Robert Johnson
September 29, 2001 1:10 PM   Subscribe

Robert Johnson is the first black billionaire, and ranks #172 on the list of richest Americans after he sold BET to Viacom. Does he have a social responsibilty to show more than T&A and comedy on BET, or is he being unfairly singled out?
posted by owillis (31 comments total)
He sold his soul to the devil to become a better bluesman. Then he was poisoned to death by a jealous man. I've got his boxed set.
posted by websavvy at 1:25 PM on September 29, 2001

is he being unfairly singled out?

posted by rebeccablood at 1:29 PM on September 29, 2001

He's being singled out-- he's a business man, a damned good one, and just about as sleazy as any other entertainment mogul. My main beef with BET is that they just don't have enough programming, what's up with all the infomercials going on FOREVER at night and weekends?
posted by chaz at 1:34 PM on September 29, 2001

He has fulfilled his social responsibility: made lots of money. Why should he have to program certain things as a social obligation when in fact all who program do it to make money? Oh, right. He is not white and he must be a credit to his race.
posted by Postroad at 1:46 PM on September 29, 2001

is he being unfairly singled out?

Absolutely. Johnson is right when he says (in the article) this is job is to build a business and run it profitably. If he doesn't want to be a public servant, nobody has the right to make him into one. First black billionaire or not.

So much for the unbreakable nature of class structure in America.
posted by gd779 at 1:58 PM on September 29, 2001

Bob Johnson is a damn good businessman. The fact that his market is a black audience does not mean he is obligated to be the spokesman for Black America. He saw a market, and he attacked the market aggressively. It's a business, not a non-profit organization. Certainly there's an opportunity for him to play a larger role in helping others recognize the concerns of his audience; however, he doesn't take it. Not everyone wants that podium.

Listen to an NPR segment about Johnson and this very subject...
He's "caught in the contradiction between race and capitalism."
posted by Hankins at 2:22 PM on September 29, 2001

Read the article again. There are fives sources of quotes. The protestors who say things like Mr. Johnson is " the 2001 version of the dude who drove Ms. Daisy around." are anonymous. They're used by the author to imply that all black people are sitting around critizing Johnson because he's black. Then there's the quote from Thomas Joyner. He is critizing the programming on BET but I don't see where he is attacking Mr. Johnson because he's black. There's Mr. Johnson himself. And oh yeh, there's Spike Lee and others talking about how they don't want to appear on BET because it doesn't pay enough and one more from some recording artist thanking BET for playing her videos.

I especially love the sweeping (but carefully qualified) generalizations without any support like; "But for all his success, the 55-year-old executive is resented, even reviled, by some leading voices among the very audience he built his fortune catering to--black America. " or, "To many black Americans, BET is like an ill-mannered relative--dearly loved, but a little embarrassing." The article is bullshit. It's possible that Robert Johnson is being singled out because he's black but the only evidence we have of this is Mr. Pulley's assertions, some anonymous quotes, and Mr. Johnson's responses.
posted by rdr at 2:27 PM on September 29, 2001

I watched a biography of Mr Johnson once. He's a very very sensible man. One time he went into his horse stall, and the repair man thought he was the plumber. He corrected him, but didn't feel angered or disgruntled. He has sense enough to realize it was an honest mistake. Johnson lives his social responsibility, he doesn't have to show it to the world on a cable channel.
posted by geoff. at 2:38 PM on September 29, 2001

I'm of the opinion that media should show some type of social responsibility to the audiences that they define. I know that's not an extreme opinion. Since the article doesn't go into more specific details about the content of the criticism raised against Johnson, it's difficult to tell how valid his response is. If anyone wants to fill me in on some of the types of comments that are being leveled at him, it would be appreciated. I'd listen to Hankins realmedia link, but have had too many problems with real player to want to use it any more.

I do believe that getting an audience involved in the building of a business enterprise geared towards their wants can help build a loyal viewership, and can attrack advertisers. Is it a good business practice to label criticism as an "unfair singling out" rather than an opportunity to develop a larger, more loyal audience by trying to respond to it in a positive manner, if possible?
posted by bragadocchio at 2:42 PM on September 29, 2001

He sold his soul to the devil to become a better bluesman. ha, ha, I laugh so hard snot comes out my nose...Not. Not true, too, devil sold soul story re other Robert Johnson: confabulation between brag of Tommy Johson (the more influential of those 2 Johnsons among OG delta bluesmen as opposed to 60s white rockers upon Clumbia LP release in '61), plus Son House's alcoholic memory loss plus Samuel Charter's romantic fantasies got that ball rolling...
posted by y2karl at 3:10 PM on September 29, 2001

Make money.If what you do is illegal, then you are bad. If legal, those with much less will be critical. Ignore them. Only minority people are asked to be role models...take a look at our role models in congress.
posted by Postroad at 3:28 PM on September 29, 2001

Ok, devil's advocate time (har): He's being unfairly singled out because he's one of the very few who has a chance to show a positive reflection of black America to itself; maybe when more black billionaires come along, it won't be so much of an issue. I think the question is, in a medium that is seen as reflective, if not representitive of our culture, is the free market really the best model? Those who have the cash decide what gets to be seen?
posted by transient at 3:28 PM on September 29, 2001

Those who have the cash decide what gets to be seen?

