Black Entertainment Television's 'Lifestyle' Choice

By Themba, Makani | The Nation, May 14, 2001 | Go to article overview

Black Entertainment Television's 'Lifestyle' Choice


Themba, Makani, The Nation


"Five years, four sentences," is how television anchor Tavis Smiley summed up the terse dismissal note he received from Black Entertainment Television (BET) on March 23. The response from viewers and fans was heartfelt and immediate. BET and its new parent company, Viacom, were deluged with calls, and the Rev. Al Sharpton and others helped organize protests in Los Angeles and at BET's Washington offices. The outcry, which continues, is a testament to the power and reach of Tavis Smiley, and the widespread sense among African-Americans that BET has betrayed us.

If this were a Movie of the Week it would boil down to two characters: the heroic Smiley, Los Angeles preacher's kid (his mother is the minister, thank you), who moved through the black political machine of former LA Mayor Tom Bradley to become one of America's most influential commentators; and the villainous BET CEO Robert Johnson, a kind of Vernon Jordan of media, who leveraged his extensive business connections (including a stint as a top lobbyist for the cable industry) into a billion-dollar business. The foundation of his success has been more than 60 million viewers, reaching the vast majority of African-American cable households.

Whereas Smiley used his perch at BET to advance black political and economic concerns, Johnson's political activity, save his high-profile support of the Million Man March and financial backing of a few black political candidates, has focused on advancing his business interests. In fact, Johnson has taken positions widely thought of as anti-black--such as, most recently, supporting the Bush estate-tax repeal. Now that Johnson has "sold out" to media giant Viacom, the fight has moved beyond an internecine squabble where everyone's trying to "keep it in the family." The dirty laundry's on the line.

Nationally syndicated radio host Tom Joyner (where Smiley comes on air twice a week) fired the first volley when he urged his 7 million-plus audience to demand Smiley's return. "We've got to let media giants like Viacom know that we will not accept just anything they toss out at us," he said.

Johnson shot back with an appearance on BET Tonight, this time with BET Lead Story host Cheryl Martin, to counter allegations by Joyner and others that white-owned Viacom was pulling the strings. Johnson's assertion that he was bought but unbossed might have been convincing if it hadn't been for his explanation of the dismissal. Johnson said the final break came after Smiley sold ABC an interview with a former Symbionese Liberation Army member involved in the Patty Hearst kidnapping.

But Smiley has always operated as something of a free spirit. His penchant for activism, entrepreneurism and inveterate net-working has resulted in a sort of dynasty, where he provides programming for other networks as well as commentary for Joyner's radio program and other cable shows. For example, a recent eight-hour program called State of the Black Union, featuring leading African-Americans and drawn from a book that Smiley compiled and edited, aired on C-SPAN without any public fuss from the network. That BET would draw the line at an interview with a former SLA member seemed odd, especially given its own downsizing of news programming.

Whether Smiley was fired because Viacom-owned CBS wanted first dibs on the interview, or because of long-simmering tensions between the star and the network, or because of BET's growing debt, is unknown. What's clear is that despite Smiley's overbearing "me first" black capitalist politics and gee-whiz approach to anything to the left of Sharpton, his departure leaves a huge hole in BET's programming.

Smiley's unabashed targeting of those he's found guilty of racial wrongdoing has compelled more than a few companies and politicians to come on air with promises to do better. "In this era of multinational corporations, media conglomerates and mergers, what Tavis has been able to accomplish is nothing short of heroic," says scholar and cultural critic Michael Dyson, who has appeared on Smiley's program. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Black Entertainment Television's 'Lifestyle' Choice
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.