Good TV hosts better mind their jokes, too

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Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time, MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry conducts one of the most thoughtful roundtables on television.

The former Princeton University professor began her career on MSNBC as a frequent talking head on "Countdown with Keith Olbermann." She proved she was worthy of consideration for her own anchor chair when she subbed for the vacationing Rachel Maddow without missing a beat.

The camera obviously loved her. Viewers responded favorably to her rapid-fire exchanges with policy wonks, politicians and fellow journalists. Because she is always so thoroughly prepared, she can't help but consistently look like the smartest person in the room.

Ms. Harris-Perry even nicknamed her eponymous weekend program "Nerdland," because she's so passionate about debating the intricacies of social policies she believes will make America a more just, equitable and tolerant place. Her panel discussions are among the most engaging and diverse on a network that has made diversity a trademark.

Last weekend, Ms. Harris-Perry aired a year-end segment in which she and several guests mocked the GOP's underwhelming appeal to racial minorities. They did so using the Romney family Christmas photo in which former Gov. Mitt Romney, the vanquished Republican presidential candidate, was surrounded by his large family. Seated on Mr. Romney's right knee in the photo is his black grandchild via adoption, Kieran Romney.

Ms. Harris-Perry, an African-American who was born into a large Mormon family but not raised as one, asked her panelists for a caption that would summarize the photo. Actress Pia Glenn sang "One of these things isn't like the other / One of these things doesn't belong" as the multi-racial panel laughed.

Ms. Harris-Perry jokingly added that she would make it her mission to see that Mr. Romney's grandson married Kanye West's daughter decades from now just so she could see how the in-laws handled it. Wishing that Kanye West would ever be anyone's father-in-law was an uncharacteristic lapse in sensitivity, coming from a journalist who routinely exudes empathy to spare. Her genuine affection for Mormons and her family roots were lost in casual levity of the moment.

Though the segment lasted less than a minute, you would have assumed from the howls of outrage that reverberated around conservative media that some dastardly political party had been caught red-handed trying to take away future black voter Kieran Romney's right to cast a ballot.

Because it took place in the same touchy corporate media climate as the "Duck Dynasty" debacle at A&E and MSNBC's unceremonious firings of talk show hosts Alec Baldwin and Martin Bashir a month earlier, the right-wing victimology wagon still had nearly a full tank of gaseous outrage to burn.

Ms. Glenn and Dean Obeidallah, a comedian serving as another guest on the show that morning, issued classic non-apologies on Twitter, hedging their regrets with context and caveats. Mr. Obeidallah further apologized to the Romney family in a lengthy blog post that also took swipes at the GOP's "wingnuts" who were using the controversy opportunistically.

Ms. Harris-Perry was much more full-throated and remorseful in her five Twitter apologies. She also posted the following apology on MSNBC's website:

"On Sunday's program, we showed a photo of Governor Romney holding his adopted grandson, who is African-American. The intent of featuring the photo was to celebrate it -- I often speak to the issue of the increasingly diverse American family. Whatever the intent, the segment proceeded in an unexpected way that was offensive. Without reservation or qualification, I apologize to the Romney family and to all families built on loving transracial adoptions."

Even rival anchor Don Lemon, whose brain-dead CNN network tried to gin up phony outrage against Ms. Harris-Perry by suggesting a groundswell of viewers were calling for her to be fired, gave her credit for making a model apology.

On Fox News' "The Five," the panelists railed against Ms. Harris-Perry, bellowing, "How does she even keep her job at MSNBC?" That's all one needs to know about their integrity.

We have now entered a ticklish age where every media personality and journalist is aware that even being perceived as offensive or over-the-top is potentially detrimental to one's livelihood. If a smart journalist like Ms. Harris-Perry has to worry about getting the boot for a minor indiscretion, imagine how scared the dumb have to be.

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.


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