: It appears to be an air that is now more homogenous...
FOLKENFLIK: Again, Melissa Harris-Perry...
HARRIS-PERRY: ...Less concerned with questions of racial and social justice and less interested in highlighting a variety of concerns that shows like mine and others had been quite focused on over the past couple of years.
FOLKENFLIK: Harris-Perry says the shifts have disproportionately affected people of color and progressive voices. She notes the preemption of the MSNBC morning show of Jose Diaz-Balart. Though Diaz-Balart has reappeared more frequently from his base in Miami as the Florida primary nears.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOSE DIAZ-BALART: So where - donde esta Cruz in Florida?
MANNY ROMAN: He's coming down. He's coming down. He'll be here tomorrow. He'll be here for a couple days.
FOLKENFLIK: Trust had also frayed over a series of episode. Protests in Texas in 2013 led Harris-Perry to don novel jewelry on the air.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HARRIS-PERRY: My producer Lorena made for me last week some tampon earrings because, of course, you'll remember that the Texas State Legislature said that you couldn't bring tampons in when they...
FOLKENFLIK: Conservatives denounced her for the segment. She says MSNBC then blocked her from talking on the air about public discomfort with women's bodies. A North Carolina newspaper's disclosure that Harris-Perry and her husband owed back taxes turned into another incident. She believed the network failed to support her there, too, according to a former NBC colleague and her husband, James Harris-Perry. Melissa Harris-Perry says the die was cast.
HARRIS-PERRY: It became clearer and clearer that we were an odd entity on the network. By the time we were getting to 2016, it was pretty clear that the show was something that wasn't very much like anything else that was happening at MSNBC.
FOLKENFLIK: Harris-Perry says MSNBC has the right to make changes but should have been forthright about what it was doing. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.