Former first lady Michelle Obama and Valerie Jarrett at BET Her’s Leading Women Defined summit
Photo: BET Networks

In the nine years of BET Networks’ Leading Women Defined summit, Jeanine Liburd, chief marketing and communications officer at BET, had never seen anything like this.

A journalist, Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic Robin Givhan of the Washington Post, was booted from this conference, a first for the gathering of professional women. These women, about 150 in total, who came together for three days of sisterhood, sand and celebration in sunny Miami, were aghast over Givhan.

Her offense?

Writing about a “sisterly” Q&A between former first lady Michelle Obama and former White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, hosted during the first night of the convening.

Givhan, who was invited to the gathering by BET Networks’ BET Her channel to moderate a panel of fashion-industry leaders—including Stephanie Horton, chief strategy officer at Alexander Wang, and journalist Nikki Ogunnaike, fashion features editor for Elle magazine—allegedly took “copious notes” during Michelle Obama’s featured talk Tuesday night, where she discussed everything from the Tiffany box given to her by then-incoming first lady Melania Trump, to her daughters’ last night in the White House, to jokingly summing up her sentiment around leaving Washington, D.C., with the popular phrase, “Bye, Felicia.”

Advertisement

Givhan’s story came out around 2 p.m. Wednesday, and by 6:30 p.m. that same day, she said she was asked by BET Networks to leave. She did, tweeting about her trip abruptly being cut short.


Givhan’s alleged transgression, according to a statement from BET, was that Obama’s chat was “an intimate conversation in a sacred space of sisterhood and fellowship,” and that Givhan violated that space by writing about it.

Advertisement

“It’s unfortunate that she chose to disregard it, especially in our nine-year history of hosting journalists, as our guests, we’ve never experienced this breach of trust,” said BET in a statement.

But was it off-the-record?

Givhan, whom The Root corresponded with via email after she was removed from the conference, wrote that she “behaved professionally and with integrity.”

Advertisement

“At no point during my preparation for the panel, prior to my arrival or upon my arrival did BET say that any aspect of the conference was off-the-record. And during the introduction of the Obama/Jarrett conversation no one said it was off-the-record,” Givhan wrote.

It is true, Liburd acknowledges. The words “off-the-record” were never used at the gathering, but the BET communications officer maintains that Givhan had been informed of the private nature of the summit and “knew exactly what it was.” Liburd maintains that Givhan was invited as a moderator and guest, not as a journalist.

But when does a journalist stop being a journalist?

Many of Givhan’s supporters on social media argued that she did nothing wrong, and only did her job in reporting on a newsworthy individual.

Advertisement

Still, a rift has opened between Givhan and the women of the summit. An overwhelming majority of attendees The Root spoke to felt the talk with Michelle Obama was private based on the fact that BET Networks told attendees to put down their phones and not record the conversation once it started.

The term “safe space” was also used frequently, and Leading Women Defined was presented as an oasis for not just the former first lady but all the black women who attended, a space where they could let their hair down in a “sister circle” and speak freely.

Advertisement

“I absolutely felt that this was an off-the-record conversation between Valerie Jarrett and the former first lady,” said Jamilah Lemieux, vice president of news and mens programming at iOne digital. “There was nothing in me that suspected otherwise. I did wonder, at the point when it became clear to me that this was meant to be off-the-record, I remember thinking, ‘Who in this space is going to violate the sanctity of this moment?’

“I did not expect that there would be a writer in the room who heard the same instructions that I did about putting phones away and ‘this is a safe space’ and then would go on to report and in great detail about what they’d heard.”

Lemieux was among the many attendees who criticized Givhan on Twitter directly. She expressed concern that because of the incident, it would be unlikely that Obama would return to Leading Women Defined, which she felt was sad, both for the first lady and for those who attend these annual summits.

Advertisement

“This may be a situation where the spirit of the law and the letter of the law don’t agree with one another, but I think that the spirit of this room required that Robin Givhan put her pen down and listen,” Lemieux said. “I wish she had.”


BET CEO Debra L. Lee and former first lady Michelle Obama pose together at BETHer’s Leading Women Defined Summit in Miami.
Photo: BET Networks

Advertisement

The New York Post’s Page Six addressed the fallout over Givhan and the subsequent tiffs on Twitter that popped up between the longtime fashion journalist and fellow attendees over her story, with the gossip column criticizing BET’s decision.

