As part of a series of interviews with network news chiefs, programming editor R. Thomas Umstead spoke BET News president David Scott about the Viacom-owned network’s election coverage and the challenges of covering the re-election campaign of the country’s first African-American president.
MCN: How has BET’s approach to its election coverage differed from your strategy four years ago?
David Scott: 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. 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 definitely tried to do this year is cover both sides of the aisle from a black perspective. [Rep.] Tim Scott [R-S.C.] and [Rep.] Allen West [R-Fla.] 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 company’s position is one of nonpartisanship with respect to politics, and we’re committed to covering signifi cant developments on both sides of the aisle from a black perspective.
MCN: How will BET election-themed programming differ from either the news networks or the general entertainment services?
DS: We’ve commissioned an original [two-part] BET docuseries that chronicles the effort to reignite 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 it’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 won’t get on CNN or any other broadcast network, so we’re looking forward to it.
MCN: Do you think that other networks will look to include more of the African-American perspective in their election coverage after four years of a sitting African-American president than in 2008, when he was a candidate?
DS: I certainly hope so. It ushers in more of a shared political culture, although there isn’t a single journalist of color involved [in the upcoming presidential debates], which I certainly didn’t think would be possible in the 2012 election cycle.
I don’t know what the other networks are planning, but there’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 you’re not covering it, you’re marginalizing your coverage.
We’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.