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BET's Jeff Johnson tries to balance objective coverage with the event's emotional appeal

January 21, 2009|Matea Gold

WASHINGTON — Early into BET's live coverage of Tuesday's presidential inauguration, anchor Jeff Johnson addressed head-on the question hanging in the frosty morning air.

"There's been so much talk about the black journalist, about is this something that a black journalist can cover with a level of integrity, or are all black journalists just drinking the Kool-Aid, celebrating Barack Obama before he won," said Johnson, perched on a stool on a makeshift rooftop set overlooking the U.S. Capitol.

"There's a question for us as a network: Are we going to be able to cover this the right way?" he added. "Well, I'm telling you we are. We're covering it the right way because we're celebrating this not with African Americans but with the entire country. And this is the brief opportunity we have, before we have to hold Barack Obama accountable, to celebrate the fact that he is the first president of the United States that is a person of color."

Among the hundreds of news outlets that descended upon Washington on Tuesday, BET, the leading cable network for African American viewers, faced an unusual mission: balancing its journalistic duties with the day's deep emotional resonance for its audience.

"We feel that we have a responsibility to report the story and to report the issues from an objective point of view," said Keith Brown, the network's senior vice president of news and public affairs. "But we can't ignore the huge celebratory aspect for not only our community but our country, to come this far."

Johnson, an activist turned journalist, exemplified the network's effort to fulfill both those mandates. The 35-year-old got his start as a student leader at the University of Toledo and went on to work for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network before joining BET to do commentary and news in 2004.

As he prepared to go on the air Tuesday, Johnson said it was essential that BET pose tough questions about Obama's administration.

"When you juxtapose the necessity of us as African American journalists being able to provide really balanced coverage with integrity with the reality that this is still a moment in history, that's a challenge. But it's a great responsibility to have."

The challenge was particularly acute on election night. Johnson said he tried to remain evenhanded, speaking in personal terms only when it was clear Obama had won. Covering the inauguration would be simpler, he thought.

"This is that one day where it's not really about trying to remain balanced," he said. "This isn't a Democratic or Republican conversation. This is an American celebration that the world has joined in."

Indeed, several BET staffers did not try to hide their pride in the day's significance, wearing Obama stickers and apparel as they gathered on the network's rooftop set. Still, Johnson remained stoic for most of the morning, quizzing political analyst Keith Boykin about the security measures and mechanics of the inauguration.

But as the ceremony progressed, Johnson's neutral tone slipped. "I am at one of those torn moments very similar to election night. The moment we knew he had won, it was difficult to remain a journalist, and it was time to be an African American man."

By the time the inauguration concluded with the national anthem, Johnson and Boykin were in tears. The anchor wiped his eyes furiously.

"I am overwhelmed at this moment, and I don't know how anybody in this nation that clearly understands the history of this country can not be," he said, his voice cracking. "The national anthem means something different than it meant just a few hours ago. It means that the United States of America has actually challenged one of its greatest issues: that for so many years and for so long, we were able to use something like race as a method to divide us. But it's been the very election of this president, Barack Obama, that has the potential of putting us together in a way we never have before."

With that, he took a deep breath and settled in to report the rest of the day's events.


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