- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 21, 2000

Not everybody is happy with the recent sale of Black Entertainment Television (BET) to media giant Viacom Inc., even if it does make founder Robert L. Johnson one of the richest men in America.
Across the nation, the debate rages among black journalists, media owners and critics as to whether Mr. Johnson should be congratulated for making a big deal or if he should be considered a "sellout" for selling one of the few black-owned media companies to a white-owned media powerhouse, one that already owns CBS, MTV, UPN and Paramount Pictures.
"I think the sale of BET is a big loss for the black community," said Yemi Toure, an Atlanta-based media critic and editor of Hype, a watchdog Web site on black media.
"No longer does Bob Johnson have ownership. Even though he may be running the show, he is not the final decision maker," Mr. Toure said recently. "He now has to report to Mel Karmazian, Viacom's president."
George Curry, president of the American Society of Magazine Editors and former editor in chief of Emerge magazine a property recently shelved by BET also expressed his reservations about the sale:
"You can have all the well-meaning people at Viacom that you can collect, yet they do not and cannot have what is a unique African-American perspective… . BET, as we know it, is dead."
Earlier this month, Viacom announced it was buying BET Holdings Inc., the nation's leading black-owned media company, for about $2.34 billion in stock, plus another $500,000 in debt. BET has been the largest independent cable channel to target blacks, reaching 62.4 million households.
Mr. Johnson, who started the company in 1979 with $15,000 of his own money and millions of investment dollars from media heavyweights, has recently pursued other business endeavors, including the purchase of an airline based in the District.
"I am still in control of the content," he said. "In the Viacom deal, the pluses are this: Debra Lee [president and chief operating officer] and I will continue running BET with the same full autonomy we had before. If I want to put [Louis] Farrakhan or Jesse Jackson on the network, or anything else that I believe viewers want to see and hear, I can."
Under the deal, Mr. Johnson gets $1.4 billion in Viacom stock, making him the second-largest shareholder. He will remain chairman and chief executive officer of BET for at least five years.
But media critic Mr. Toure believes Mr. Johnson had a responsibility to keep BET black-owned and independent, but does not have the same sense of "responsibility and legacy" to the black community as John H. Johnson, the owner of Ebony magazine.
Mr. Toure said John Johnson has repeatedly refused to sell his publications to white-owned media corporations. It has long been one of the largest black-owned companies in America.
Mr. Toure also said he was never happy with the channel's offerings. He was among many blacks, including Aaron McGruder, the creator of the comic strip "Boondocks," who publicly criticized BET's programming, which relied heavily on old sitcoms, risque comics and music videos that were inexpensive to air.
"We are not losing quality programming," Mr. Toure said. "We are losing the potential for quality programming. The content is very poor, but we had the potential to influence Bob Johnson to make things better.
"Now it's going to be even more difficult to get programming to change under Viacom. What kind of track record does Viacom have in terms of our community? They own UPN, whose programming is embarrassing, with very few dramas and a lot of minstrel-like shows that put down black men and women."
Distributed by Scripps Howard

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