“Five years, four sentences,” is how television anchor Tavis Smiley summed up the terse dismissal note he received from Black Entertainment Television (BET) on March 23. The response from viewers and fans was heartfelt and immediate. BET and its new parent company, Viacom, were deluged with calls, and the Rev. Al Sharpton and others helped organize protests in Los Angeles and at BET’s Washington offices. The outcry, which continues, is a testament to the power and reach of Tavis Smiley, and the widespread sense among African-Americans that BET has betrayed us.

If this were a Movie of the Week it would boil down to two characters: the heroic Smiley, Los Angeles preacher’s kid (his mother is the minister, thank you), who moved through the black political machine of former LA Mayor Tom Bradley to become one of America’s most influential commentators; and the villainous BET CEO Robert Johnson, a kind of Vernon Jordan of media, who leveraged his extensive business connections (including a stint as a top lobbyist for the cable industry) into a billion-dollar business. The foundation of his success has been more than 60 million viewers, reaching the vast majority of African-American cable households.

Whereas Smiley used his perch at BET to advance black political and economic concerns, Johnson’s political activity, save his high-profile support of the Million Man March and financial backing of a few black political candidates, has focused on advancing his business interests. In fact, Johnson has taken positions widely thought of as anti-black–such as, most recently, supporting the Bush estate-tax repeal. Now that Johnson has “sold out” to media giant Viacom, the fight has moved beyond an internecine squabble where everyone’s trying to “keep it in the family.” The dirty laundry’s on the line.

Nationally syndicated radio host Tom Joyner (where Smiley comes on air twice a week) fired the first volley when he urged his 7 million-plus audience to demand Smiley’s return. “We’ve got to let media giants like Viacom know that we will not accept just anything they toss out at us,” he said.

Johnson shot back with an appearance on BET Tonight, this time with BET Lead Story host Cheryl Martin, to counter allegations by Joyner and others that white-owned Viacom was pulling the strings. Johnson’s assertion that he was bought but unbossed might have been convincing if it hadn’t been for his explanation of the dismissal. Johnson said the final break came after Smiley sold ABC an interview with a former Symbionese Liberation Army member involved in the Patty Hearst kidnapping.

But Smiley has always operated as something of a free spirit. His penchant for activism, entrepreneurism and inveterate networking has resulted in a sort of dynasty, where he provides programming for other networks as well as commentary for Joyner’s radio program and other cable shows. For example, a recent eight-hour program called State of the Black Union, featuring leading African-Americans and drawn from a book that Smiley compiled and edited, aired on C-SPAN without any public fuss from the network. That BET would draw the line at an interview with a former SLA member seemed odd, especially given its own downsizing of news programming.

Whether Smiley was fired because Viacom-owned CBS wanted first dibs on the interview, or because of long-simmering tensions between the star and the network, or because of BET’s growing debt, is unknown. What’s clear is that despite Smiley’s overbearing “me first” black capitalist politics and gee-whiz approach to anything to the left of Sharpton, his departure leaves a huge hole in BET’s programming.

Smiley’s unabashed targeting of those he’s found guilty of racial wrongdoing has compelled more than a few companies and politicians to come on air with promises to do better. “In this era of multinational corporations, media conglomerates and mergers, what Tavis has been able to accomplish is nothing short of heroic,” says scholar and cultural critic Michael Dyson, who has appeared on Smiley’s program. “He represents something unprecedented in contemporary black culture.” Adds hip-hop journalist Davey D., “The only time we get to see many of Tavis’s guests is in defensive positions on white talk shows where they are there for three seconds trying to make sense out of some crazy controversy. He wasn’t perfect, but at least I could see everyone from Snoop to Manning Marable speak in a safe, conducive environment.”

Well before the sale to Viacom, BET had been canceling and dumbing down its public affairs content. The company was roundly slammed for dumping Emerge, an award-winning newsmagazine, to launch the fluffy Savoy instead (the debut issue featured an article on black genius with fashion credits). Previously the company discontinued the sophisticated YSB (targeted to youth) and, more recently, its edgy 360hiphop.com.

These changes, BET announced, were part of an effort to “lifestyle” its properties. That’s PR-speak for stripping publications and programs of political content and concentrating on stuff that sells–beauty, fashion, food, etc. In a media market where whites enjoy some diversity, BET’s narrowing was a significant reduction in black voice and black choice.

It’s a far cry from the vision Johnson articulated more than twenty years ago, when he launched BET. Those of us who heeded his call to demand that cable companies carry the network were fighting for a space of our own where we could find programming that respected African-Americans, valued our intellects and offered a real venue for discussion. The network’s initial offerings were so promising. Great black films, innovative news and public affairs programs, and youth-oriented productions were a welcome respite from standard TV fare. Now, the network that promised to reflect the breadth of black images has become one of the worst purveyors of black stereotypes. Well over half the program day is a steady diet of exploitative music videos and comedy. And even though these changes predated the Viacom deal, in a world where even PBS only reflects us in February, seeing BET come under white ownership is a hard pill to swallow.

Of course, BET is only one part of the larger problem of media access for all communities of color. The 1996 Telecommunications Act restricted huge amounts of digital “airwaves” from public access, and meant higher cable rates, more mergers and less accountability.

This and other setbacks are finally inspiring some groups to fight back. One national effort, backed by hundreds of organizations, is pressing the FCC to establish a fund for airtime for “noncommercial” television (see www.bettertv.org). Other groups are monitoring negative imagery and using their findings to hold outlets more accountable. For example, We Interrupt This Message (www.interrupt.org) worked with youth to complete two studies on media portrayals of youth of color. Says participant Shaquesha Alequin, 19, “The media affect us. If we’re walking down the street, an elderly person crosses the street. It’s almost as if people think crime is in our genes. We wanted to do more than be angry about it. The study was something positive we could do to make a change.” The Center on Blacks and the Media also monitors racial imagery, offering an extensive critique of BET’s content at www.afrikan.net/hype. Still others leverage opportunities afforded by the Internet, while a courageous few risk prison by running illegal, low-power radio stations in order to create and control some media of their own.

If we are to learn anything from the BET debacle, it’s that regardless of ownership, media is more than a commodity to be bought and sold. It is both a mirror and a maker of public discourse, and that’s too important to be left to the vagaries of the bottom line.