Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: A Revealing Look At Bob Johnson by George Curry

Black Entertainment Television received an award from the National Association of Black Journalists last week that it did not want - the group's Thumbs Down Award. The NABJ Board of Directors voted to give the non-ward award to BET for its depiction of Black images in the media, lack of news and public affairs and the network's neglect to broadcast the funeral of civil rights icon Coretta Scott King in 2006.

In the interest of full disclosure, I worked as editor-in-chief for the BET-owned Emerge magazine from 1993 until it was closed in 2000. During that period, I was a regular panelist on BET's "Lead Story," hosted by Ed Gordon and, later, Cheryl Martin.

Over the years, Bob Johnson, the founder of BET, has given hundreds of interviews. But none has been more revealing than the one conducted by my friend Joe Davidson, an editor at the Washington Post. The interview with Johnson appears in a book, to be published this week, titled, Being a Black Man: At the Corner of Progress and Peril. The book is a reprint of a series on Black men that appeared last year in the Post. Davidson's piece, however, was not part of the series and appears for the first time in the book.

Johnson sold BET to Viacom in 2001 for $3 billion. After continuing as CEO for four years, he turned over management of BET to Debra Lee. He now owns more than 120 hotels (Hiltons and Marriotts), the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats, a bank, a financial services company, and by his own count, created 14 to 15 Black millionaires when he sold BET.

Traveling down the road to success, Johnson has been highly critical of unions.

"As a black man, I see nothing that the unions have done to create economic wealth for black people, other than what they normally do in trying to increase wages all across the board. But that's not geared toward the problems that black people face. I'm saying how much have they done specifically say: 'We're gonna make up for past union discrimination. We're going to make up for past union failure to provide opportunity.' Part of the reason why black people don't own anything isn't just because they didn't have money, part of it was that unions would not hire them to get the training."

After discussing the failure of some major Black companies to combine their resources, Johnson said lack of cooperation spills over into Black civic groups.

"Bless her heart, Dorothy Height [chair and president emeriti of the National Council of Negro Women] should've left a long time ago and given that perch to somebody else," Johnson said. "And I remember when somebody was running the Urban League, didn't want to leave, [people] had to almost push him out of the door of the Urban League. Because that's your identity...They don't get the free tickets, they don't get the White House invitations, they don't sit at the head table at the [Congressional Black] Caucus [functions]."

In his interview with Davidson, Johnson said he favors stronger affirmative action programs.

He said he prefers "mandated goals to say if you use the public airways, if the public airways belong to the public, we're going to mandate 30 percent of the radio stations be owned by black people. If you're getting money from the government - I'm buying X billion dollars with minority suppliers. If you're getting oil mining rights, I'm going to mandate that there be X number of black-owned gas stations. That's the only way you'll get there," he said, referring to economic parity.

And the only way for Blacks to make money, at least initially, is on the shoulders of African-Americans.

"That's the only way you'd get wealthy because they [white consumers] wouldn't [otherwise] buy the products from you," Johnson told Joe Davidson. "So you had to come up that way. My thing was once I came up that way, why shouldn't I make money in the same way white folks make money? By serving white consumers. So I go out and buy, we now own 120 hotels. But, before, I couldn't have gotten into that business unless I first accumulated the wealth through owning BET."

Johnson recognizes that he will be forever linked to the cable network.

"I bet you dollars to doughnuts, the story will be - and this will be years after I'm gone and probably will own 400 hotels and probably will do huge amounts of things in other businesses -he founded BET and all his life he was criticized for putting on music videos and that I should have had a higher calling as a black person to put on something else."

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com

Wednesday, August 22, 2007