Times Smiles for Tavis Smiley

The front page of Tuesday's Arts pages features a flattering article by Felicia Lee on PBS talk show giant Tavis Smiley, "Media Man on a Mission: The Whirl of Tavis Smiley."

"Tavis Smiley bounded into the Manhattan twilight, fresh from an interview at the Venezuelan embassy with that country's president, Hugo Chávez. Passersby shouted their greetings at Mr. Smiley, tall and draped in a blue-gray suit, as he dashed to catch a train for Baltimore and a black health expo, one of the many public functions that fill his calendar. 'They can see me in the dark,' he marveled.

Lee allows a writer for the left-wing Nation gush about black journalist Smiley: "'You have Oprah and you have Tavis - they are the king and queen, they have great access, they are advocates for the underserved,' Amy Alexander, a media critic and author of a forthcoming book on African-Americans and media, said. 'He's very much in the mold of a long line of black journalists who were very upfront about being advocate journalists.' He also fills a void, she said."

Lee never gets into what that "advocacy" entails, keeping the details of the PBS fixture's politics out of her story and blandly describing the liberal book he edited, "The Covenant With Black America," as "10 topical blueprints by 10 experts for improving the lot of African-Americans." Besides his newest tome,Smiley isauthor of "Hard Left: Straight Talk About the Wrongs of the Right."

But there are labels for others: "Mr. Smiley's media saturation in service of his message echoes the same approach used by white conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, Ms. Alexander said. In a recent column in The Nation Ms. Alexander wrote that Mr. Smiley could certainly sound like someone running for political office and questioned whether he could turn 'The Covenant' 'into lasting, on-the-ground action.'"

There's a rather different tone when Lee discusses black figures who dissent from the liberal line, as TimesWatch found in a Lee story on Bill Cosby from 2004: "After making inflammatory remarks on Monday about the behavior and values of some poor black people, [entertainer Bill] Cosby said yesterday that he had made the comments out of concern and because of his belief that fighting racial injustice must also include accepting personal responsibility....Still others said they feared that his remarks would become fodder for racists or conservatives who believe that blacks alone avoid personal responsibility."