Melissa Harris-Perry and the difference between pundits and journalists

Political circles are still buzzing over the December incident on the Melissa Harris-Perry show where the MSNBC host and comedians joked about Mitt Romney’s family photo that included his adopted African-American grandson Kieran James.

It wasn’t long before the Tulane political science professor apologized for the remarks and it’s already noted that Mitt Romney accepted MHP’s apology.

Commentators and media alike nonetheless are feasting on the recent incident as if MHP insulted the integrity of the Romney family (or Kanye West’s family) long after the fact. Even the ever-popular conservative commentator Glenn Beck voices confusion for why MHP felt the need to apologize:

“We do not have a right as a people to not be offended,” Beck continued. “We do have a right to speak our mind. We do have the right to tell a joke.”

Melissa-Harris-Perry-screenshot-090112
A screenshot of Melissa Harris-Perry by Tiff J, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at http://www.coffeerhetoric.com.

This fiasco remains alive in many ways because this recent MSNBC incident comes full circle after the outlet let go two other hosts for their commentary. As Paul Waldman mentions, this sort of thing happens all the time within the political commentary crossfire and this incident will only go down in history regardless of one’s perspective on it:

As far as these kinds of sins go, the brief exchange was pretty mild. It wasn’t as if Harris-Perry or her guest said something particularly cruel about the child; the joke was in the anomaly of a black child in the midst of a family as famously white as the Romneys (dressed on the card in matching pastel-and-khaki outfits, no less). That doesn’t mean it wasn’t problematic, just that we should be able to distinguish between the ill-considered quip and the truly hateful remark.

Here’s the thing: Television celebrities like MHP, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity are not journalists. They are first and foremost political pundits/commentators. It is their job to always say stuff that is usually deemed controversial, especially to whatever group feels offended the most. Although I disagree with the notion of MHP being a “political journalist,” Salon writer Brittney Cooper’s take on the issue validly reminds readers that the arguments against MHP are equally biased:

This is the height of cultural delusion: blaming the person on whose neck you’re standing for twisting your ankle. And this delusion has led to a fervent belief in false equivalences that makes white people feel like one-to-one racial comparisons are fair. For instance, they see Melissa Harris-Perry’s misstep as akin to the perpetual misstep that is Rush Limbaugh’s daily commentary. But to quote the song Pia Glenn sang that caused all this brouhaha, “One of these things is not like the others.”

This obviously doesn’t mean the media has no place for political commentators. People can consume any media they want, but these shows and other outlets largely address issues from a perspective that usually reinforces the bias of a niche audience. Journalism on the other hand strives to provide the audience with a valuable, apolitical understanding of an issue. This benefits the audience in helping them understand where one’s community stands within a broader concept while also  allowing them to cultivate informed opinions.

MSNBC and FOX hired these sort of people to draw in attention just as any media outlet would. These shows put out the political fire with gasoline as opposed to providing an understanding to the essential story without knowing the host’s opinion. Any confusion citizens cultivate of these commentators working as journalists only hinders the progression of journalism in the end, so it’s important for audience to understand the difference while news companies continue to hire their respective golden gooses for opinionated content.

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