Social Responsibility and BET

200px-betlogo2.jpgFrom an NPR story:

Last weekend, members of a campaign called “Enough is Enough” rallied at the homes of two top TV executives.

They are demanding BET and MTV stop airing what they call demeaning and offensive portrayals of African Americans and women.

One of the things the interviewee from this story stated was that companies such as Viacom (parent company of BET) need to have greater social responsibility for their actions. I’ve heard this argument many times before and actually share this ideal–it should be the case. But I have also come to believe that it will never happen through making moral pitches to companies about what is right or wrong to do. Call me a pessimist, but I don’t believe there to be corporate conscience to appeal to. I mean, corporations are made of individuals and individuals have consciences, but corporations are another animal–there is just too much diffusion of moral responsibility there. Companies, especially those such as Viacom, are driven by money. Period. They do what they do because people out there are watching BET and making them money.

So isn’t the best way to change their behavior through changing the rewards and consequences of their actions? If they were not rewarded for their horrible programming would they really keep doing it the same way? Likewise, if they started producing more positive programming and were rewarded for it wouldn’t they do more of it? More to the point, wouldn’t we be better served by convincing black folk to stop watching BET than convincing or demanding BET to do the right thing? Of course, this would be more easily achieved if there were an alternative network providing substantive issues concerning black folks. But that’s for another post…

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6 Responses to “Social Responsibility and BET”


  1. 1 SL November 14, 2007 at 12:18 am

    I agree that big corporations and morality do not go hand in hand.
    The best way to protest the unidimensional representation of African Americans on BET is to actually stop watching. That would send a clear message to sponsors and the big yet never seen people behind the BET enterprise.
    Other networks such as the CW seem to be at least trying to do a better job depicting blacks on television. They target a very young audience and the shows are pretty “light,” but it is somewhat of an alternative.

  2. 2 Neuman November 14, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    I agree that the way to petition corporate change is to target the bottom line, not the upper tiers of management. As you note, corporations have a singular focus: making money. However, the mode of attack you propose is likely to be unavailing—call me a pessimist too. This conversation is incomplete without exploring why black people choose to watch derogatory images of themselves on BET and MTV. Moreover, I wonder whether the primary demographic of BET, like MTV, is white people. If that’s the case, then I think we can expect the same old same old from Viacom. And rightfully so. I don’t think we want our corporations to be the north star of the nation’s ethical compass. We WANT them to be singularly focused on making money. However, the link to “diffusion of moral responsibility” is inapplicable in the corporate setting because corporations, themselves, do not have morals. And we should not look behind the fiction of the corporate entity to expect the individuals running the company to ensure a course of morality.

    Perhaps a more long-lasting solution is to stop accepting the notion that popular media is somehow responsible for accurately depicting black people. One of the reasons the derogatory images of blacks in the media from past generations died away was the disconnect between blacks’ portrayal and their reality. Steppin Fetchit and Buckwheat could not be sustained in the face of blacks’ pervasive dignity. Now, however, many blacks live to emulate the negative portrayals of them on television. There is no disconnect because much of the igorance and degradation that is portrayed is “keeping it real.” As always, therefore, I think the best solution is to turn inward.

  3. 3 Mike November 14, 2007 at 10:37 pm

    Neuman, I agree with you that the answer is to turn inward. I think part of the answer is the creation of an effective counter culture. Remember how groups like BDP, XClan, and Public Enemy actually had black folk reading and discussing black history? The problem was that this era of hip-hop was too short-lived–we couldn’t get it to hold and expand just as we can’t get the existing conscious hip hop culture to develop beyond a sub-subculture. But I think this is what is necessary. We just need the right hook and the right people to wield it. SL, while the CW producing non-negative shows is a good thing, I think we will need pro-positive and non-corny (this is key) cultural products to really see a change.

    I also agree with Neuman that we should not look towards corporations to ensure morality–my point was that it needs to be forced upon them. But I disagree that we should WANT businesses to have a singular mission of making money. How many examples to we need to prove that this is not healthy for society? Exploited workers, pollution, large scale theft, peddling in health hazardous products…the list goes on and on. These problems are a direct result of corporate greed. While we shouldn’t look to them as moral compasses, we should expect them to exercise some responsibility even if we have to punch them in the mouth to make them do it (as was the case with Yahoo).