Cause and effect backwards here. People make money by providing what people want to see. American television is an almost perfectly refined delivery system for what the majority of Americans actually want from that medium.
posted by marknau at 3:59 PM on September 29, 2001

I feel sorry for the BET demographic, then.
posted by websavvy at 4:05 PM on September 29, 2001

transient: Like you, I'd ideally like to see those in charge of television programming show a little more social responsibility. They have tremendous power to guide the development of a large segment of society; if they were to start using that power consistent with some social values (my values, of course) America would be a better place.

However, as Marknau correctly points out, that is asking them to bankroll their vision of what America should see, as opposed to what America actually wants to see. A few actually do this (PAX comes to mind). But by and large, it's important to remember that the beauty of a free market is that it's free. Americans get to see whatever kind of programming they want to see, without much regard as to its "value". And that's a good thing.
posted by gd779 at 4:24 PM on September 29, 2001

It is Black ENTERTAINMENT Television after all, not Black ISSUES Television. The people want booty, the people get booty.
posted by aaron at 5:03 PM on September 29, 2001

He has a responsibility to air better programming on his station, but it has nothing to do with him being a black billionaire. If you know what I mean.
posted by Hildago at 5:28 PM on September 29, 2001

He sold his soul to the devil to become a better bluesman.


It is Black ENTERTAINMENT Television after all, not Black ISSUES Television. The people want booty, the people get booty.

they at least make an attempt with that one show that has tavis smiley as a host...
posted by lotsofno at 5:57 PM on September 29, 2001

marknau's wrong about teevee being a perfectly refined delivery for what people want simply because it's a two-way street: we are also conditioned to want certain things by those same entities and their advertising sponsors. Or as skallas put it, it's hard to say it's anything near perfect yet because, even with cable and satellite, there are still very few channels given the 280 million+ population of this country of ours. I would say the net is a more perfectly refined vision of what people want.

I've never watched BET, so I can't speak to its quality or lack of social conscience. But I do want to throw a "Robert Johnson is an asshole" curveball out there. Robert Johnson was a big stumper for the estate tax repeal last year, throwing out the old "double-dip" argument among others, as many conservatives are wont. Yet his big Viacom deal- the one that made him a billionaire- was accomplished in a tax-free stock swap, a common occurence when one corporation acquires another- meaning that most of his fortune has never been taxed at all. Read more in this excellent Michael Kinsley Slate article from April.
posted by hincandenza at 8:23 PM on September 29, 2001

marknau sez: Cause and effect backwards here.

Mmm... I don't think so. I can't imagine a great social and economic cross-section of people are really waltzing up, saying what should be on television, and being paid for it. The people who are making money from television are the people who produced it in the first place; i.e. those who had the money, in the first place, to produce it.

gd779: the problem comes when 51% of America decides what 100% of America should see. I realize this may be anathema, especially these days, but I wouldn't ask them to bankroll it; I'd ask us to bankroll it. Or maybe just give tax breaks to independent Internet content producers... :)
posted by transient at 9:20 PM on September 29, 2001

hicandenza: The instant that Johnson tries to spend his fortune (in anything besides another stock-swapping deal), it's going to be taxed. The only way that he avoids taxation altogether (excluding the estate tax) is by dying, leaving his fortune in stocks to his heirs, and somehow making sure that the stocks never rise in value from when he died. Otherwise, his heirs pay tax on the rise in value since they've possessed the stocks. Am I right?
posted by gd779 at 9:26 PM on September 29, 2001

gd779: Yes, but that's the problem right there. Sure, if he liquidates all $1.5b, he'll be hit with taxes on the entire sum. But as I understand it the stock could even double in value without being taxed so long as he just sits there and does nothing with the bulk of it (excepting a couple hundred million for "living expenses", I suppose). That new value goes to his kids upon his death, tax free; they would only ever pay taxes on any rise in value that occured after his death. And since we've established that Johnson never pays taxes on any part of that huge sum he doesn't cash in, and his kids only pay taxes on a raise in value after his death, then effectively almost all of his fortune as it currently exists could be completely untaxed, forever and ever.

