Robert Johnson, founder and former head of BET, fired off a letter to House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) Thursday saying that the legislator's recent criticism of BET programming was uncalled for and "rooted in liberal white paternalism."
"Your unjustified and ill-informed attack on BET's programming ... suggests that you know what is best for black people and, in this case, what black people want to or need to see," Johnson said, "and is also a vivid example of why we need to keep the government out of free and creative expression."
Markey's office had no comment at press time on the letter, which was faxed to his office, as well as that of Subcommittee chairman Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who is African American, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, according to Johnson's assistant.
Johnson was responding to Markey's comments at a Hill hearing Monday, when he said that he had been hoping for high-minded fare when BET launched, but that instead it had programmed to the lowest common denominator. Markey said he was pleased to read of new programming at BET, but the channel had a long way to go.
Monday's hearing in the House Subcommitee on Commerce, Trade & Consumer Protection was on degrading images in the media, with a focus on the language and themes in some hip-hop music, including in music videos.
Co-opting the "lowest" theme, Johnson told Markey that while he did not recall Markey making any programming suggestions at the company's launch back in 1980, he did remember that when the channel launched, it had the lowest cable fees, lowest penetration, lowest ad rate.
"I don't recall you calling the cable operators and advertisers up to Capitol Hill and chastising them about putting more money into BET so that we could produce your so-called sophisticated program," he said, adding that he did remember being asked to donate to Markey's Senate run, which he did, and that he contributed cable political-action-committee checks to Markey's House re-election campaign.
Johnson's letter also attributed Markey's BET criticisms to the fact that the networl was "the last cable programmer to authorize the V-chip," which Markey was instrumental in legislating into existence. "I thought then, and I stil do, that the V-chip was unnecesary government intrusion in the media marketplace," he added.