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If Black Entertainment Television's (BET) recent firing of talent Tavis Smiley feels like dej vu there's good reason. It's only the most recent in a long line of problems black folk have with "the media." Whether it's the firing of black talent or the dissing of black programming, African Americans have always felt passionate about "our" media, our image.
In fact, it was allegations that Smiley's firing (made by radio personality Tom Joyner among others) was really the decision of BET's new parent company media mega-power Viacom that really got folk's blood boiling. Among them was BET CEO Robert Johnson who expanded Smiley's old vehicle, "BET Tonight", to an hour so he could vigorously refute the allegations and assert that Smiley's termination was indeed his doing.
Johnson's vigorous claims that he is bought yet unbossed left many unanswered questions. For example, if Smiley was indeed fired for selling a coveted interview without giving BET first right of refusal, would Johnson consider it less of an affront if Smiley had sold the interview with the former Symbionese Liberation Army member to Viacom-owned CBS? How will BET fare as part of Viacom, given Viacom's ownership of MTV, UPN and other related properties? And what of BET's longtime programming slide that certainly predates Viacom? Will the buyout, as Johnson assured viewers, improve quality or simply burden the network with irrelevant programming for the sake of corporate "synergy"?
Of course, Viacom is not the blame for much of BET's problems. The company's cancellation of public affairs programming and properties and dumbing down of others has been underway for a while. Teen Summit, Our Voices, Emerge magazine, YSB magazine, 360hiphop.com are among BET's victims in their efforts to get "competitive."
The code word they use for this practice is "lifestyling". It's pr-speak for when a media organization strips their publication or program of most of its political content and concentrates on stuff they can sell -- beauty, fashion, food, etc. -- until there's nothing left but the bare bones, no frills consumerism. Although BET was never a great network, it is still quite some distance from where it began.
Years ago, I was among the many African Americans who pushed for local cable companies to air BET. Johnson then spoke of a network that would offer a voice to our communities that was varied, multi dimensional and educational. Now, Johnson is singing a different tune.
"Music videos are anchor programming on BET," he said in last night's interview. "I think that music is the quintessential cultural expression for the African American community." Given BET's slogan, "Now That's Black," it's too bad the tag line has now means narrow, one-dimensional programming.
Yet, it's not just about Johnson or BET. It's much deeper -- and wider than that. BET is commercial media and commercial media is uh, well, commercial. It is designed to reap profits, sell advertising, and shape our psyches into malleable consumers. The rules to this game dictate that black folk are best served up singing and dancing and not nearly as entertaining or profitable when they are focused on issues of justice.
The truth is that the whole commercial media infrastructure, from the way it measures audience share (have *you* ever been a Nielsen family?), to the way it chooses programming reinforces and institutionalizes racism and white privilege. And jumping up and down about one on-air personality or a single quality program won't change that. We have to move higher up the food chain.
Many of the decisions about media and how it does its business is made in Congress. The 1996 Telecommunications Act passed with little attention (much less outcry) by national "black leadership" yet the results were devastating to black voice. The law restricted huge amounts of digital "airwaves" from public access, and ushered in higher cable rates, more mergers and less accountability for media in general. It's now harder to challenge station licenses under the law and even tougher to get a station of your own.
Currently, a small number of groups are fighting for better terms on this deal including the establishment of a $20-50 million fund for airtime for "non commercial" television. (see www.bettertv.org for starters). Other groups have taken on monitoring negative imagery and are using their findings to hold outlets more accountable. We Interrupt This Message worked with youth groups to complete two studies on portrayals of youth of color and the Center for Media and Blacks offers a number of tools for media monitoring of black imagery in a number of media. Of course, still others are working hard to create "our own."
It's important that we get involved in the work to shape media policy because media shapes so much of who we are and who our children will become. To do so will require that we fight for space that is beyond the grasp of the market. Our image and voice are too important to be left to the vagaries of the bottom line. If we learn anything from BET, it might be that it takes more than black faces at the top to create media that truly reflects the diversity and richness of African American communities.
400 years ago, African people in the Americas were stripped of their drums for fear on the part of slaveholders that our drums would connect us into a unified force of rebellion. To remove our drums, and in some cases even our hands if we endeavored to play them, was an attempt to consign us to separation and weakness. The BET debacle exposes how much we are still struggling over the return of our drums, our way to connect to this larger whole, this "Africanity" that we share. Perhaps with a concerted effort to take back our media, make some of our own, and cause some trouble for the corporate media who mistreat us, we'll one day be able to watch, listen or tune in somewhere, smile with pride and say, "Now that's black."
Makani Themba is Political Editor for seeingblack.com. Her latest book is Making Policy Making Change and she is a contributor to the recently published anthology State of the Race: Creating Our 21st Century.