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KATRINA'S AFTERMATH | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

The Show Didn't Benefit by Censors

September 04, 2005|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

AS we enter the celebrity telethon phase of the Katrina tragedy, NBC's "A Concert for Hurricane Relief" stands as a blueprint for its own kind of institutional failure.

By censoring Grammy-winning rapper Kanye West's remarks critical of President Bush during its West Coast feed of the program Friday night, the network violated the most moving and essential moment in an otherwise sterile, self-serving corporate broadcast.

"It would be most unfortunate," the network said in a statement defending its action, "if the efforts of the artists who participated tonight and the generosity of millions of Americans who are helping those in need are overshadowed by one person's opinion."

Excuse me, but whose tragedy is this: NBC's or America's?

NBC may have been nervous about West's comments, including the notion that America and its president are unresponsive to the needs of the poor. But you can be sure those remarks would have been cheered more than anything else in the program by the black parents and children still trapped in the New Orleans Convention Center and the Superdome if they had been able to hear them.

The line NBC stopped us from hearing on the West Coast: "George Bush doesn't care about black people."

The puzzling thing is why NBC axed that, but allowed another provocation, potentially more disturbing, to stay in: "We already realized a lot of the people that could help are at war right now, fighting another way, and they've given them permission to go down and shoot us."

West was apparently referring to the National Guard troops who were sent to New Orleans to help the flood victims and stop the looting.

The show was aired live on the East Coast, where West's full comments were heard.

There was a several-second tape delay, but the person in charge "was instructed to listen for a curse word and didn't realize [West] had gone off script," NBC spokeswoman Rebecca Marks told Associated Press.

Whether we agree or disagree with West's impassioned riff on media and government racism, the network's relentless self-promotion was by far the more offensive part of the broadcast.

It started with a welcome from Bob Wright, the chief executive of NBC Universal, which was followed by thoughts from another chief executive, Capital One's Richard D. Fairbank.

Why Fairbank?

Capital One "underwrote" the telethon, which makes you immediately ask: Was his appearance part of the underwriting deal? The fact that the question comes up at all shows you how wrong that move was.

Then we had Matt Lauer, perhaps the most famous male face of NBC east of Jay Leno, host the program, and "feel-good" scenes of NBC anchor Brian Williams walking the streets with New Orleans musician Harry Connick Jr.

Surely Connick, also known for his appearances on NBC's "Will & Grace," knew his way around without Williams' help.

The censorship of West only added to the insult.

West, a black artist who is arguably the dominant creative force in mainstream popular music right now, isn't one of the thug-life rappers who might use a moment on a telethon for shock or exploitation purposes.

The most respected newcomer in rap, he has refocused interest on socially conscious themes, as did Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder in R&B decades ago. There's even a spiritual undercurrent in his biggest hit, "Jesus Walks."

His provocative on-air comments come as his new album, "Late Registration," is expected to enter the national sales chart at No. 1 this week.

Because he is widely seen by critics and industry tastemakers as an influential spokesman for the American black experience, you could feel the strain of his attempt to fulfill that role -- to step beyond the generic comments of other celebrities Friday to reflect on the horror being experienced by the flood victims.

You could disagree with his views, but you couldn't deny his passion.

"I hate the way they portray us in the media," West began his remarks during the hourlong program, on which he was one of several celebrities, including Hilary Swank and Leonardo DiCaprio, who spoke between musical numbers. "If you see a black family, it says they're looting. See a white family, it says they're looking for food."

West, 28, who attended Chicago State University before entering the music business, seemed to be talking extemporaneously, so he might have chosen his words differently if he'd had time to write them down.

But maybe not.

There's the possibility of more unscripted passion breaking through this week as NBC and the other networks, along with PBS, join forces Friday for another special. BET will air a separate benefit the same night. And the MTV networks will present a special Saturday.

In planning these events, the executives should look at tapes of "America: A Tribute to Heroes," the two-hour special that was carried by all the major television networks and dozens of cable channels shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The focus that night was entirely on the music: no commercials, no audience, not even introductions as the singers, including Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young, took their turns onstage. It was a night totally without showbiz ego.

The worst example of telethon-type coverage recently was MTV's commercial-packed coverage of the Live 8 concerts in July, in which there was so little respect for the music that cameras frequently cut away from key performances for inane MTV chatter. On Friday NBC, at least, limited the commercials to one: for NBC.

Hilburn, pop music critic of The Times, can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com.

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