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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 networkâ€™s election plans and the challenges of covering the reelection campaign of the countryâ€™s first African-American president.
How has BETâ€™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, BET.com. 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 companyâ€™s position is one of non-partisanship with respect to politics, and weâ€™re committed to covering significant developments on both sides of the aisle from a black perspective.
How will BETâ€™s election-themed programming differ from either the news networks or the general entertainment services?
Weâ€™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 itâ€™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 wonâ€™t get on CNN or any other broadcast network, so weâ€™re looking forward to it.
Given President Obamaâ€™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 Obama?
Itâ€™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; itâ€™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 donâ€™t apply to his opponent, even in the case of Governor Romney, who has a record from his own time in elected office. So itâ€™s a different perspective. But from my point of view, we havenâ€™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 isnâ€™t a single journalist of color involved [in the upcoming presidential debates], which I certainly didnâ€™t think would be possible in the 2012 election cycle. I donâ€™t know what the other networks are planning, but thereâ€™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 youâ€™re not covering it, youâ€™re marginalizing your coverage. Weâ€™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.
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