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BET Looks to Challenges of Covering Obama Campaign

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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 network’s election plans and the challenges of covering the reelection campaign of the country’s first African-American president.

How has BET’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, 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 company’s position is one of non-partisanship with respect to politics, and we’re committed to covering significant developments on both sides of the aisle from a black perspective.

How will BET’s election-themed programming differ from either the news networks or the general entertainment services?

We’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 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.

Given President Obama’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?

It’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; it’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 don’t apply to his opponent, even in the case of Governor Romney, who has a record from his own time in elected office. So it’s a different perspective. But from my point of view, we haven’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 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.