One of America's Most Prominent Corporate Executives

CBS News anchor Scott Pelley recently interviewed Black Entertainment Television founder Robert L. Johnson about what government could or should be doing to help improve the failing economy. Mr. Johnson, 65, offered reasonable and solid advice, the same reasonable and solid advice most any well-heeled CEO might offer up, while neither he nor Mr. Williams explored the questionable morality surrounding how Mr. Johnson earned the billion-plus dollars he profited after selling BET to Rupert Murdoch’s Viacom in 2003. Launched in 1980, BET became kind of African American version of MTV, a network reluctant to showcase black acts until Michael Jackson’s historic Thriller utterly smashed the color barrier and subsequently flooded MTV with ethnic music and the emerging hip-hop and rap formats, most notably with Yo! MTV Raps in 1988. Yo! Seemed to compartmentalize the surging popularity of black rap artists for MTV while they continued to push Madonna and David Bowie, but BET instead made the genre its general platform, a winning formula that drew a culturally diverse audience—including many whites—to the new network. BET embraced openly and enthusiastically what MTV only reluctantly and grudgingly featured. The subsequent seismic shift in music industry numbers and immense popularity of urban, hip-hop and rap eventually forced MTV to change its model, but that change came much too slowly as increasing segments of MTV’s audience turned their dials to BET and other emerging sources.

Along with those numbers were crime rate statistics, teen pregnancy and violence, dropout rates, exploding gang affiliation and other challenging statistics within the black community, as BET slowly became a cultural staple. More so than just a network, BET became a kind of religion, droning on practically 24/7 from televisions in the bedrooms of black teens and children across America. In barber and beauty shops, school recess, even church basements. Hip-Hop of the Yo! MTV Raps variety included hopeful and positive pro-black and even pro-feminist artists like Queen Latifah, Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, Eric B. and outspoken Muslim activist Rakim. The most controversial acts were political activist Public Enemy and pro-gang Cypress Hill, both of which were censored by the network. This is where BET began as well. Not all videos and acts were necessarily family fare, but most were, at least, entertaining and BET supported artists like Public Enemy and Cypress Hill whose music either addressed political or social change or told reality-based truth about life within our communities. Being black-owned, BET enjoyed a presumed sense of suitability from parents, many of whom thought nothing of allowing their children and teens to become virtually addicted to the network’s seemingly harmless musical fare. BET became welcome in millions of black households, businesses and institutions across America, and Mr. Johnson’s company became a runaway success story.

Thus, when BET’s presumed standards either collapsed or turned out to be no standards at all—the network increasingly featuring content glorifying misogyny, violence, drug and alcohol abuse—it was as if nobody noticed. The more benign M.C. Lyte and De La Soul were increasingly displaced by more violent and misogynist fare from N.W.A. and Ice-T. BET bleeped out the expletives and blurred out the gang signs, but neither they nor the cable networks carrying their broadcasts sent a note home to parents. Which sounds ridiculous, I know, but if you’re a busy parent who’s been used to allowing your child to watch SpongeBob Squarepants unsupervised, it likely does not occur to check in to see if SpongeBob is now smoking a joint and pouring liquor over underage girls in tiny bikinis. This is what I saw, at 10:30 in the morning, on BET, droning on in the background like a Bugs Bunny cartoon while my friend's kids milled about. All just a normal day. Images of black young men dressed like gang members, pistols tucked into waistbands, bottles of Chivas and joints at the ready, platinum jewelry and teeth, bopping to the music while rhyming about getting paid. Get a job you ignorant punks. Not one image, anywhere, of one of these young men working a job, balancing a checkbook, taking care of his mother, helping his little sister with her homework. Where is the video showing these boys coming home from some raunchy party to find their little sister in her PJ’s, little ducks on them, and feeling convicted about the way they treat girls?

What We Signed Up For:: Back in the day, the Sugar Hill Gang.

Accountability and Parental Responsibility

There was absolutely no balance. Oh, there was lighter fare to be sure, and BET feinted toward accountability with all that blurring and regulating some of the harder fare to the late night hours. But I know for a fact millions of kids, across America, stayed up late to see what they weren’t supposed to and left their TV on all day—even when they went out—BET streaming this garbage practically non-stop around the clock. This was indoctrination. Brainwashing. This was not art imitating life: impressionable kids mimic their atmosphere. And this was the atmosphere pumped into homes across America by Robert L. Johnson. Yes, he should have sent a note home: “Dear parents: Please be aware of our evolving format…” It is not, after all, Mr. Johnson’s responsibility to police what your children see. But Mr. Johnson got into your child’s bedroom on the pretense of being a responsible broadcaster. Then, once his network gained acceptance, he started broadcasting porn right into your kid’s room. Yes, he should have sent a letter.

