During his tenure on his weekend show at MSNBC, Up With Chris Hayes, Hayes and his staff managed to book a roster of guests that was striking more diverse than the comparable shows on any other network. Over at the Columbia Journalism Review, Ann Friedman asked Hayes how he’d achieved those numbers when so many other shows complain that it’s so difficult to break beyond the dominance of white men in political commentary. The answer? A strict quota system, and a reassessment of what kinds of perspectives were important to include in each debate:
But sometimes national politics is the hottest topic, and some argue that media can’t be held to a diversity standard when women and people of color are so drastically underrepresented in relevant spokesperson and leadership positions. Hayes acknowledges that, for shows like Meet the Press, there’s probably something to that excuse. But most news outlets aren’t only talking to senators and CEOs. There’s a wide range of perspectives that can be brought to bear on any number of political issues. And, without a quota, it’s easy to default to the same handful of big names.
“You have to say, ‘We give ourselves this rule,’ and that’s going to force us to just be more resourceful,” Hayes says. “Because I genuinely don’t think there’s another way to do it. If you don’t do that then the inertia and the tide are so strong, unless you are committed as a priority to actively fight against it, you’re going to end up reproducing what everyone else does.”
As he makes the transition to primetime, he plans to keep a quota system. “It’s going to be even harder to do at a daily level than it was at two shows a week,” he says. “But we’re a thousand percent committed to it.” After all, it’s part of what made his weekend show so successful. Hayes has heard from the audience that they appreciate the fresh faces and perspectives that this rule has forced him to cultivate.
I think this is a critical point. Newspaper and magazine columnists, people employed at various times by lobbying and consulting firms or political campaigns, and professional activists aren’t the only people who participate in—or are affected by—politics. A lawmaker may believe that, say, food stamps incentivize certain behavior, an academic who’s studied the question may have research to offer on the question, but someone who has actually had to live on food stamps for a period longer than the challenges lawmakers frequently take on has perspective to offer, too.
The idea of limiting the discussion to just one of those dimensions seems silly if it’s stated in those terms, or if you actually care about a real discussion. But there are people who have real interests in keeping political conversations circumscribed. Making those interests transparent rather than presenting them as an unfortunate result of the market is one of the reasons Hayes’ commitment to diversity is valuable. The whiteness of cable television is a choice, not a natural order.