Is the big sellout a good thing?

Posted: Sep 18, 2002 12:00 AM
Last week, more than 30,000 people joined The Congressional Black Caucus for their 31st Annual Legislative Conference. Among the events hosted by the caucus was an idea forum that considered whether the corporate takeover of several formerly black-owned media entities would affect the integrity of their message. The event featured Kweisi Mfume and Rev. Al Sharpton, each of whom expressed concerns about the level of control that corporate money now exerts over an independent black media. Recent buyouts or mergers involving minority business include Essence Magazine by Time Warner, by Time Warner, and BET by media giant Viacom. The BET acquisition, in particular, elicited deeply personal feelings of anger and sadness from members of the black community. Since its inception in 1979 by Robert Johnson, BET has endeared itself to the black viewing audience as a unique expression of black popular culture. Critics equated the purchase of BET to the purchase of a uniquely black experience and accused BET founder Bob Johnson with selling out his original intent. At bottom, critics are wondering whether companies like BET,, etc. will continue to reflect the needs of the black audience now that they are no longer black-owned. After all, large corporate entities don't take over other companies because its so much fun. They do it to make money. And critics rightly worry whether these formerly minority-owned companies will retain their voice amid the profit squeeze. Following the BET buyout, Johnson remained optimistic, saying that the deal would provide BET with the resources to better fulfill its mission. He added that he planned to stay in a high-level position. Of course, Viacom had just made Johnson one of the richest men in America, so his buddying up was understandable. Most of the participants in the black caucus forum were more cynical, voicing concern about whether this trend of media consolidation would serve the interest of the black community. And indeed, with the media giants successfully pushing into the ethnic markets, it is worth considering whether the smaller black-owned entities will even have the necessary resources to compete. Even those who wish to keep their companies minority owned may be forced to sell out. So the participants in the Congressional Black Caucus conference raised some very legitimate issues, not least of which being whether media consolidation will spell the demise of an independent black media. However, I would suggest that such critics are missing the big picture, which is that the assimilation of minority-owned businesses reinforces the viability of those entities in the minds of potential investors. When Johnson sold out to Viacom, he demonstrated in no uncertain terms that minority business could command significant value in the marketplace. That perception had a ripple effect, driving up the value and stock prices of minority-owned businesses across the board. As Publilius Syrus once observed, " a reputation is more valuable than money." The moment Viacom decided to back a truck full of money up to Johnson's driveway, investor expectations regarding minority-owned businesses skyrocketed. This increase in value will only create more - not less - opportunities for black entrepreneurs. So I say kudos to all of those minorityowned media outlets that achieve success, then promptly sell out. In the big picture, this level of profiteering creates more opportunities for all of us.