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No Fairness Doctrine for PBS

How Taxpayer-Funded Broadcasting is "Surging" Left Under Democrats

2. Tavis Smiley Campaigns Against the GOP

Tavis Smiley, who began his professional career as a political activist and aide to longtime Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, a Democrat, was never a paragon of objectivity before gaining a national PBS talk show in 2004. In describing Smiley’s tenure as host and producer of the show BET Tonight on Black Entertainment Television from 1996 to 2001, writer Debra Dickerson explained on the liberal Web site Salon.com that "Safe in the knowledge they’d be pelted with loving softballs, everybody who was anybody in black America did his show, including then President Bill Clinton and candidate Gore." In 2000, he jumped into the election-year debate over capital punishment on Geraldo Rivera’s CNBC show by declaring that George W. Bush was "nothing more than a serial killer."

In 2007, PBS authorized Smiley, who hosts a nightly national talk show out of Los Angeles PBS station KCET, to organize two nationally broadcast presidential debates focusing on black issues on the campuses of historically black colleges. The difference between the two debates was stunning. The June 28 Smiley forum for Democrats was polite, devoid of challenging conservative questions, and barely raised a ripple in the wider media.

TextBox4aBut the four leading Republican candidates told Smiley they could not attend the September 27 forum for Republicans, since it came right before the end of the third-quarter campaign fundraising deadline. When the front-runners told CNN they didn’t want to attend a CNN-YouTube debate in September, the cable news network rescheduled their event for November. Smiley did not reschedule. He not only insisted on his date, he set up four empty podiums on the stage to underline the no-shows and declared that Republicans were both unfit for office and strategically appealing to racists by not attending his debate.

Not only was that debate loaded with liberal (and even explicitly anti-Republican) questions, Smiley began the debate by asking the Republicans who attended to denounce the Republicans who did not: "Please tell me and this audience, in your own words, why you chose to be here tonight and what you say to those who chose not to be here tonight."

2007-09-27-PBS-TavisThis was an attempt to spur denunciation of the no-shows, and the attempt worked, and the responses were spread across the network coverage. Mike Huckabee was "embarrassed" for the no-shows, and Sam Brownback called it a "disgrace for our country." New candidate Alan Keyes was a lonely voice saying he thought it was "a little unfair to assume that they didn’t show up tonight" to send a negative message to blacks, since they also skipped a Values Voter debate in front of a religious-right audience. But his remarks didn’t make the network news.

Smiley did not mince words after the debate, either. He wanted to know: "How will they be held accountable? Will they be made to pay?" He hoped his decision to show four empty podiums would become a TV commercial for the Democratic Party.

On his own PBS show on September 28, Smiley asked professor Michael Fauntroy: "Today every media outlet who I saw covering this was really trying to advance the conversation to talk about what happens next. That is to say, will black folk and brown folk remember this? Has it been forgotten already since last night? How will they be held accountable? Will they be made to pay?" He then turned to Hazel Trice Edney of the National Newspaper Publishers Association and pressed the same agenda of revenge. 

"Hazel, if in fact this story is not going to die, if this drama created last night by these four front-runners of Giuliani, Romney, McCain and Thompson not showing up, if that thing lives, it’s going to live, one can argue, because black media allows it to live. They’re going to make it a breathing, growing organism. If it works, it’s going to be because black media said, ‘You didn’t come see us in October; don’t look for us in November’....But if in fact black and brown voters are motivated by the Democratic Party between now and next November, if the footage of those four empty podiums becomes a television commercial, as I suspect it will for the Democratic Party and for the Democratic nominee, if the troops really get rallied, they could in fact deny whoever the Republican nominee is going to be, they could in fact deny that person the White House." Tavis Smiley used his PBS show as a partisan soapbox for Democratic electioneering, for denying the GOP front-runners the White House.

Smiley also invited Jack Kemp to his PBS program on September 24 to denounce the front-runners, and he ended by declaring: "Two things, for the record, I should say. One, nobody should ever be afraid of Tavis, that’s number one -- nothing to be afraid of here. Number two, there are three journalists of color who will be joining me in asking these questions, so it’s not just me anyway." But everything Smiley did and said clearly suggested to the GOP that they should fear the wrath of turning down a Smiley invitation.

The imbalance between the two debates was quite clear in several other notable ways:

Tom Joyner’s Greeting. Smiley’s friend and black-radio icon Tom Joyner greeted both sets of candidates with very differing tones. At the Democratic debate, he was enthusiastic: "I am excited and honored to be here tonight as we make not just African American history, but American history." At the Republican debate, he made it clear that the GOP made him wince: "I’m excited to be here, but I admit I’m a little bit out of my comfort zone. I’m kind of feeling like Dan Rather at CBS premiere week."

The Contest Winner’s Question. Both debates began with a question from a contest winner, drawn from the audience of the Tom Joyner radio show and selected from questions posted at blackamerica.com. At the Democratic debate, Crecilla Scott Cohen asked a generic big-picture question: "In 1903, the noted intellectual, W.E.B. DuBois said, ‘The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.’ Is race still the most intractable issue in America and especially, I might add, in light of today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision which struck down the use of race as a factor in K through 12?"

