President Obama Tackles Different Agendas in BET, ‘Colbert Report’ Interviews

President Obama’s first sit-down TV interview since the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case touched off protests around the country will air tonight, not on a Big Three network or an all-news cabler but on BET.

Obama’s interview with BET reporter Jeff Johnson is set to air in part at 5 p.m. ET and in full at 6 p.m. ET under the banner “BET News Presents: A Conversation with President Barack Obama.”

A few hours later, Obama will undoubtedly display his lighter side in a sit-down with Stephen Colbert at George Washington University that will air as a special edition of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” It’s billed as “Stephen Colbert Presents: Mr. Colbert Goes to Washington D.C. Ya Later, Legislator: Partisan is Such Sweet Sorrow: A Colbert Victory Lap, ‘014.”

Obama’s decision to address the thorny issue of racial tension among African-Americans and law enforcement officials through an interview on BET, the African-American targeted cabler, speaks volumes about the message he aims to send. The initial portion of the Obama interview will air as part of a special 5 p.m. edition of BET’s “106 & Park” that is designed to deliver “an empowering message to finding meaningful solutions and learning from the incidents that occurred in Ferguson, Mo., and across the nation.”

In a clip released by BET on Sunday, Obama strikes a paternal tone, seemingly in an effort to calm African-American fears that police can target black men for violence with impunity. The issue has been thrust into the national agenda thanks to the anger stirred by the one-two punch of grand jury decisions not to prosecute police officers involved in two recent deaths: 18-year-old Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August and 43-year-old Eric Garner on Staten Island in July.

On Sunday night, violence broke out in Berkeley, Calif., among demonstrators protesting the Brown and Garner decisions — a sign of how the cases have galvanized activists far removed from the St. Louis area and New York City.

Obama, the nation’s first black president, has been forced to tread carefully on the issue. He has had to balance expressing concern for the safety of vulnerable African-Americans while not appearing to undermine the rule of law as expressed in the grand jury decisions.

In the BET interview, Obama acknowledges that the problems of police violence against minorities is “deeply rooted” in American culture. But he also is forceful in his effort to put the deaths of Brown and Garner in context against the more widespread danger blacks faced during the Civil Rights era.

Americans need to view the Brown and Garner cases with “the understanding that we have made progress,” Obama says. “It’s important to recognize that as painful as these incidents are, we can’t equate what’s happening now to what happened 50 years ago….The reason it’s important to understand that progress has been made is that it gives us hope that we can make even more progress.”

Meanwhile, Obama’s decision to appear on “Colbert” is likely a sign of his effort to burnish his public image, particularly with younger viewers, after a rough few months capped by the Democrats suffering big losses in November’s mid-term elections.

“Colbert” can be a minefield for politicians because of the unpredictability of the interviews conducted by Colbert in his faux bombastic-conservative host persona.

However, Colbert may well tone it down for the Obama visit in part because the host himself is moving on to higher office. Colbert set to replace David Letterman next year as host of CBS’ “The Late Show,” and thus he’s unlikely to risk alienating the White House by making Obama squirm too much tonight.

Colbert, now in his last two weeks at the helm of the show he launched in 2005, announced Obama’s appearance with great fanfare on the Dec. 4 edition of “Colbert Report.”

“I cannot overstate how huge this is. The size of the huge-ness: large,” he said.

Update: Obama also has scheduled an interview with Telemundo News co-anchor and host Jose Diaz-Balart. He will interview Obama on Tuesday during the president’s trip to Nashville, with highlights airing on “Noticiero Telemundo” at 6:30 p.m. ET. An extended version of the interview will air on “Enfoque con Jose Diaz-Balart” on Dec. 14.

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