    I like the example of the death of Steppin Fetchit and Buckwheat as a result of a disconnect between media representations of black and blacks’ reality. But we have an interesting problem today that was not as much of an issue then–the omnipresence of the media and its overwhelming influence on behavior. Today, media defines concepts of dignity, masculinity, femininity, beauty, success, and power in much more powerful ways than it did back then. So in some ways, in today’s age, when there is a disconnect between media depictions and reality, media has much more power to sway reality to match its depiction. It takes a strong commitment to something much deeper to resist this influence that can only come from strong family and/or community–unfortunately two things the black community is desperately lacking.

  4. 4 Neuman November 15, 2007 at 3:21 pm

    Mike: I’m not sure I follow your counter-culture point. Is that point limited to hip hop? Or are you advocating that a counter culture permeate black culture to save it from its current state of existence? If the latter, I am not sure that blacks can afford to get any more “fringe” than we already are. I love rap music, generally. However, I must confess that I love it not for its musical quality, but for its nostalgic resonance. I hear a Mobb Deep track and it’s like I’m in the dorm, 20 years old, and charting a path for my life all over again. But if I were to hear Mobb Deep for the first time today (and I’m talking 1993 Mobb Deep here; not that G-Unit stuff) I’m not sure I would even like it. Same for Tribe; same for Brand Nubian; same for BDP and EPMD. I am often reminded of a clip from the Sopranos where one of Tony’s under-bosses’ sons takes AJ under his wing for a week or two. He asks AJ about his musical tastes, and AJ responds with a list of rap artists. The other kid (in college) states the question: “You didn’t grow out of that yet?” The point being that counter cultures are for kids. Leaders in the effort to uplift black culture cannot employ juvenile tactics. Jay-Z, a 38 year old black man, just matched Elvis Presley for the second-most number of #1 albums. The vast majority of his sales went to white teenagers. Something is wrong here.

    Finally, I think you should be careful in choosing your words as between ethics and morality. There is a huge difference. The improper tactics that you list engaged in by corporations are not immoral; they are unethical. I think corporations should be ethical, but morality plays no role in it. Death, for example, is a question of morality, not ethics. You own 8,000 shares in Company A worth $100,000. Company A intends to purchase all the assets of Company B for cash, leaving Company B “dead.” Company A’s killing of Company B nets you a 40% return on your investment in Company A. Assuming the takeover is “ethical,” do you oppose Company B’s demise on “moral” grounds? Of course not. There is no such thing as corporate morality. All corporations SHOULD BE singularly focused on maximizing profit within ethical boundaries.

  5. 5 Mike November 15, 2007 at 8:16 pm

    When I was referring to counterculture I was referring to hip hop culture–the main product that BET peddles–not all black culture. And countercultures are not just for kids. The Green Party, I’d say, reflects a counterculture.

    Re morals & ethics, I think you’re parsing words. Both have to do with right and wrong and responsible conduct–that’s the point. The “death” of a company through acquisition is not an appropriate analogy for human death or moral/ethical behavioral among humans. Acquired companies can benefit or be saved by being “killed” (acquired). Humans generally don’t benefit from dying.

    How are the “improper tactics” I listed unethical and not immoral? Aren’t the ethical guidelines of institutions nothing more than ways of enforcing morality?

  6. 6 Louanne November 24, 2007 at 6:05 am

    Relying on corporations to become morally responsible and produce programming that molds society is scary and a quite Sci Fi-est vision. I struggle with this on a daily basis but it is not up to Viacom or CW to blast positive images into black or general society.

    I would agree that entertainment (sitcoms, reality shows, music) more that ever in this decade have become the bible for culture and I see this on so many levels: race, class, gender and religion. Blaming corporations and their clear definition of profit and not accepting social responsibility is like a cigarette manufacturer having a stop smoking campaign.

    Black society needs a new mind altering drug. Panels and discussion groups are today still trying to figure out where we went wrong.

    • The one tenth that Dubois mentioned has no time to help, assist, put on, or uplift the many that are left behind. Their new focus is assimilating into white society based on materialism and a disassociation agenda.
    • Rap is the most destructive device that has flooded our communities. It is the modern day cocaine by CIA in the 60’s. The admiration and success of Jay-Z,
    50 Cent, etc, is mind-blowing. The beats are great, but the messages are negative
    and images have become culture.
    • The few rappers, positive leaders, community centers sitcoms that are trying to make a difference are drowned out financially, discredited and ostracized.

    It is up to corporations to right their wrong. It is time for society to take responsibility and begin grass roots efforts, starting from within our homes and spreading throughout communities. The difference between entertainment and social responsibility? I think the latter. Many others and I have begun an effort to reclaim social responsibility and hopefully in a couple of years we will see positive results in our communities.


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