As 4 stations cancel his show, is Tavis Smiley's advocacy journalism too political for public radio?

One week after Tavis Smiley was yanked off the air by Chicago Public Media for being too much of an advocate, the veteran broadcaster slammed President Barack Obama in a New York Times story published over the weekend.

“Tragically, it seems the president feels boxed in by his blackness. It has, at times, been painful to watch this particular president’s calibrated, cautious and sometimes callous treatment of his most loyal constituency,” Smiley told Jodi Kantor of the Times by email. “African Americans will have lost ground in the Obama era.”

That’s the kind of talk that a week ago led Torey Malatia, President and CEO of Chicago Public Media to cancel "Smiley & West," a public affairs show hosted by Smiley and Princeton Professor Cornel West. That’s also the kind of talk most journalists shy away from; but an unapologetic Smiley tells Poynter in a phone interview that he’s an advocate journalist who knows when to advocate on issues and when to interrogate on them. He does either/or – or both – depending on the platform.

Smiley says, for example, that he does not advocate for things he believes in on his public television show, his "Tavis Smiley Show" from Public Radio International or through his foundation, which seeks to mentor and develop youth; but he does advocate in his best selling books, in speeches and on the other public radio program he hosts with West.

The advocate journalist

“I am not Brian Williams, Bob Schieffer, Scott Pelley, or Diane Sawyer. I am not trying to be a journalist,” said Smiley, who was born to a single mother in Gulfport, Miss.

“If people want to use the word journalist with me in the title, they have to call me an advocacy journalist in the tradition of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Monroe Trotter. What I try to do is raise issues that unsettle people, unhouse people, that challenge folks to re-examine their assumptions, expand their inventory of ideas and give them a new way of seeing the world, a new prism from which to look.

“I don’t think that anybody who has followed my work is surprised by the fact that advocacy matters to me. I don’t think that advocacy is a spectator sport. You have to get off the sideline and get involved in the game,” he continued. “I’ve always been that way. And because I wear so many hats, there are spaces and places where I don’t advocate, but there are other spaces and places where I do. So some spaces are for interrogation, some spaces are for advocacy and I don’t mix the two.”

Smiley bristled when asked whether audience members might get confused about when he’s advocating and when he’s interrogating. “I think the exact opposite,” he said. “It provides a level of clarity for the listener and for the viewer. They know what they’re watching and they know what they’re listening to."

"At some point those who steward public media must stop insulting those who support public media. People are not stupid. They know what they’re watching, they know what they’re listening to and they can tune in or tune out. But they know spin when they hear spin, and they know truth when they hear truth. And at some point, if you’re lying, it’s going to eventually catch up with you. Ask Lance Armstrong. People aren’t confused about what they’re watching.

Earlier this year Smiley and West launched a nationwide poverty tour to coincide with the election. The two have traveled from city to city talking about the plight of the poor, promoting their book, “The Rich and The Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto” and lambasting the presidential candidates, especially Obama, for not directly addressing the issue.

“You listen to an hour of 'Smiley & West' and you listen to 'The Tavis Smiley Show,' you will hear the difference in the programs. And that’s okay because people have different tastes. I’m offering them a variety of things to watch and listen to. The audience isn’t confused about that. I just don’t like when we insult the intellect of the audience,” he said.

In response to email complaints about the cancellation, WBEZ’s Malatia compared Smiley’s brand of opinion journalism to that of Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly, which Smiley took as an insult and responded to via an open letter, defending his work.

“At least with me, you know where I stand. What I don’t like are persons who are sitting in news chairs who are supposed to be objective, but you can hear the slant in the storytelling, you can hear the slant in the snarkiness in the delivery, you can hear the slant when the commentary creeps in,” Smiley told Poynter. “With me, one doesn’t have to do that."

Why WBEZ canceled

It's not that there are issues too political for Smiley to tackle in his various forums, the treatment is what differs for him. "The treatment of those issues is important but different depending on the forum," he said via email. "In one instance I will offer my personal commentary about a said issue ("Smiley & West"); in another forum (PBS show or "The Tavis Smiley Show" on PRI) my job is to interrogate the issue and interrogate the guest on whatever issue they're pushing."

Chicago Public Media accused "Smiley & West" of being too one-sided, but Smiley says “our program is as democratic as anything on the radio. We want to give people a chance to respond to us. We don’t believe that we have a monopoly on the truth.”

Smiley and West pitched their radio show to public radio executives two years ago as something different from the staid fare the stations usually offer; the show would be all opinion. The two men even developed an online component called the Speak Out Network, a place for listeners to voice their disagreement or agreement with issues discussed on the show via voice mail, text messages, or blog posts.