Page Six’s Oli Coleman wrote:

[W]hile claiming Michelle’s talk was private, BET didn’t play by its own rules: The network posted sections of the interview on its website, while Valerie Jarrett, who conducted the chat, teased on social media that fans should ‘tune in to BET’ to hear all that Obama really said.

Advertisement

Again, it’s true that BET recorded the conversation, as it recorded the entire conference for the record, but Liburd pushed back against the assertion by some that the network had been “scooped” and that that’s where the hurt lay.

Liburd said that BET Networks had no immediate plan to necessarily do anything with the video beyond the clip it posted, adding that network executives were intent on conferring with the former first lady and her team over what they felt comfortable with disclosing from the filmed conversation with Jarrett.

Givhan’s actions, as far as BET was concerned, were problematic because in the nine years of Leading Women Defined, there seemed to be an understanding between the organizers and the women in attendance, some of whom were in media, not to disclose intimate details from the conference.

Advertisement

During the conference, many of the high-powered women in attendance speak frankly about their professional and personal lives, and some of that could be deemed newsworthy, considering their status and connections. Those at the summit historically have trusted that their fellow attendees would keep things out of the press, off social media and among themselves, no matter how famous the attendee.

This, though, was an informal sort of understanding—BET made no one sign any waivers and never said explicitly that people couldn’t talk about what happens and what is said at the summit.

This informality, this trust, this “safe space” and intimate setting, left attendees with the impression that what happens at Leading Women Defined should, to some extent, stay at Leading Women Defined, newsworthiness of the guests be damned.

Advertisement

“I absolutely thought the conversation was off-the-record,” said attendee Yodit Tewolde, who is a criminal defense attorney and legal analyst. “You could tell in the way the conversation was structured, it was more intimate, she was saying things that only we could understand and related to. The fact that we couldn’t have any phones and record the conversation was an indicator to me that this shouldn’t be shared outside of the inner circle. And the fact that it was, was incredibly violating, not to just Michelle Obama but to all of us.”

Tewolde called Givhan’s article “mortifying,” adding that “to take that and share it with the world was beyond tacky, I think, and unprofessional.”

In her email correspondence and on social media, Givhan stated that she was invited because of her role as the Washington Post’s fashion critic and received approval from her editors before attending. Liburd said that Givhan’s travel and lodging were covered by BET Networks. It was Givhan’s first time attending the conference, and judging by the response from other attendees, they seemed to hope that this would be her last.

Advertisement

“As a black woman who recognizes we have few safe spaces, it doesn’t matter if the people in the room have a million dollars or $10, our space has to be our space and what we declare to be sacred has to be respected,” said two-time Leading Women Defined attendee Brittany Packnett, an activist and educator, who also felt the conversation with Obama was off-the-record.


Lastly, I, The Roots editor-in-chief, was among the attendees of this summit. I was personally sent an invitation to the gathering from BET Her in December. Most of the women in attendance I did not know personally, but there were several I did know professionally and consider either friends or acquaintances.

Advertisement

Out of full transparency, I did interpret BET’s “phones down” stance and declaration of it being a “safe space” for the former first lady as meaning that some of the conversation was to stay between Obama and those in attendance, but I did always plan to write something about Obama and the summit, which she was attending for the second time.

But, again, nothing was ever explicitly stated as being off-the-record, the magic words a journalist needs to hear if she or he is going to decide to not disclose something. All of us in attendance who work in media had to make our own judgment calls, as we do in our professional lives every day. Givhan chose to write, in detail, about a newsworthy individual.

The other journalists, media professionals and bloggers in attendance did not.

Advertisement

As a journalist, and one who works primarily in black spaces, producing content for a black audience, who also happens to be a black woman, I’m no stranger to how complicated it can get when writing and reporting on ourselves. There are the expectations we have for ourselves as writers and journalists and the expectations we have from the larger black community.

Many times I’ve had to make judgment calls on what was more important—an exclusive or access, for example—and had to behave accordingly, dealing with both the positive and negative fallout that comes with it.

Advertisement

I can’t say I would have done exactly what Givhan did, as obviously I did not, but I also can’t condemn a fellow journalist for reporting on something newsworthy if it was not explicitly stated that it was off-the-record.

And while I fully understand the hurt and disappointment that was a blemish on an otherwise amazing personal and professional experience for many of us who were attendees, I also understand why Givhan wrote what she did. The lesson for us black journalists is that it’s a complicated row we hoe.

Whether you’re black first or a journalist first, there’s no way to make everyone happy.