Sunday, February 28, 2016

Melissa Harris-Perry and MSNBC

When you work for someone else, as most people do, there are limits on when and how you can express your frustrations with your co-workers and especially your bosses. These limits can vary based on your immutable characteristics. Like it or not, some people can get away with more stuff than others. The limits also depend on your internal makeup. At work, when some people are upset everyone in the room has to know about it ASAP while others grimace, quietly seethe and make plans to depart. But the most obvious limit on what you can say and do at work is how valuable you are to your employer and how in demand you are elsewhere. If you are producing profits for your employer and would be difficult to replace then you can get away with things other workers can't. Money talks and bovine emission walks. But if you aren't producing profits or quality work for your employer your ability to cause work disruptions will be limited. Your boss may be looking for opportunities to bid you farewell. We saw an example of that this past weekend when Wake Forest professor Melissa Harris-Perry (MHP) and former MSNBC host of the eponymous news analysis show decided that she could no longer tolerate what she saw as hideous disrespect from her employer, MSNBC. She decided to boycott her own show this weekend. And she let everyone know why in a scathing letter that implied racial animus:
Dearest Nerds,
As you know by now, my name appears on the weekend schedule for MSNBC programming from South Carolina this Saturday and Sunday. I appreciate that many of you responded to this development with relief and enthusiasm. To know that you have missed working with me even a fraction of how much I’ve missed working with all of you is deeply moving. However, as of this morning, I do not have any intention of hosting this weekend. Because this is a decision that affects all of you, I wanted to take a moment to explain my reasoning...
Here is the reality: our show was taken — without comment or discussion or notice — in the midst of an election season. After four years of building an audience, developing a brand, and developing trust with our viewers, we were effectively and utterly silenced. Now, MSNBC would like me to appear for four inconsequential hours to read news that they deem relevant without returning to our team any of the editorial control and authority that makes MHP Show distinctive. The purpose of this decision seems to be to provide cover for MSNBC, not to provide voice for MHP Show. I will not be used as a tool for their purposes. I am not a token, mammy, or little brown bobble head. I am not owned by Lack, Griffin, or MSNBC. I love our show. I want it back. I have wept more tears than I can count and I find this deeply painful, but I don’t want back on air at any cost. I am only willing to return when that return happens under certain terms.
I have a PhD in political science and have taught American voting and elections at some of the nation’s top universities for nearly two decades, yet I have been deemed less worthy to weigh in than relative novices and certified liars..

You can read her entire letter here.

Now in most professions there is a rule that this move is not the best way to leave your workplace , emotionally pleasing as it might be. That reaction makes finding similar work in the same industry more difficult than it needs to be. I'm not sure that bit of received wisdom applies in this case. It seems that people are more tolerant of ego eruptions in the media business. Also MHP is already an author and tenured professor. MSNBC did not provide her entire income. Effectively her show at MSNBC was a well paid side gig. I'm sure that she'll be just fine financially. Still I think that MHP lost sight of the fact that (1) the ratings for her show weren't very good and (2) during an election season it's not out of line that supervisors ask you to focus a little more on election results and analysis and a little less on the oppression of overweight multiracial transgender bisexual women who suffer from hirsutism, critical though that issue may be. Mentioning a competitor's interest in your situation,as MHP did, will rub your boss the wrong way. If you publicly call out your company co-workers or invited guests as "relative novices and certified liars" then you should expect to be looking for new work soon. Challenge your bosses to fire you; get fired. And unsurprisingly, MSNBC has allegedly confirmed that MHP will not be working for them again. I hate micro managers but sometimes micro managers are created by less productive employees. If I were a cable executive overseeing a low rated show and the producer/talent resisted talking about election politics during an election season I would take a firmer hand with them. I'd want to know what their plans were for improving ratings, what sort of topics they intended to pursue and which guests they felt were worthwhile.

I liked MHP though I didn't agree with her on everything and didn't go out of my way to watch her show. Apparently not many others did either. Again, if her show was must see TV I bet that her bosses would try to find a way to turn the other cheek and tell everyone that this was all a big misunderstanding. But as her show wasn't exactly ratings gold MHP didn't have the leverage that she may have thought she did. Or maybe she knew she lacked leverage but had just had enough. I don't watch much television or MSNBC but when I do watch it seems as if Chris Matthews, Brian Williams and Rachel Maddow are on every last show doing political analysis. I can certainly understand and sympathize if MHP felt overlooked and discarded as she writes in her letter. Who among us doesn't have a story to tell about how someone did us dirty at our job? Everyone has a different tolerance for work nonsense. Joy-Ann Reid, Alex Wagner, and Andrea Mitchell all had MSNBC shows. They all lost them. But they were professional about it. So they still have jobs at MSNBC doing reporting, news analysis or substituting for other hosts. To each her own I guess. If I worked for the MHP show and lost my job because Fearless Leader threw a temper tantrum I don't think I could be even tempered about it. Boyce Watkins and Yvette Carnell point out that with the impending end of the Obama Administration there may not be the demand for black public intellectuals which was partially met by MSNBC. (Unlike Carnell?) I take no glee in this turn of events but neither do I think there is some huge crime here. 
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