Escalating backlash against Black Entertainment Television’s (BET) decision to broadcast a six-week series entitled “Hot Ghetto Mess,” or HGM, has led two major sponsors to pull their ads from both the program and the channel’s website last week.
As the controversy swirled through cyberspace and the airwaves, there were unconfirmed reports late Friday night from a blogger who claimed to be close to the show’s host Charlie Murphy that BET had decided to pull the plug on the show.
While BET, owned by communications giant Viacom since 2004, continues to be tight lipped about the details of its lost sponsors or HGM, it’s website continues to promote the July 25 debut while tauting a blackface character with a red slash through its face, along with the tagline, “We Got To Do Better.”
HGM is culled from the website of the same name and features photos and video footage of random African Americans engaged in behavior or dressed in attire considered embarrassing and socially unacceptable. Several requests made to BET’s corporate headquarters to speak with the station’s press liaison and HGM founder Jamilla Donaldson were not returned at press time.
However, a little-know blog called “What About Our Daughters” (WAOD) is striking at the heart of the media conglomerate. In April, Gina McCauley answered the call to make a difference after viewing Oprah Winfrey’s two-day town hall meeting following Don Imus’ demeaning comments and debating hip hop lyrics and the use of the n-word.
A guest suggested that Black women were going to have to make their complaints known, and with that McCauley started her blog. She is now at the head of a blogasphere movement that is comprised of 20 and 30-somethings on the Internet–the same demographic BET has targeted with HGM. What started out as an informal think tank about the images that are absorbed by Black youths with a mere 200 weekly views has exploded to 18,000 daily views and now features a weekly podcast.
On July 1st, McCauley contacted State Farm Insurance Co with her concerns over their sponsorship of HGM. By day’s end, the company had pulled the advertisements. Soon, Home Depot also pulled their ads. McCauley, a 31-year old Austin-based attorney, charges that BET cares only about its income stream and does not about the community they claim to represent.
“First of all, our position has been to stop funding the foolishness,” explained McCauley. “BET can put ‘Hot Ghetto Mess’ up without commercial interruption if it wants to, but I am not going to subsidize it and they should ask Black women who go to work everyday to purchase these products and goods and services of these corporations to subsidize something that demeans them. If these corporations know anything about exhibiting people of color for entertainment and amusement, they wouldn’t be doing this. If they knew anything about the history of blackface and how that affected perceptions of African Americans around the world for centuries they would not do this. I think it’s intellectually dishonest to think that people outside the community who view this aren’t going to use it to either create stereotypes or cement stereotypes that they have. I have a problem with BET looking for the very worse, in their opinion, that the African American community has to offer and beam it around the world.”
The channel calls the 6-week series “a blend of tough love and social commentary.” On the HGM site, Donaldson, a Black lawyer who’s also an executive producer on the BET show, calls for a “new era of self-examination.”
“If it happens to be controversial, that’s fine,” she told the Hollywood Reporter. “If it makes it more marketable, that’s fine, too. ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ was controversial, too, but (Michael Moore’s) message got out there.”
Donaldson believes people have misinterpreted the intention of her website. “It’s long-standing among African-Americans that we don’t criticize each other in public, you don’t air the laundry,” Donaldson said. “But I don’t buy into it.”
“Whose laundry and for what purpose?” retorts McCauley.” That’s a charade. It has never been about airing dirty laundry until (BET) got criticized. It was always about finding people who looked ‘funny’ and let’s mock and laugh at them. Part of this is Jam being very elitist in trying to imply somehow that because these people are poor and uneducated that it’s okay for us to mock and scorn them. I don’t disagree with her that people shouldn’t be conducting themselves in that way, but I think it’s a big leap from going from the Internet to international broadcast television and I think that BET is a certain stamp of approval because they’re called Black Entertainment Television.”
More disturbing than the proposed airing of HGM is the recent media coverage of the HGM website that has lead to the discovery of photos of African American youngsters posed in provocative ways. McCauley believes these images represent abuse and neglect and that HGM founder has an ethical obligation as a lawyer to report these exploitive images to law enforcement officials.
“There’s pictures of little Black children with cigars in their mouths,” said McCauley. “The LA Times article mentioned (seeing images) of toddlers drinking beer or whatever. I have not clicked on it because I heard a description that some of it could qualify as child pornography and I don’t want that on my hard drive. I just think it’s morally repugnant and disgusting to have photos of African American toddlers in situations where they are being abused and neglected and put that up for entertainment purposes.”
The success that BET may claim for existing for 27 years has increasing been overshadowed by the criticism it has drawn for what many view as demeaning programming. Some people have even referred to the BET acronym as standing for “Black Exploitation Television”.
“They may think of it as some sort of free publicity campaign for the program,” noted pop culture critic and journalist Richard Torres. “You have a network that’s supposedly Black Entertainment Television which is white-owned. And it’s funny because BET keeps trying to explain itself saying its catering to the 18-34 demographic, the same demographic that by the way is losing it’s life in Iraq and is at risk from various forces, yet they don’t address those issues. You have a Black man running for president, who by all accounts is a credible candidate, and they don’t cover that. Instead you get ‘Hot Ghetto Mess.'”
“The problem is that there are always going to be sellouts in our community who are going to look for the quick dollar or the quick 15 minutes of fame,” said Lawrence Otis Graham, one of the nation’s leading experts on race, politics and class in America. “The problem is that because the white media allows so few Black voice to come through that they often pick the most provocative and shocking person or voice to tell our stories.”
As a way to circumvent broadcasting regulations several years ago, BET created a late-night segment called “Uncut” to air uncensored videos. Perhaps the most notorious video to air, which for many came to exemplify BET’s program choices, was “Tip Drill” by Nelly that depicted him swiping a credit card between a stripper’s buttocks. The video spurred such outrage that Spelman University students teamed up with Essence magazine’s “Take Back the Music” campaign and forced the last-minute cancellation of a Nelly concert scheduled at the Atlanta-based school.
Much in the spirit of Dr. C. Delores Tucker’s epic battle with Warner Records over the depiction of Black women in hip-hop lyrics, there are a handful of Black women who are leading the charge against BET’s insistence on airing HGM. Latrice Janine, a 25-year-old college student out of Chicago, has obtained over 4,200 signatures since January in her online petition against HGM.
McCauley says she finds similarities to the potential airing of HGM and the exploitation of Saartjie Baartman, a 19th century European sideshow known as the “Hottentut Venus.” “Because she looked different they would take her to parties wearing nothing but feathers and just looking at her was entertainment,” said McCauley. “This to me is the exact same thing. For BET, who has made its money on perpetuating stereotypes to now turn around and say that they’re trying to combat the thing that they promoted is like a crack dealer suddenly opening up a rehab.”