As Kinsley points out in his article, there's nothing wrong with Johnson in particular benefiting like this- the law is such that he couldn't help but do so. However, it's extremely debatable whether it's a fair, moral, or just thing for his billions to go tax free while you and I pay instant and immediate taxes on dollar one of our paychecks. And it's doubly grotesque that Bob Johnson can't just accept his outrageous fortune, but feels the need to take out ads trying to convince people that the estate tax is somehow "unfair" or "double-dipping", when there's virtually no way he's not clear on just how the estate tax and stock swap mechanisms work.
posted by hincandenza at 1:18 AM on September 30, 2001

> Does he have a social responsibilty...

Everyone has social responsibilities. He does and you do. Johnson, though, happens to have greater means to do good.

But more than what he puts on television, it matters what he does with the money he gets out of television. No one can fix television if the audience is already ignorant and lapping it up, but a man with a billion dollars might be able to help schools turn out less ignorant children.

And if I were black, I think I would be embarrassed that such tripe is labeled Black Entertainment Television and not the Crass Crap Channel. Imagine, you white folk out there, if there were something called White Entertainment Television pushing a steady stream of the dumbest available programming featuring white-skinned entertainers. Yes, there are channels like that, but the owners don't implicate every white on the planet by calling it white entertainment.
posted by pracowity at 2:38 AM on September 30, 2001


Calling it "White Entertainment Television" would be, of course, considered racist, much like Miss White America or White History Month.

That said, a lot of White Television over time *has* been the dumbest programming available.....why did White men never complain about being stereotyped as bumbling doofuses a la Jack Tripper, Barney Fife, Ed Dawson, The Dukes of Hazzard, etc etc etc?
posted by Oriole Adams at 7:59 AM on September 30, 2001

Everyone has social responsibilities. He does and you do.

No I don't. I don't owe you, or anyone else, anything. It's called freedom.
posted by gd779 at 8:47 AM on September 30, 2001

gd779: No I don't. I don't owe you, or anyone else, anything. It's called freedom.

That's not "freedom", that sub-clinical psychopathy! Only sociopaths and extremely young children truly believe they are somehow separate from the rest of the world, that they are the center and all other people and things are just objects in this vast play put on solely for their benefit. What, you honestly think you can wander through this world from the cradle to the grave, taking advantage of everyone who aids you, but never owe anything back because you have "freedom"? You do owe people something, as a frickin' human being, if you have even the tiniest shred of compassion or humanity. And if you happen to be wealthy, you especially owe the society that made you wealthy at least a little something back for your good fortune. Remember, all wealth is luck, and that's as true for Robert Johnson as it is for the middle-class population of one of the wealthiest nations in the history of humankind.

Sure, you're right- you absolutely have the choice to do nothing. But really, the more you understand freedom, the less you have of it.
posted by hincandenza at 1:39 PM on September 30, 2001

Now that I think about it, that's overstated. After all, I have social responsibilities created by my religious convictions. Also, I have to take responsibility for the consequences of my actions. And, arguably, I have a social responsibility as a human being.

But those sorts of convictions have to be developed by Mr. Johnson, they can't be forced on him by the government or by the public at large. Until Pracowity is willing to abide by my opinion of his social responsibilities (created by achieving enough financial success to own a computer), he has no right to tell Mr. Johnson about his social responsibilities.

When I was a kid, I would occasionally complain to my Mom about something that my sister was doing. Her response is worth repeating: You take care of you, and let your sister take care of herself. The world just works better that way.
posted by gd779 at 1:41 PM on September 30, 2001


I didn't mean that literally! I was overstating for effect. The fact of the matter is, you do have one very large responsibility in this world: take responsibility for your actions. Don't lie, cheat, or steal to get out of situations that you've caused; clean up your own messes; when you harm someone else, make restitution. And, most importantly, don't blame others for who you are or what you don't have.

Beyond that, I agree with you that the rich have a much larger responsibility to society. And when they appoint me God and King, that's the way that it'll be. But right now, I'm not willing to let other people tell me what to do with my life, beyond the occassional suggestion. Therefore, I can't tell other people what to do with their lives. So, as things stand now, I have neither the authority nor the desire to go around telling everybody else what to do.

Not even if they're rich, like Mr. Johnson.