I’ve heard it argued that, “BET is not a kid’s network.” Really? Did anyone tell the kids? Did anyone tell their mothers? When you launch a network playing Digital Underground’s “Humpty Dance,” then bait-and-switch to N.W.A.’s “Fuck The Police,” there is an implied ethical responsibility to issue a declaration of some sort. I’ve heard Beyoncé explain away her raunchy artistic choices in light of her large fan base of underage girls as parental responsibility, that it’s not her job to parent every child or to make choices for them. This is all bullshit. These people are just greedy and making money by corrupting basic family values—words co-opted by the religious right, but those words do have meaning. Today, I would agree that BET is a network for adults. It has content targeted at families and children, but it is inarguably focused on college level young adults. I have absolutely no problem with that. Parents can see that, clearly, when they tune in. But as Mr. Johnson made his bones back in the 80’s and 90’s, the common perception was that BET was a music jukebox channel, like MTV, aimed squarely if not exclusively at teens. Not a children’s channel per se, but of obvious appeal to young people. And parents welcomed BET into their homes without much in the way of vetting because the assumption was “Black MTV,” a black-owned venture that none of us, myself included, gave much thought to. It’s like Ebony or Jet magazines. The worse thing you see in there is some gal in a bathing suit. A little naughty, but we’ll survive. If BET was planning to break the implicit covenant they had with black families, the honorable thing to have done would have been to make a greater effort at parental notification. “BET is not a kid’s network,” the lame excuse offered up after the fact, should have been part of some parental awareness campaign: “We are evolving our format.” Blaming the parents for not noticing BET’s evolution from a fun and positive source of pride in the black community to the main proponent of a culture of under-achievement, misogyny and violence is simple cowardice. There’s a reason why movies have a MPAA rating.

Today, BET is whatever BET is. I haven’t watched the network in years. My beef is not about the network’s content—then or now. It is about the network’s evolution and how it profited by means of the exploitation of young minds. Today, parents can evaluate BET and make a decision based on what the network is. During the network’s first decade, parents really didn’t have that choice. It probably never occurred to them that this black-owned network, owned by this upstanding businessman, would be teaching their kids how to be hood rats, hoochies, lowlifes and welfare queens. Going one better, the evolution probably crept forward slowly enough that parents may not have even noticed lines of propriety and appropriateness being crossed. BET is on. It’s always on. The kids fall asleep with it on. Wake up, turn it on. Come home from school, it’s on. I’m in my niece’s room, trying to get her attention, she’s on the phone igging me and, over on the TV—BET. On. I talked to her mother about it and she just waves me off, “Oh, she’s heard worse than that at school.” That's just crap. She's just getting defensive, as mommies tend to, when her parenting is called into question. Rather than do what's best for the kid, she makes it about her. There is no moral compass. There is no truth in their lives, no center. All day, all night, all these kids hear is cursing and garbage and drugs and sex and drinking and violence. Somebody needs to be the parent.

How I Could Just Kill A Man:: Cypress Hill.

Which Way The Guns Are Pointed

Nobody complained. This was, after all Mr. Johnson’s network. Owned and operated for us by us. Blacks openly criticizing other blacks in front of white America was extremely unpopular. BET ran its most questionable material after hours, as if kids didn’t stay up past their bedtimes or own VCR’s. Artists increasingly distorted PE’s political rhetoric for themes of violence directed not toward political oppression but toward each other. Gangsta rap, launched most notably with Cypress Hill and N.W.A., exploited the artistic acceptance of militant themes and imagery that made Chuck D.’s political protest acceptable to argue for the artistic merit of sophomoric, homophobic and misogynistic content directed not toward an oppressor class but toward each other. In the late 80’s, hip-hop and rap veered away from being party music or even pro-black anti-oppression protest to simply being black folk cussing at each other, shooting at each other, getting high and drunk and degrading black women, often while glorifying white ones.

