Black-Oriented News Could Use a New Golden Age

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Turn on the television news these days and you'll see history being made. A charismatic black man and a savvy white woman are running neck and neck to become the Democratic nominee for president. But despite the rich racial and gender implications of Barack Obama's and Hillary Clinton's candidacies, you won't see much in the way of news analysis by African Americans -- men or women.

It wasn't always like this. Not so long ago, you could watch news programs that featured a wide range of insight and perspective by black experts. The station to watch, believe it or not, was Black Entertainment Television -- that is, before the cable network was sold to Viacom in 2000 and most of its news programming was canceled.

If ever there was a need for serious national black news shows, it's now. And no one succeeded in providing such a public service like Deborah R. Tang, a former BET vice president for news, who died recently of cancer. She was 60.

For 14 years, Tang created the kind of news programming that gave gravitas to an otherwise juvenile-minded network. These days, however, her signature programs, "BET Nightly News," with host Ed Gordon, and "Lead Story," a Sunday morning political roundtable featuring black journalists, have been replaced with the most thoughtless fare.

The reality show "Hell Date" and the so-called black pop cultural expos┬┐ "We Got to Do Better" (originally called "Hot Ghetto Mess") might be profitable for Viacom, but for black viewers, they are intellectually bankrupt.

At a memorial service last week at the Howard University Law School chapel, Tang's accomplishments were recalled with melancholy admiration. Tang, a native of Chicago, began her television career as a producer for the "Charlie Rose" show in Dallas in 1978, then moved to Washington, where she worked as a producer for several stations.

BET founder Robert Johnson recognized her talents and hired her in 1986 to head his fledgling company's news operation. Tang outlined her guiding principles of news coverage in an interview with Emerge Magazine. "The majority doesn't see us as doctors and lawyers who work hard every day," she said. "We have to make sure that America sees the other side."

In creating the first national black cable television news shows, she also let black America see itself in a new light.

You could count on regular broadcasts featuring black intellectuals, not just an occasional special report on black folks. This was a network, not just a show. When black people from across the political spectrum aired their differences on BET news, they didn't come off as if they were putting on airs for white people, as sometimes seems to be the case in other news venues.

I worked with Tang as a freelance commentator until we both left BET around the time of the Viacom deal. And it's not hard for me to imagine how much better the cumulative coverage of this phenomenal presidential campaign would be if she'd been able to grow BET's news division.

Take, for example, pollsters' stunningly inaccurate prediction that Obama would win by 13 points in New Hampshire, where he lost by two. Tang was the kind of news executive who'd home in on a question uppermost in the minds of black people: whether white voters had told pollsters one thing, then done something else in the voting booths.

Pundits who appeared on network news shows pretty much dismissed such suspicions as conspiratorial quackery. Tang would have at least explored the history of voter duplicity when it comes to black candidates.

She was a smart black woman who commanded a black cable news operation that reached 85 million people, most of them African Americans younger than 30. She tolerated the butt-shaking music videos so offensive to many women, believing that if she could just get hold of those young minds, then their behinds would follow.

She once told me, "There is no reason that the 'E' in BET can't stand for education as much as entertainment."

Now we've got a presidential campaign in which race and gender politics are convoluted as never before; fresh insight and analysis are in short supply. A network that presented black-oriented news could help sort it all out.

Because of Tang, we know the possibilities.

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