But at the Republican debate, the winning questioner baldly asserted that the 17 Republican presidents since Lincoln have done nothing positive for American blacks. Lucille Victoria Rowels asked: "Even though a majority of individuals who have served as president since Abraham Lincoln have been Republican, I believe that most black Americans who will vote in the year 2008 are not able to name even one Republican president in the 142 years since Lincoln’s death who have left a positive and significant legacy for black Americans. If you are elected president in 2008, what positive and significant legacy, if any, will you leave for black Americans?"

This is an obviously hostile question, even though several candidates tried to praise the question to please the audience. Amazingly, just minutes before, Smiley complained: "Finally, some of the campaigns who declined our invitation to join us tonight have suggested publicly that this audience would be hostile and unreceptive. Since we’re live on PBS right now, I can’t tell you what I really think of these kinds of comments." But the whole forum underlined the unreceptive hostility.

Republican Obstacle Questions. In addition to Smiley’s asking the candidates to denounce no-show Republican candidates and the contest-winning Republican-bashing question, two other inquiries underlined how the GOP put obstacles in the way of what the questioners implied was progress. 

There was this question from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial-page editor Cynthia Tucker: "Recently a push to give the District of Columbia voting representation was defeated because of heavy Republican opposition. In addition, many voting rights advocates are worried about rigid voter ID laws, which require photo ID, like a driver’s license. Are you concerned that some eligible voters will be denied the right to vote simply because they don’t have a driver’s license?"

Juan Williams of National Public Radio asked: "Today we see a decline in black and Latino enlistment because of one reason: the war in Iraq. What do you say to the one-third of the nation that’s minority and overwhelmingly opposed to the continuation of this war, even as the GOP in Congress continues to block attempts to set a deadline to end this war?"

The closest question to Democrats which carried an uncomfortable implication in it was the last question on Darfur, in which DeWayne Wickham underlined that in Rwanda in 1994 "we did nothing as more than a half-million people were slaughtered there." But Wickham said "we" failed, not that help was blocked by the Clinton administration.

The Smiley Media Blitz. Before and after the GOP debate, Smiley not only denounced the front-runners on his own PBS platform, but went on a tour of privately held media outlets, condemning the people who dared spurn his invitation as conducting a "Southern strategy" of appealing to whites with racial appeals: 

On CNN the night before the GOP debate, Smiley declared on Out in the Open with Rick Sanchez: "Well, what they said is almost every person is scheduling. The problem with that is this though, that when you say no to every black request you receive to black organizations, to black media -- when you say no to every Hispanic invitation you receive to organizations and to Univision and other Hispanic media -- when you say no to every black and brown request you receive is that a scheduling problem or is that a pattern? They’re trying to go, these front-runners, these Republican front-runners, trying to go through this entire primary process and never have to address voters of color and never be queried by journalists of color. And I think in the most multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-ethnic America ever, that quite frankly, is unacceptable."

On NBC’s Today the morning after the debate, Smiley boldly cast his rejected invitation as a watershed moment in American history: "I don’t think that this is hyperbole at all to suggest that last night is a watershed moment in how the Republican Party and its nominee moves forward. That old so-called Southern strategy, that dog just won’t hunt any more in America."

Smiley repeated the message on NBC’s Meet the Press over that weekend: "Everyone of them gave as their reason for not being there scheduling. The problem with that logic or illogic, as it were, Tim, is where you say no to every black request you’ve received, when you say no to every Hispanic request you’ve received, is that a scheduling issue or is that a pattern? I think it was a missed opportunity. What I’m encouraged by, though, I think some might expect me to be discouraged this morning or bitter that they didn’t show up, I think they made a huge mistake, and I think that moment the other night is going to become a watershed moment in this campaign as it goes forward because that dog won’t hunt in the general election. You can, you can avoid black and brown in the primary. It doesn’t work in the general."

After the Democratic debate, Smiley was much happier. On CNN’s The Situation Room on June 29, the afternoon after the event, Smiley praised the candidates: "I thought it was a good -- a good showing last night.... I believe that the African-American vote in the 2008 election is going to be the most sought-after and most fought-over Democratic demographic. And, so, it was a must-attend last night to try to address issues that are important to African-Americans and people of color. They came last night ready. It was a good conversation."

TextBox5Smiley appeared on the July 1 Meet the Press, and underlined how satisfying the event was for the blacks in the Democratic base: "What makes this conversation the other night, though, so critical is because I believe, and I think most folks – most persons, that is, who were watching this agree that the black vote this time around is going to be the most sought-after and the most thought-over Democratic demographic in the 2008 elections. And so, as goes the African-American vote on the Democratic side, certainly may go the nomination. And I must say honestly, having nothing to doing with being in the media, just as an African-American voter, it does feel good for a change to be fought over, to know that there are two people really going after your vote, but that’s going to be a critical fight between now and next year."

Smiley encouraged Democrats to think that increasing black enthusiasm and turnout through events like his PBS debate could be crucial to defeating Republicans in 2008: "I think, to the extent that their issues are discussed, to the issues--to the extent that they are outreached to, they’re going to be very involved. In the last election, the black turnout last election went up 25 percent, went up significantly in the African-American community. And so we’re going to see – I mean, 25 percent turnout. So we’re going to see a huge turnout this time, to the extent that Barack Obama sticks around for a while, which obviously, with the money he has, he’ll be around for a while. I think if you respond to their issues, they’re tuned in. It’s going to be a great race, I think."