Wednesday, July 27, 2011

MSNBC weighs change in the starting lineup

MSNBC, like much of the mainstream media, has come under fire in recent years for the absence of black and minority commentators and newsreaders in prime-time. The absence of minorities in television news is part of a general decline in minorities in newsrooms across America — the collateral damage from an industry still making the long existential shift from newsprint to the online realm in the midst of the worst economy in our lifetimes.

So MSNBC’s recent vote of confidence in two African American thought leaders as on-air personalities is a break with the prevailing trend. As ever, the devil is in the details.

Rev. Al Sharpton, longtime social activist and a frequent guest on various MSNBC properties, is reported to be in line for his own program on MSNBC, at the 6 o’clock hour, replacing the unhappily departed Cenk Uygur. Over the past week, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Newser reported that signing Sharpton was all but a done deal.

Or so it’s been said. To this point, more than a week after the first disclosures of Sharpton’s possible consideration first surfaced, nothing’s been finalized yet. How detailed can a contract be? The longer it goes on, the more the suspicion grows that someone in a gray suit is looking out the window of the executive suite and having second thoughts.

Sharpton’s larger-than-life style, his vocal delivery honed as it was in the church and in the street, has the virtue of directness; if the stars align for him at MSNBC, he’d certainly make the 6 o’clock hour interesting.

Maybe too interesting for some, interesting at the expense of some other African American journalist more qualified to engage newsmakers in the topics of the day as a skeptic rather than a flamethrower.

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Richard Prince of the Maynard Institute, which supports and monitors media diversity, said as much when he blogged on his Journal-Isms blog that Jeff Winbush, a blogger and former editor of the Columbus Post, and a member of the National Association of Black Journalists, told colleagues that a Sharpton ascension “would still be just another non-journalist media ‘celebrity’ receiving a TV show based upon their name recognition, not their years of experience, training, ability and talent.” reported it today.

The blogosphere has surely weighed in. Joe Hill, commenting July 18 in “I’m a good lefty and a devoted watcher of MSNBC, but Rev. Al is really a clumsy and not very insightful host. Please, no.”

EFMLawSF, same place, July 20: “Sharpton is a bridge too far. He is neither well-educated nor well-informed, and he is not well-spoken. He is a street corner debater with no new information and little information of any kind or vintage. He tries to generate interest by being loud, aggressive, and belligerent. This is fine when the comments of a guest warrant it, but it isn’t a good default demeanor.”

This could explain the slow-motion chin-pulling re Sharpton by MSNBC brass.

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Less problematic, from the standpoint of academics and telegenic grooming, is Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, author, professor of political science at Tulane University and a frequent guest on numerous MSNBC shows. On Monday, during analysis of President Obama’s debt-ceiling speech, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell announced that Harris-Perry would be filling in as guest host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” while Maddow was on vacation — filling in for the rest of the week, in the sweet spot of prime-time.

Again the blogosphere jumped in, many commenters heaping praise on Harris-Perry’s on-air style and her sometimes startling but smartly rendered perspectives on the day’s news. Some even asked outright why she wasn’t considered for the program slot thought to go to Sharpton.

“I am LOVING Melissa Harris-Perry as Maddow's guest host,” wrote one commenter at Democratic Underground.

“Give a show to Melissa Harris-Perry. Love her,” someone wrote at

News Corpse community-blogging at the Daily Kos: “Maddow presently has the highest ratings on MSNBC. That makes someone like Harris-Parry particularly compelling. A black woman with intelligence, insight, and personality could reproduce at 6:00 pm the success Maddow has in primetime.”

You could see the possibilities tonight in her maiden “Rachel Maddow” voyage. She did just fine. Within one minute of beginning her guest stint, it was clear: Harris-Perry has the indefinable It that television lives and dies by. Polished, manicured, affable, incandescent. The camera loves her.

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The fact that MSNBC is apparently actively considering a Sharpton show, and maybe passively considering a spot for Harris-Perry, is hopeful for reasons that don’t diminish in the least the legitimate objections of minority journalists.

It means that a major news channel may be stepping up to the plate to give African American thought leaders — and journalists, if the network is to be philosophically consistent — what they’ve always wanted, what we’ve always needed: the chance, the opportunity, to succeed in the same mainstream media arena, to elevate concerns of African Americans to the national debate, to let all Americans experience news and commentary as delivered by an African American face — as surely as, since Jan. 20, 2009, much of the news that matters has been created by a man with a black face.

And not to confer anything close to sagacity upon the jefes at MSNBC, but should Sharpton and Harris-Perry both make the cut, that channel would have pulled off something of a perceptual coup for its black viewers: bringing two prominent African American voices to prime-time cable, voices whose life experiences, genders and perspectives reflect more of the diversity of experience — from the asphalt to the ivy, from the street to the suite — that makes us who and what we are.

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It’s still to be seen how long it takes the machinery of MSNBC to make its decision on either Sharpton or Harris-Perry; it’s s safe bet that, with a fractious 2012 presidential campaign about to step off, MSNBC’s current lineup may be in flux for some time to come. MSNBC may be doing nothing more than field-testing show hosts (and gauging public reaction before the fact, via social media) in today’s relative quietude, months before the campaign madness begins.

So be it. In today’s informational free-for-all, the addition of one and possibly two African American luminaries to the existing spectrum of viewpoints is a good first step toward pluralizing the ranks of America’s electronic journalists.

The next step — letting those luminaries become part of a wider, deeper mix of black and minority journalists at other networks, talents working both behind the camera and in front of it — will be no less important.

Image credits: Sharpton and Harris-Perry: MSNBC.

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