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Thursday, February 7, 2008

Time to End the Siege of Debra Lee- and Apology

Is there a more UNSYMPATHETIC woman in the African American community than Debra Lee, the CEO of Black Entertainment Television? To hear folks tell it, she’s a combination of Mary Magdalene, Hester Prynne, Tituba, Leona Hemsley and Imelda Marcos- a Black woman of questionable values who is rich and lives in a castle.

Considering my own history with THAT NETWORK, I didn’t lose any sleep six months ago when a Maryland pastor announced that he would begin protesting outside the home of Debra Lee. Each Saturday, hundreds of church members gather to march in a circle and chant that they have had enough of BET’s programming. Six months later, they’re still marching.

At first I used my blog to promote these protests. No one cheered louder. Although I didn’t agree with the strategy, I supported the Saturday morning demonstrations because I was excited to see so many people take to the streets and become actively engaged in combating negative portrayals of African American women in popular culture. I touted the protests as something reminiscent of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I put up video and photos of the protesters when mainstream media would not. In my excitement about what I thought was a burgeoning form of activism, I failed to recognize that this sort of moral crusade isn’t new at all. History is replete of examples of religious leaders targeting the despised, the ridiculed, the reviled. It takes no courage to besiege someone or something that is unpopular an thus we all are vulnerable to the tendency to target the unsympathetic figure because in our eyes, they deserve it.

We hosted the organizer of the protest on our podcast, the Black Women’s Roundtable on October 11, 2007. When challenged as to what it was he wanted Debra Lee to do in order to end the siege, the leader of the said , “We want her [Debra Lee] to follow her own programming guidelines” (25:00)

While I didn’t demand specifics six months ago, I am demanding them now. Which video, show or segment was so egregious as to merit besieging Debra Lee’s home for five months?
The time has some for the campaign leaders to tell the world which programming standards BET is currently violating. I challenge them to state, with specificity:

a. What specific video , segment or show did BET air this week that violates their own programming standards and in what way does content violate BET’s programming guidelines?
b. When did the specific content air on BET?
c. Which advertisers paid for the content by running ads before, during, and after the objectionable content?

We all know that BET is unresponsive to the concerns of ordinary African Americans, however, they appear to be responsive to the concerns of their advertisers. If content is so egregious as to merit besieging a personal residence, surely no self respecting advertiser would want to be associated with it. Let the world know who is funding the foolishness.

I share concerns about the depiction of African Americans in popular culture, however on every occasion where I have objected to content, I have disclosed the offending content, providing pictures, videos, and links to allow everyone to review the specific content and judge the content for themselves.

If the protest is based on a generalized dissatisfaction with the depiction of African Americans in popular culture, then why should one woman bear the burden for an entire industry ? I’ve learned recently that the methods you use to wage a campaign is as important as the victory you seek. Once the campaign identifies the specific content which is objectionable and the advertisers who are paying for the content, I would be more than happy to contact those advertisers.

Criticize Debra Lee. Confront her. Contact her advertisers, continue to demonstrate, but please let the world know what exactly it is that BET aired this week to merit continuing the siege. I’m not saying you have to go home, just show us why you’re out there six months later.

The test of our character is not how we treat the people we like. The true test of our character and our faith is how we treat the people we do not like; such as Debra Lee. To the extent that I encouraged anyone to pick up a pitchfork and torch, I apologize for leading you astray and now urge you to put them down until you have some concrete reason to continue besieging the home of Debra Lee.

Despite all of her faults, Debra Lee is a human being and I now question whether the reason she was targeted first was because the protesters knew that few would rise publicly to her defense. That made her a vulnerable target for those who wish to exploit the hot topic of decency and the exploitation of African American women in popular culture for their own purposes. I apologize to her in that we should have demanded more specific explanations on the front end of this situation. Perhaps some hard questions at the beginning would have avoided the impression that the only purpose of the protest is to promote protest leaders. To all those who chortle with glee at the prospect of continuing the siege of Debra Lee, remember that when they get through with her, they could come for you or me.

Heading into the sixth month of perpetual protest, we still don’t know exactly what the Enough is Enough Corporation has had enough of. When it comes to what is and is not offensive, I am no longer willing to substitute your judgment for my own.

To my readers who may be perplexed as to why I would issue such a statement, I don’t make a distinction between BET’s exploitation of Black women and the exploitation of Black women by those who use the War on Black women as a promotional tool. For all we know, the original offending content has already been pulled. A specific list of content makes plain to the world why exactly the protests should head into their sixth month.

I look forward to seeing the list of content, broadcast times and the advertisers who paid for it. If that list cannot be provided in short order, the protesters need to get off of Debra Lee’s petunias until they can provide such a list.

P.S.- Don't worry. When BET screws up, I am still willing to call them on their crap, but I at least have to know what the crap is and after 6 months without specifics, I think we're entitled to know.