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Not about rape, not about Rihanna

By Lisa Fager Bediako, Special to CNN
  • Lisa Fager Bediako: The violence in Rihanna's "Man Down" video is unacceptable for children
  • Her concern is not with Rihanna as an artist, but with BET and its parent company, Viacom
  • Bediako: MTV and BET routinely require record labels to edit videos, so why not this one?
  • Parents and BET would benefit if BET aired less questionable content, Bediako says

Editor's note: Lisa Fager Bediako is president of Industry Ears and formerly worked for Capitol EMI Records, Discovery Communications, CBS radio and other entertainment media outlets.

(CNN) -- Rihanna's "Man Down" video was the motivation for Industry Ears -- a media watchdog group I co-founded -- to recently join forces with the Parents Television Council to hold media corporations, in this case Black Entertainment Television, accountable. We argued that the graphic violence aired in the video was inappropriate for the age group that makes up nearly half of BET's "106 & Park" video show's audience: 12- to 17-year-olds.

Our concern lies not with Rihanna as an artist, but with BET and its parent company, Viacom, as purveyors of violence. Over the last several weeks, however, I have witnessed our original concern with the video become twisted from a national discussion about protecting children into one of feminist empowerment and free artistic expression.

The first moments of the "Man Down" video show a man in a crowded train station being shot in the head and falling into a puddle of his own blood. This grisly image is, to us, the most questionable part of the video.

Our suggestion to BET is that they edit the "too graphic for kids" portion of this video, roughly the opening 45 seconds. We have all seen guns, drug paraphernalia, and T-shirt logos blurred out or whole scenes edited out of music videos that appear on music channels. MTV and BET routinely require record labels to edit videos, so why not this one?

Some argue that the discovery later in the video that the man being shot is a rapist, and that the woman shooting him is his victim, makes this depiction of violence acceptable. We disagree.

In his 30 years of viewing BET, Paul Porter, Industry Ears co-founder and former BET video programmer, says he has never witnessed "such a cold, calculated execution of murder in prime time." Cable television content is not regulated like broadcast television, but most cable networks have adopted the broadcast television standard of airing sexually explicit, violent and mature content after 10 p.m. and adding disclaimers, especially if the program attracts younger viewers. "106 & Park" airs weekdays at 6 p.m.

Meanwhile media commentary around the video has escalated, mostly digressing into debates about feminism, rape and artistic freedom. These are equally important discussions. But our children are the ones truly affected by letting BET off the hook.

How did this portion of the "Man Down" video make it through to public airing?

BET claims it has a "standards and practices" policy, a set of criteria that videos must comply with before receiving airplay. For years, our organization and others that do similar work have requested these guidelines. BET has yet to share them.

Perhaps the closest we have come to obtaining insight into this policy came in a 2007 letter from Debra Lee, chairman and CEO of BET. The letter was addressed to Pastor Delman Coates, founder of the Enough Is Enough campaign. In it, Lee insists that the network adheres to this standard: "We do not air music videos that contain graphic or excessive sexual activity or violence. We work with music labels and artists to edit music videos where appropriate."

If this is indeed standing policy at BET, why weren't these criteria in play with the "Man Down" video?

BET shoulders a bigger responsibility than the artist, Rihanna. This point was reinforced by two events during the last two weeks of fierce debate.

The first involved one of the most outspoken defenders of the video, Leslie Morgan Steiner, the author of the New York Times best-seller "Crazy Love," a memoir about surviving domestic abuse. She appeared on the "Tom Joyner Morning Show" on June 10 to discuss her essay, "Ban Rihanna's Video? No, Make It Required Viewing."

When journalist Jacque Reid asked her who exactly should be required to watch it, Steiner stated that she didn't think the audience should be children. The problem is that children are a significant portion of the audience for the BET video program on which "Man Down" airs.

Next, some of Rihanna's fans -- ostensibly upset about our criticism of the video -- began tweeting and e-mailing death threats to executives at Parents Television Council and Industry Ears. While we give props to Rihanna for intervening (she pleaded through her Twitter account for her young fans to cease the threats), our point was nonetheless made quite clear: Young, impressionable minds have a hard time understanding reality and an even harder time considering actions and consequences.

And this is the point. Just as parents have a responsibility to monitor what their children are watching, broadcasters like BET and programs like "106 & Park" that attract young viewers have a responsibility not to glamorize vigilante violence through an artist whose fan base consists mostly of tweens and teens. Both parents and BET would benefit if BET adhered to its own policies and aired less questionable content.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lisa Fager Bediako.