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So What Do You Do, Melissa Harris-Perry, MSNBC Host and Tulane University Professor?

"The point of doing this show is not about the ratings."

By Janelle Harris - October 17, 2012
Melissa Harris-Perry is no journalist. She respects them, she appreciates them, she depends at least partly on their handicraft, but she's pretty candid about not having a desire to be an on-the-ground reporter or investigative newshound. The role she's carved in the media pantheon, she clarifies, is offering perspective on the news stories that journalists produce. "I'm an analyst and an academic, and my goal is to take information and understand it, even while I bring data and evidence to bear and engage people who disagree with me in order to test those arguments," she explains.

That and she hosts an eponymous cable TV show that confronts those little conversational topics like race, gender and politics with aplomb and just a twinge of unapologetic controversy, highlighted in the open letter she wrote to WaPo columnist George Will about his criticism of Americans' racial empathies for President Obama. Here, the Tulane University professor and author of Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America -- who pens a column of the same name for The Nation -- talks the upcoming election and the one "presidential" issue she wants thrown off the table for good.

Name: Melissa Harris-Perry
Position: Author, professor, columnist and host of MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry
Resume: Professor of political science at University of Chicago (1999-2005), politics and African-American studies at Princeton (2006-2010) and, currently, political science at Tulane University, where she serves as founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South. Author of Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought (2004) and Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (2011). Monthly columnist for The Nation and frequent TV and radio commentator. Debuted Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC in February 2012.
Birthdate: October 2
Hometown: New Orleans
Education: B.A. in English from Wake Forest and a Ph.D. in political science from Duke; studied theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York
Marital status: Married
Media idols: Bill Moyers, Gwen Ifill and Rachel Maddow
Favorite TV shows: House Hunters and Parks and Recreation
Guilty pleasures: HGTV and baking
Last book read: Assata: An Autobiography of Assata Shakur
Twitter handle: @MHarrisPerry

There's been a lot of talk about the independent or undecided voter. Are people really undecided at this point, and how much do you think news and media can change their votes?
That's funny you ask. That's my lede for Saturday morning: Are people actually undecided? When there are clear differences and when we're less than a month out with two very different candidates in a hotly contested election where there's been a great deal of information over the past year, there aren't really undecided voters in terms of preferences. There are just voters who haven't decided whether they're going to show up or not. Voting is always sort of a two-stage process: Do I care enough to go through the hassle of voting and, once I've decided to vote, have I made a decision about which candidate I will support?

One way to think of it is undecided voters are probably mostly going to support an incumbent so, when I say they're going to support President Obama, it isn't because he's President Obama per se. I just mean that incumbents tend to get those voters. But the real question is: Is this election sufficiently interesting, and are barriers too high for them to end up in the electorate? The only undecided voters that the candidates care about are the ones that live in swing states, and there's no way that those voters don't have sufficient information to show up for one candidate or the other.

"I have never once had someone from this network come to me and have a conversation about ratings, good or bad."

Having a show with your name on it makes you a brand. Who decides the direction of the show, and how do you balance the network's desire for ratings with your own vision?
I have never once had someone from this network come to me and have a conversation about ratings, good or bad. No one. Maybe they're talking to my executive producer, and that's completely possible. But none of them have ever walked in here and said, "You know what? You cannot do that because of the ratings" or "Please do that more because of the ratings." I will say that I have been completely clear, to the point of being fanatical, that my staff is not to share with me ratings information. I don't ever want to know because, for me, the point of doing this show is not about the ratings. But I can tell when it's not been a good weekend just by looking at the staff the next week. It's kind of like after President Obama had that bad showing in the debates, like you just know that nobody was walking around happy in [Obama campaign quarters] OFA 2012. So, I can kind of tell if I had a week that wasn't great because people are kind of down but, if I had a week that's great, people are in there bouncing around.