That's why I don't like the way that Johnson's being singled out. He did his part (presumably) by building the sort of life that he wanted. Now everybody else is criticizing him because they think that he should have done it different. He's expected to be some kind of selfless saint just because he's black and rich. We don't do that (as much) with people who are white and rich. That's dumb, and unfair as well.

all wealth is luck

I totally disagree. Luck's a part of the equation, sure, but to say categorically that all wealth is luck is seeing what you want to see. It's just not that simple.
posted by gd779 at 2:01 PM on September 30, 2001

Well, it's good to know you were being extreme, and really didn't mean that! Phew... :) I can agree that Johnson shouldn't have his arm twisted or have a gun to his head, and is free to spend every penny on snorting cocaine off a stripper's tits, but I'd disagree that it's just fine and dandy, just peachy-keen, if he chooses not to. It sounds like you're kinda in agreement, so I think we mostly had a semantic argument there.

As for the wealth is luck sentiment, I stand by it, although it too is something of a semantic hairsplitting. It's not just luck that's a factor, but I'd argue there isn't anyone with wealth who isn't pretty damn lucky. That luck could be hitting the six-pick in the genetic lottery (beauty, talent, intelligence, that one lucky sperm of someone who's already wealthy) and not being so stupid as to not use it. That luck could be opportunity, knowing the right person or being in the right place at the right time. That luck could even just be luck- plenty of good, well-run businesses fail (not to mention, how come some people are indefatigable and self-motivated? Luck in the genes? Luck in the right upbringing?). I've yet to hear of anyone who refutes this theory, empirically. My point is that no one becomes wealthy with out some significant degree of luck, and often that luck owes itself to other people or just good fortune- good parents/genes, people who are willing to give you a chance that makes a difference, that sort of thing. I guess I'm saying I don't buy the myth of the truly self-made millionaire, and no one is an island unto themselves...
posted by hincandenza at 9:12 PM on September 30, 2001

I guess I'm saying I don't buy the myth of the truly self-made millionaire, and no one is an island unto themselves...

Well, self-made billionaires there are none, certainly. There's a point at which the numbers take you out of the gravitational pull of regular financial existence. (I note that a new class survey of the UK comes up with "Lower-Middle-Lucky", which fits me down to the ground.)

Anyway, is there any programming explicitly targetted to black Americans that isn't booty and badly-scripted gags?
posted by holgate at 9:45 PM on September 30, 2001

Interesting article- made a couple of points I meant to make, that namely, this "classless" society of bootstrappers isn't necessarily true, but serves a particular purpose. It spreads the erroneous notion that "everyone of wealth got their through grit and and hardwork" which bleeds into "anyone can become wealthy if they work hard enough"- a salve to the conscience of the obscenely wealthy and a carrot to those who realistically have no shot at all.

Look, I hope to be fantabulously wealthy someday- ironically not only because of the creature comforts, but also to insulate myself rom the rabble and riff-raff I have to deal with now, walking along the street. Hey, so I'm a hippy-dippy elitist- sue me. And I certainly don't begrudge people who've gotten lucky with wealth (excepting those whose wealth was earned by ill-gotten means), even when it's dimwitted twits who completely lucked into it through no fault of their own- after all, I'd like to be one a' them too! But there's a difference between desiring, acquiring, and enjoying wealth and believing once you've made it to Easy Street that you never needed to hitch a ride for a few miles on the way there.

As for the "Is there any programming explicitly targetted to black Americans that isn't booty and badly-scripted gags?" question, I'm drawing a blank. What's really depressing is that I went to naturally enough- and checked out their previewer of the new fall lineup. Lord god, network V really is fuckin' white as a lilly! Looking at that BET schedule, I didn't see any principally black- casted non-sitcoms, and the closest comedy that didn't sound like it was just "Yo! In da House Party!" was the Wayne Brady Show, with that comic who was on "Whose Line is it Anyway" (btw, an aside: on BBC-America I've seen some of the british versions, when they had Ryan Stiles and that other bald dude from the American version on. Sorry to say, but I think the days of "british comedy" being better than the stateside version are in the past... :) ).

I had a much longer speculative thread here (given how long this one already is, that's saying a lot), but then I realized I was just being stupid and/or ignorant. First, a channel like BET- which I don't watch- may very well answer this question by offering good, quality programming that just happens to have a predominantly black cast, and dealing more in issues that might affect predominantly black segments of society without delving into "booty" jokes. Second, part of the problem is that what we think of us targeted explicitly at black audiences is just what some clueless network TV exec thinks black audiences want. While I haven't seen it yet, I'm beginning to think this is exactly what Spike Lee was trying to say with his movie "Bamboozled": that the major media titans that put programming out have a preconceived and implicitly racist notion that there is "normal" culture, and then "black" culture which is all booty jokes.
posted by hincandenza at 1:20 AM on October 1, 2001

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