Nieman Foundation at Harvard University MediaNation UMass Boston

July 29, 2004

Front Page
By the Numbers

About Us
Contact Us

Boston Globe

Resources for
Media Watchdogs

BET's Strategy Combines Politics and Youth

By Monica M. Clark
Thursday, July 29, 2004

They’re calling the Democratic Convention a show; but ironically, Black Entertainment Television -- known for its music and comedy programs -- is searching the hall for real news.

African-Americans make up 20% of the convention delegates this year. More blacks have committee chairmanships: Ohio Congressman Stephanie Tubbs Jones is chair of the platform committee, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin is chair of the credentials committee and New York state Rep. Gregory Meeks is chairing the rules committee.

BET has brought 25 journalists and technicians here to provide updates for its nightly newscasts. BET News doesn’t expect to replace the major networks or all-news cable stations as the main source of convention news for its audience, but it does see an opportunity to report on issues from what Washington Bureau Chief Pamela Gentry calls the “African-American perspective.” political analyst Joe Davidson explains what this means: “We will follow the activities of black delegates and politicians and various things that they do,” as well as address how public issues or decisions will affect black Americans directly.

For starters, BET released a poll of black voter opinions, in what it calls “the largest sampling ever done of registered African-American voters,” in partnership with CBS, its fellow Viacom corporate sibling. The poll showed that 79% of black voters said they plan to vote for Kerry over Bush in November, compared with 49% of all American voters.

Since blacks make up the most loyal base of the Democratic Party, other news media may find their concerns a sideshow not worth addressing.

Jeffrey Johnson, or “Cousin Jeff,” vice president of the Hip Hop Action Committee and frequent commentator on BET’s “Rap City,” said black media organizations such as BET provide a perspective on war, economy, education, taxes and social issues that the mainstream news media lack. “It’s not enough to cover just the BET awards.” Johnson said. “We need to air stories that are newsworthy. We need to critically analyze ourselves.”

CNN political analyst Carlos Watson, a rising black star at the all-news network, said voter turnout and underemployment are issues affecting the black community that should be given more attention.

Critics say that BET's convention updates and its poll may not be enough to offset their disappointment with BET’s normal fare, which they say emphasizes too much sexually provocative entertainment at the expense of serious reporting on critical issues. While the network is covering the convention daily in its one nightly 11 p.m. half -hour newscast, BET has yet to cut into time devoted to its entertainment programming for more extensive coverage. BET will also cover the Republican Convention in New York next month.

Adrian Walker, a Boston Globe columnist who covers local issues and is an Afro-American, is not impressed with BET’s limited commitment to covering the convention. He says BET could -- and should -- do more with news and public affairs. “It’s much less than it should be,” Walker said in an interview on Saturday. “There’s too much ‘T&A’ on BET and not nearly enough that concerns the lives of African-Americans.”

Since founder Robert Johnson sold the station to Viacom in 2000, “BET Tonight with Ed Gordon,” “Lead Story” and “Teen Summit” have all been cancelled. As a result, BET Nightly News is the network’s lone public affairs program.

BET’s effort to cover the convention, however small in comparison with other television networks, also offers a chance for good corporate relations with African-American politicians here. Yet BET missed an opportunity Tuesday to broadcast rising black political star Barack Obama’s riveting keynote address, on a night when the big networks also declined to carry the podium speeches live. BET instead showed only a two-to-three minute interview with the Illinois representative, who is running for the U.S. Senate, in its regular newscast, according to Michael Lewellen, vice president of corporate communications.

Davidson, the BET political analyst, hopes nevertheless that BET can have an impact on educating black voters about their choices in the presidential election. He said BET's poll, developed by BET Nightly News and, is one contribution no one else has made. Davidson noted that the issues the poll revealed as most pressing among African-American voters -- unemployment and the economy -- were major topics in the speech Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry gave to the National Urban League just a day after the poll was released. According to Gentry, the poll results helped to shape BET’s convention coverage.

African-American politicians and celebrities who attended Boston’s Hip-Hop Summit Monday as the convention opened outlined subjects they thought the news media should cover more in order to serve the black community better. Their concerns varied as widely as their personalities. For U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., the concerns are prison reform and mandatory minimal sentencing. For Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, they are access to money for investment and business development, health care and education. When Babs from P. Diddy’s reality show, “Making The Band 2,” was asked what the media should cover more for black audiences, she simply said, “Everything.”

In addition to its poll, BET is focusing on youth, a natural audience for a network whose viewers typically range between the ages of 18 and 34.

According to Gentry, the news staff is honing in on young advocacy groups and the hip-hop generation: the 18-to-35 African American youth who grew up with hip-hop music. During the summit at Roxbury Community College, BET had several representatives both on and off stage, including Free and Big Tigger from BET’s “106 & Park” and “Rap City.”

JeffreyJohnson, who spoke at the summit, emphasized the importance of youth involvement in the election. He recounted an experience with a reporter who asked him why someone from Rap City would cover the convention. “We must tell them that we, as young people, won’t let people brutalize our communities.” Johnson responded. “We won’t let teachers undereducate us . . . We must say to every media, ‘We will lead our community into the future.’ ”

BET Nightly News and, the Tavis Smiley Show, and the Northstar Network (, a Web site whose mission is to provide news relevant to black people, are all reporting on the convention. For his part, U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said he relies on a more old-fashioned form of news: the traditional black newspaper. “The Amsterdam News and Carib News do a wonderful job covering political events,” he said.

Decilia Austrie and Ellen Hume contributed to this story.



MediaNation TM © 2004 University of Massachusetts Boston and
Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. Legal notice