BET Looks to Challenges of Covering Obama Campaign

BET News’ Scott touts bringing nonpartisan view of African-American perspective

the President's Moderators

Practicing the Politics of Sharing

Looking to Inform, Increase Latino Vote

With election day less than two months
away, both the major
cable news networks and a number
of entertainment-based networks are
gearing up to cover what many observers
believe will be a historic and
furious final campaign run to the
finish by President Barack Obama
and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt
Romney. BET expects to add a unique
African-American perspective and
voice to the election coverage through
a series of specials and live electionnight
reports. BET News president
David Scott spoke with Multichannel News programming
editor R. Thomas Umstead about the Viacomowned
network’s election plans and the challenges of
covering the reelection campaign of the country’s first
African-American president.

How has BET’s approach to its election coverage
differed from your strategy four years ago?

For us, our on-air programming model has evolved to
go deep on the big stories in Black America as people
get their quick, daily news information on our digital
platform, For on-air, we
concentrated our resources [throughout
the election season] on back-loading
our programming. We did a recent
special on President Obama and
the jobs situation in Black America.
We also did a piece with [former Republican
presidential candidate] Herman
Cain in December about the new
face of black conservatism.

One thing that we de! nitely tried to do this year is
cover both sides of the aisle from a black perspective.
Tim Scott and Allan West and Herman Cain give us a
way to do that in a character-driven way. They are far
more ideological, and many of them are embracing
the Tea Party movement that many African-Americans
regard with at the very least suspicion or skepticism.
The company’s position is one of non-partisanship
with respect to politics, and we’re committed to covering
significant developments on both sides of the aisle
from a black perspective.

How will BET’s election-themed programming
differ from either the news networks or the general
entertainment services?

We’ve commissioned an original [two-part] BET docuseries
that chronicles the effort to re-ignite the black
electorate. So we are following a constellation of Obama
agents of change through the re-election effort. It gives
us another way to engage our entertainment-oriented
audience in the 2012 election story. We continue to try
new ways of engaging our audience in the politics story,
so it’s not all traditional conventional
news coverage but a variety of offerings.
We think we have some interesting
content that will be unique for the
viewer that you won’t get on CNN or
any other broadcast network, so we’re
looking forward to it.

Given President Obama’s appeal
within the African-American
community, is it more difficult reporting
an incumbent President
Obama than it was in 2008, when it was candidate

It’s an interesting question, and the dynamics are different
in some ways. Part of it is 2008 was such a historic landmark
for the whole country. And the euphoria spread like
wildfire not only through our community, but through
many others; it’s hard to compare it to anything. At the
same time, it took people some time to understand how
difficult and long-term the process of change is, particularly
given what [President Obama] inherited from the prior
administration. So I think it is different to cover an incumbent
president because he is where the
buck stops, and some of the questions
that naturally rise for an incumbent
don’t apply to his opponent, even in the
case of Governor Romney, who has a record from his own
time in elected office. So it’s a different perspective. But
from my point of view, we haven’t shied away from putting
the tough questions to President Obama. And I think
the White House respects us as a legitimate news organization
and invites us to engage in that dialogue.

Do you think that other networks will look to
include the African-American perspective more
in their coverage of the election after four years
of having a sitting African-American president
than in 2008, when he was a candidate?

I certainly hope so. It ushers in more of a shared political
culture, although there isn’t a single journalist of
color involved [in the upcoming presidential debates],
which I certainly didn’t think would be possible in
the 2012 election cycle. I don’t know what the other
networks are planning, but there’s every reason to take
account of where the African-American and Latino
electorate are. More and more, they are the new American
mainstream. So if you’re not covering it, you’re
marginalizing your coverage. We’ve broadened our
own perspective on this as there are now more Latino
Americans than African-Americans, and they will make
up more of the voting constituency. And frankly, not a
small number of them identify with African-American
heritage, so that is a community that we want to pay
attention to. The changing demographic in America
has moved us in that direction, and I hope the general
news media as well.