The XX Factor

Melissa Harris-Perry Explains What Went Wrong With Her Beloved MSNBC Show

Melissa Harris-Perry attends a screening on March 14, 2016 in New York City.

Rob Kim/Getty Images

Since Melissa Harris-Perry left MSNBC last month, the rumor mill has been a-churning over the terms and impetus for her departure. The first most viewers heard of the tumult was when Harris-Perry got a former employee to publish her farewell email to the Melissa Harris-Perry staff on Medium, writing that “our show was taken—without comment or discussion or notice—in the midst of an election season. … I care only about substantive, meaningful, and autonomous work. When we can do that, I will return—not a moment earlier.” Then, Harris-Perry refused to sign a nondisclosure agreement in return for an exit package. Mediaite reported that she was set to join Fusion TV, then posted that she denied that report, while defending the “scoopmeister” who published the faulty intel. On Monday, Harris-Perry likened MSNBC to an unfaithful lover on The View.

The Wake Forest professor offered up more details on her exit in an interview with Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu on Buzzfeed’s Another Round podcast. In the conversation, which dropped Tuesday morning, Harris-Perry starts off with some background:

Before we got to January of 2016, MSNBC had undergone some programming changes, and we knew we were going into an election year and we wondered what the Melissa Harris-Perry show’s role was going to be. And so I had had some conversations with the leadership there. And look, on a real, like, basic level, I don’t live in New York. I live in North Carolina and I fly up on the weekends in order to do the show. I’ve been doing that for four years, and so I have an apartment here … I wanted to know whether or not I should renew the lease on the apartment.

Harris-Perry says she told her higher-ups, “‘If you think that for any reason the show is not gonna make it the whole year, let me know, I’ll stay in hotels when I come, because I don’t want to be on the hook for an apartment for the whole year.’” And, she says, “I really just couldn’t get an answer from anybody.” Just before the new year, her executive producer told her he’d gotten word that the show was going to run the full length of its contract, through October.

Then, starting the second week of January, the show’s typical branding disappeared from the broadcasts, and no one at Melissa Harris-Perry knew why. There was no soundtrack, no Melissa Harris-Perry banners at the top or bottom of the screen, no color scheme on the graphics. At first, they thought it had something to do with the presidential primaries. Then, the show’s title went missing from the network’s internal database—there was just a placeholder for “politics” in its time slot. Though MSNBC never offered Harris-Perry and her staff an explanation, she says, it was easy to see what the network was trying to do:

It was real clear to me at that point that we actually did not have a show. I was still being allowed to host initially, but the show was gone. … The second thing that happened was there was some messing around with editorial content. … We talked about poverty, we talked about sexuality, we talked about sexual assault on campus, we talked about race, we talked about a lot of pop culture. Those were the things that we felt like made our show distinct … and we began to be told not to book guests on those topics, not to talk about those topics, and to talk exclusively about the election.

The first major affront to Harris-Perry’s editorial control came on the weekend of the Super Bowl, when the show would traditionally air a segment on the sociopolitical aspects of the game and the football industrial complex. (The 2014 edition was titled “Sex, Money, & the Super Bowl.”) This year, MSNBC executives told Harris-Perry they’d need to cut the segment short; then, they ordered producers to kill the segment altogether.

Then, the night before the Super Bowl, Beyoncé dropped “Formation.” Harris-Perry and her team started rewriting their scripts. On Another Round, Harris-Perry calls Beyoncé’s track, which came out on a Saturday night, just hours before the show aired, “a gift from the TV god.” But, she says, a supervisor walked into the show’s offices and told them, “Unless you can make this somehow about the GOP primary, we’re not gonna have a conversation about Beyoncé in ‘Formation’ tomorrow.” Harris Perry says she pushed back: “Yes we are. We’ve been talking about Black Lives Matter, we’ve been talking about post-Katrina New Orleans, we’ve been talking, frankly, about Beyoncé,” and if you want a show that you can manipulate to ignore everything but GOP politics, “you must want an anchor, and I’m not an anchor.” Harris-Perry made like she was going to leave, and the supervisor relented. Melissa Harris-Perry discussed Beyoncé the next morning.

After that show, Harris-Perry says, she was not invited back to host. The next week, she was told that her slot was now “The Place for Politics,” hosted by someone else. She suspects that MSNBC president Phil Griffin was behind the Mediaite post that falsely claimed she was headed to Fusion, because “the person who wrote the piece is a guy Phil has lunch with on a weekly basis. … I think the goal is to make it look like I wanted to sever my relationship with MSNBC in order to potentially pursue new opportunities, and so if I had signed a deal within two weeks, it would look like I had purposely wanted to sever my relationship, and I absolutely did not.”

Harris-Perry characterizes MSNBC as a network that takes very special care of a few of its hosts and employees, but keeps others at a cold distance. After she was threatened by a man in Iowa, where she was traveling with her political science students during the caucuses, Wake Forest added extra security to her office and gave her students safety training. Harris-Perry says the response from MSNBC, who wouldn’t even give her a press pass during the caucus, was, “If you’re not traveling with us, if we haven’t asked you to come on as an anchor, then your security is not our problem.”

That said, she doesn’t have many complaints about her day-to-day at the network:

It was actually not the worst place that I’ve worked. Part of it is that I come in on Friday night. And I am there Saturday and Sunday, and I mostly just live in Nerdland with a team full of mostly lovely young black and brown women who are mostly feminists and identified around all the questions that we’re concerned with. And so my world is pretty great. [But] whenever things went bad and I became the subject of public controversy, MS never as a company—no one time they did, very early on, they were supportive and helpful. Every time after that…it was completely clear that the priority was to protect MS and MS’s reputation. There was never much concern over the personal cost. Emotionally, fiscally.

Since Harris-Perry departed the network, she says, she’s been overwhelmed by the response from fans concerned for her well-being and missing the show. “I didn’t know that anybody thought that way about the show quite that fully until this happened,” she says. “So I thought what we were doing at Nerdland mattered. But I also recognize that ego is a real thing. I thought what we were doing mattered, and to have people really articulate it? Ah, wow. That has been—I’d almost go through it again.” But the end of Melissa Harris-Perry means the end of MSNBC’s most reliable outlet for the voices of women and people of color. That remains Harris-Perry’s greatest concern:

I’m a relatively well-off, way overeducated black girl who had like eight jobs, and now seven. I am fine. What I do think is not fine is that the end of the show is the end of a space where a lot of voices otherwise can’t be. I do think mass media has a responsibility to put those voices there. I don’t care if I’m not on air. I want those people there. What I do hope is that an outcry about Nerdland forces, encourages, emphasizes, pushes people who do have a platform to say, “Wait a minute: There is room, interest and an audience for that thing.”