"The Tavis Smiley Show" (with just Smiley) airs on 85 stations nationwide, while "Smiley & West" airs on 72 stations. "Smiley & West" is being marketed as the second hour of "The Tavis Smiley Show" so that stations can test it out, a PRI spokeswoman told Poynter by phone. Smiley's public television show airs in more than 200 markets, about 97 percent of PBS stations, a spokesman said.

Both Smiley and a spokesman for WBEZ agree that the show he hosts with Professor West is an experiment for public radio that might not work in all markets.

With its large ethnic population, Smiley just doesn’t believe Chicago is one of those markets.

Daniel Ash, Vice President of Strategic Communications for Chicago Public Media, told Poynter that while Smiley told the public media community about his intentions with the show, “we’ve always felt that it didn’t offer the type of inclusiveness that we would want our programming to reflect.”

Ash and CEO Malatia expressed concern about audience decline and said that the “style of programming wasn’t consistent with our overall approach to programming and service to the community.” Ash added that while he’s not saying the program isn’t valuable, “it just didn’t meet the criteria we set for WBEZ.”

The station received more public reaction when it cancelled its nighttime jazz music programming, Ash said. But more media feedback concerning the cancellation of Smiley's show, which Ash attributes largely to the deficit of people of color who host public media programs, media programs period.

“When you choose to cancel one of the few shows out there with a person of color, then you’re going to hear about it,” added Ash. Smiley became the first African American to host a show on National Public Radio in 2002. He left abruptly in 2004, questioning NPR's commitment to reaching diverse audiences. Smiley then went to work for Public Radio International.

WBEZ is not the first to unceremoniously dump Smiley due to his outspoken views, or look sideways at him when he's come close to crossing the line.

In 2008, he parted company with "The Tom Joyner Morning Show," which helped make him a national household name. Smiley, who had been with the show since 1996, said he was leaving to explore other opportunities, but Joyner told listeners it was because Smiley couldn’t “take the heat” for criticizing President Obama.

In 2009, historically black Texas Southern University stripped Smiley’s name from its school of communication. School officials said it was because the TV and radio host had not fully met financial promises to the university; Smiley said the offer to name the school after him pre-dated his pledge to help the school raise money. He said the economy had hurt him financially just as it had hurt others, but that he still planned to raise money for the school before his name was removed.

In 2010, PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, publicly chastised Smiley for going off course on his television show "in a way that was guaranteed to be inflammatory" in an interview with a Somali-born author and activist who warned about extremist and violent aspects of the Muslim faith.

Earlier this year Smiley, who previously earned a hefty sum for speaking engagements, was booted from a luncheon honoring Martin Luther King after he said the president had not done enough for the black community.

Prior to the 2008 election, Obama had appeared on Smiley’s show numerous times. But during the 2008 presidential primary, then-candidate Obama rejected the host’s invitation to speak at the then-annual State of the Black Union, an event Smiley held to discuss issues impacting black Americans. Hillary Clinton attended the event, which aired on C-SPAN.

Since criticizing the president, Smiley hasn’t gotten an invite to the White House, let alone a personal interview with the president, something Smiley has publicly complained about.

Writing for Politico, Dylan Byers reported that Smiley suggested “the president doesn’t like being critiqued, ‘especially from black folks.’”

Smiley believes the WBEZ cancellation is also politically motivated. “For people to pop up now and say that the show is too opinionated, that it has a certain slant to it… My response in a word is, ‘Duh.’ We told you that two years ago,” said Smiley, who lives in Los Angeles. “Six or seven weeks before election day in Chicago, we got dropped. Now you read between the lines. Now I was born at night but it wasn’t last night.”

WBEZ is the fourth radio station to drop "Smiley & West" in as many weeks. That may be the nature of the business, and Smiley adds that within 24 hours of the WBEZ cancellation, two other public radio stations in Chicago contacted him about picking up the show.

“We’ll be back on the air in Chicago,” Smiley said confidently. “PBS has seen death threats and bomb threats because of me and because of things we discuss on the show. By the same token, they see the ratings every day. We bring people on who otherwise wouldn’t get on TV. PRI and PBS know who I am. PBS and PRI have always stood by me because they know me and they know my integrity.”

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    Tracie Powell

    Tracie Powell is a senior fellow for Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation established by eBay founder-philanthropist Pierre Omidyar to help ensure that Americans come first in our democracy. Tracie is also founder of AllDigitocracy which focuses on media and its impact on diverse communities. 


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