The editorial decisions for this show, even with my name on it, are made collectively between me, the senior producer, the executive producer and the segment producers. I have veto power and I have been known to veto whole ideas, but I've also given my segment producers a great deal of latitude because I trust them. They're smart, they're capable, they have great vision. Sometimes what we've done has fallen flat -- I don't know if it's fallen flat in terms of ratings but I'll come off like, 'I don't want to talk about that topic again' -- and other times I'll come off the set feeling like 'this is the whole reason I'm doing this show.'

As MSNBC continues a progressive shift in its programming, do you hear from news viewers who pine for the days of unbiased news? How do you think cable networks' moving away from the "objective" center has affected the political process?
I not only sometimes hear viewers' angst about wanting journalistic reporting, I feel it myself as somebody consuming the news. I report and analyze what's going on in the news, but I also want to know what's happening in the world. For me, that angst is primarily about newspapers. I live in New Orleans, where we've lost our daily newspaper and don't have reporters on the beat in our neighborhoods. That's a story repeated over and over again across America. So, when I think about what's lost, I tend to not think about it in terms of television news, which I never particularly watched, but print journalism. If MSNBC were interested in hiring a journalist to do on-air investigative work, that would be great and I would watch that. But it wouldn't have anything to do with what I do.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Roland Martin, CNN Contributor and Host of TV One's Washington Watch?

I think the biggest cost is the one that Chris Hayes talks about in his book, Twilight of the Elites, that there's an absence of one place or person or thing that if it says it, you can believe it, whether you're a Democrat, Republican, liberal or conservative. That is bad for democracy because there have to be some spaces where we can say, 'I believe that because it's reported by that person.' I talked about this last year at Christmas time. If you remember "Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus," it was the editor of the paper who wrote that letter. Who could now write that letter? Not me. Not Bill O'Reilly. I mean, who could convince you if you were a little kid that there is a Santa Claus? Nobody, because there's not any one source that we all trust.

There was a clear difference between the tone and fluidity of the presidential debate under Jim Lehrer and the vice presidential debate under Martha Raddatz. Who do you think was the better of the two?
I really enjoyed the vice presidential debate for a couple of reasons. For one, my best friend had just given birth about 10 minutes beforehand. I'd just been in the delivery room with her, and she and I were watching it together in the recovery room. Beyond that, there were things that I think made this debate better. They were physically sitting at the same table, and I think there's something about that proximity, when people are sitting right next to one another, that creates a sense of engagement. But the other thing is you had the sense that both Biden and Ryan had come to play. They were prepared to be aggressive; they weren't concerned with this sort of niceness by which they were going to be judged.

Jim Lehrer offered some willingness to engage, but I think Martha Raddatz's expertise in foreign policy was as much on display as the vice presidential candidates'. I had a sense as a viewer of trusting her to direct the conversation in a substantive way. Not that Jim Lehrer's not substantive -- obviously, he's got decades of substance behind him -- but in this particular debate, he was far more removed and she was much more engaged.

"Some of our greatest presidents have been absolute dorks, and some of our most horrible presidents have been affable, lovely, engaging human beings."

If you could take one issue off the table in this election, what would it be and why? What, in your opinion, is just white noise that's distracting from real issues?
Style. Whether or not President Obama is cool or whether Mitt Romney is likable, I really do not care. I assume that Mitt Romney's wife loves him and Barack Obama's wife loves him, and they both can probably tell a funny joke when they want to. I mean, really, who cares about style? Some of our greatest presidents have been absolute dorks, and some of our most horrible presidents have been affable, lovely, engaging human beings. That's not the business of politics.

The course you teach at Tulane, Black Women's Political Activism, is surely a catalyst for your students to get involved. What do you think is the most pressing issue facing women today, and what can they do to affect change in that area?
I teach a lot of gender-based classes. This is one of my favorites, though. For women in general, I think there are two critical issues and they are linked to one another: one is the issue of poverty, economic security and economic justice, and the other is about reproductive rights. And of course, those things are linked. You cannot have economic justice unless you have control of your reproductive capacity. It just is not possible for women. At the same time, control of your reproductive destiny doesn't matter much if you can't feed yourself or your family.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Roland Martin, CNN Contributor and Host of TV One's Washington Watch?

Janelle Harris is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. She documents her editorial adventures at

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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