It was during this evolution that BET took off, taking the industry lead in terms of how much black self-hate it was willing to broadcast. Thousands and over time millions of heartbreaking images of youthful African American teens living what Tupac called the “Thug Life,” driving exotic luxury cars, wearing more jewelry than Liberace, glorifying presumed violence, exhaling presumed marijuana smoke, chugging presumed expensive, high-end liquor. I write “presumed” here because, for most of Johnson’s tenure, BET took the disingenuous token and utterly ridiculous stance of omitting or blurring out gang signs, alcohol labels, and had strict rules about what we could see the youthful rap stars inhale, while they could exhaled whatever they wanted. The video girls were as close to naked as possible, with the occasional naughty bits again blurred out by BET’s “responsible” censors. None of those efforts were sincere or effective as any six-year old could tell you exactly what was being blurred out. “Parental Responsibility,” Johnson and BET’s free speech defense for airing these anti-black, self-loathing caricatures of the African American community, were totally disingenuous. BET was, in no effective way, a vehicle for journalism or free speech. The word “Entertainment” was part of their name. They were out to make money. But the network had a presumption of ethical standards based upon the fact it was black-owned. Most parents I knew and, for much of the time I myself, assumed a black-owned network would not, in fact, exploit black children.

Exploiting black children, however, was precisely how BET and, by extension, Johnson, made their billions. BET is a network built on the lost souls of black children and, by extension, black America. The themes of ignorance, violence, profanity, sexism and misogyny played non-stop in the bedrooms of children and teens have, over the past 30 years, transformed black America. You can go coast-to-coast and discover Black America, 40 and under, uses essentially the same lexicon, a vocabulary developed from a common source. Not BET specifically but the dominant cultural media of our society. We, like many other cultures, are imitators of art rather than the other way around. And, while heinous, black-hating music created by blacks and financed almost exclusively by whites has been blasted from radio stations since the dawn of radio, it is national television like MTV and then BET which gave black self-hatred a face. From one end of America to the other we see blacks imitating the under-achieving, female-exploiting, anti-intellectual standard that dominates the music recording industry, a struggling anachronism that cannot effectively sell a CD that does not have a parental warning sticker on it. Young people, black and white, actively seek out negative, unethical and immoral media in music, film, video games and more. Johnson need not be singled out, he is far from the first rich man to enrich himself at the expense of his own soul, but I resent CBS and anybody else holding this man up as some sort of community leader or role model.

If there is an Idi Amin of African America, a supremely transformative figure who has effected sweeping change and shaped a nation while exploiting it for his own personal and selfish gain, it is Robert L. Johnson. All the good Mr. Johnson has ever done at BET and at RLJ, his current venue, is mitigated by the great black holocaust of America, this twining of the souls of our youth to which Mr. John’s BET was one of the major driving forces. The pro-black, self-empowering militancy of Public Enemy, which used violent threats and military imagery as metaphors and whose guns were pointed *away* from their own people, has been disgracefully co-opted by ignorant fools simply glorifying violence for its own sake. I consider most if not quite all of hip-hop and rap to be black-on-black crime, entire generations of black Americans lost to the unfathomable holocaust of self-hatred and ignorance while these monkeys stuff their pockets with cash. In this, I consider Mr. Johnson to be the zookeeper, a man who hates blacks so much, hates himself so much, or who is so ignorant himself that he cannot see or refuses to accept the transformative effect his efforts have had on Black America.

Role Models:: Urban youth emulate this ridiculous look (note gang colors).
Vintage Lil' Wayne and friend. Fellas: you look like idiots.

Passing Out The Armbands

I hope he is enjoying his millions. It is blood money. Whatever apologist nonsense enables Mr. Johnson to sleep at night will never balance out the reality of twelve year-olds being jumped into the Crips or the Folk every day of the week. Of young black girls dressing like hookers and young black boys eager to get into drug dealing so they can live like the evil caricatures Mr. Johnson broadcasted for twenty-three years. And, while I can’t stop Mr. Pelley from interviewing this guy, I and the rest of America don’t have to act like Idi Amin is Benjamin Franklin. The saddest part is, as Mr. Pelley did, most of Black America likely considers Mr. Johnson an American success story. I am struggling not call him Adolph Hitler, who transformed Germany by means of a culturally homogenous quasi-religion. Calling anybody, even Mr. Johnson, Hitler would be unfair. Hitler, after all, didn’t teach Germans to hate themselves. Mr. Johnson is certainly no Hitler, though he might have been the guy passing out the Nazi arm bands. Black America has been wearing its own version of Nazi arm bands—Ebonics, the idiotic sagging pants, a distinct cultural lexicon regardless of what region of the nation you visit—for more than a generation, now. Mr. Johnson is not the architect of this phenomena, but he was for many years its chief enabler.

Instead of asking him his advice, Mr. Pelley should have asked Mr. Johnson how he manages to sleep at night. As a Christian, as a pastor, it is my first desire to see all men and women come to repentance and salvation. But I struggle, from my toes to my nose, against a seething and deep resentment of people like Mr. Johnson and an innate desire to see these folks, who have profited from the destruction of so many lives, counting their millions in hell.

Christopher J. Priest
3 October 2011