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Friday, September 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kay McFadden

BET offering shelter of its own for Katrina's victims

Seattle Times TV critic

Tonight at 8, all six networks and many cable channels will simultaneously broadcast a live one-hour benefit for Hurricane Katrina victims (see separate story). But Black Entertainment Television (BET) won't be part of it.

Instead, BET will air a separate live concert from 7:30 to 10 p.m. The show is called "S.O.S. (Saving Ourselves): The BET Relief Telethon."

That title is thought-provoking enough to raise some questions. Stephen Hill, BET's executive vice president of entertainment programming and music, graciously consented to an interview.

Kay McFadden: Besides referencing New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's plea for his city last week, can you explain the name of the concert?

Stephen Hill: Black viewers looked at TV last week and saw our reflections in the thousands of people abandoned and suffering. It's not about saving anybody but ourselves and our heritage. New Orleans and the South are rich in traditional African-American culture.

KM: Do you think the title fosters a sense of unity, or separation?

SH: We didn't focus on the separation. It was focused on people looking at us and circumstances that no one could ever imagine Americans being in. It was atrocious. Now, we can help people regain their entire lives, and that's what this concert is about.

KM: You've swiftly pulled together a roster of talent that includes virtually every major African-American star from rap to pop to jazz [for a full list, see www.BET.com]. How?

SH: Obviously, BET is big in the music community. We got on the phones almost immediately; some artists called us. As soon as we put the word out, we got more calls. We already had great relationships with [co-sponsors] the Urban League and the Red Cross.

KM: You sound very passionate.

SH: The truth of the matter is my friends from New Orleans are OK, but it's seeing Americans like this. I'd be lying if I didn't say it was because it's close to home.

KM: Some of the entertainers, like Kanye West, have been outspokenly critical of the rescue effort. Will they make statements or are you encouraging them just to perform?

SH: At the end of the day, our overall goal is to raise funds. It is a live telethon. We encourage people to do whatever. We'll be live-live.

KM: What do you think about the growing number of fund-raising efforts by the entertainment industry in response to crises? Should this be the government's job?

SH: Do I wish the government could cover it all? Yes. But that's not going to happen. Most help will come from the private sector. BET is in 80 million homes, and we can bring humanitarian aid and find homes for families that are displaced — people living in squalor, in toxic waste, who have lost everything.

Personally, I wish we had to have telethons for Iraq. But we don't. We have to have them for our own people.

Kanye's last word

NBC has gotten in the business of cutting more than expletives from its shows.

Rapper Kanye West went off-script during a live special aired by NBC and its cable channels MSNBC and CNBC last Friday.

Among other comments, West said, "George Bush doesn't care about black people" and that America is set up "to help the poor, the black, the less well-off as slowly as possible."

But West Coast viewers never heard any of it, because NBC hastily edited out West's remarks on the tape-delayed version that aired here.

The craven and somewhat clueless network, which has fallen from No. 1 to No. 4 in ratings, also issued a statement saying it would be unfortunate if relief efforts were "overshadowed" by opinion.

Maybe NBC shouldn't have been so quick to distance itself. Yesterday, Billboard noted that West's latest album, "Late Registration," has shot to the top of the charts since last week's televised tirade.

Socks on Fox

Yes, that really was Fox News Channel anchor Shepard Smith sticking it to conservative host Sean Hannity last week.

After Smith's long piece chronicling Katrina's devastation and human misery, Hannity tried to excuse the government's lame handling: "I want to get some perspective here."

Shepard's emotional reply: "That's your perspective. That's all the perspective you need."

It was quite a moment. Still, as long as the line is blurred between news and opinion, audiences won't distinguish between good reporting versus bad-mouthing.

That's why some viewers insist that black and light-skinned residents with goods from New Orleans stores were portrayed differently. They weren't — on TV news coverage.

The bias arose once spin-meisters got hold of the topic after two different photo agencies affixed different captions to scenes of people loaded down. One, of African Americans, called it "looting"; the other, of light-skinned people, called it "finding."

The "R" word

Another controversy concerns using "refugee" to describe those fleeing (or stuck trying to flee) Katrina.

Some say the word should apply only to people escaping war, oppression or persecution. The Seattle Times has decided that "evacuee" is preferable; the National Association of Black Journalists has asked newsrooms to exercise caution.

Frankly, I think "refugee" matched scenes that evoked worldwide comparisons to civil chaos in Darfur and Somalia.

Yes, it's politically loaded. But it's deeply revealing. If the media used the wrong label to rightly convey how America regards the poor and ignored, so be it.

Kay McFadden: kmcfadden@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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