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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: Talk About Race and You Will Be Talked About

PBS personalities and programs touching on race figure most prominently in the ombudsman's mailbag this week. All of the mail on this subject was critical and there was a fair amount of anger in many of the e-mails, several of which are posted below.

The most mail and expressed anger was associated with an interview that took place on MSNBC rather than on PBS, but it involved the high-profile and high-energy host of a popular late-night talk show that appears on PBS, Tavis Smiley.

Smiley, on a book tour to promote his latest success-building volume called "Fail Up," was a guest on Tuesday evening, April 26, on the MSNBC program "The Last Word" and was interviewed by host Lawrence O'Donnell. These guys can yak. If the Olympics had a talking competition, both would be medalists.

The subject was politics, with O'Donnell lacing into Donald Trump again, and one exchange, in particular, stirred the juices. Within hours, the conservative website NewsBusters had a critical report about it and, later, it would be the focus of a lengthy segment on the Fox News program "Your World." CNN's Jack Cafferty also wrote about it but not critically. Rather he used it to ask viewers if they agreed with Smiley's forecast of an ugly and racist 2012 political campaign.

Here's the portion of the transcript that is the focus of the controversy:

TAVIS SMILEY: I said over a year ago that this was going to be, this presidential race, Lawrence, was going to be the ugliest, the nastiest, the most divisive, and the most racist, the most racist, in the history of this republic. I did not know that that race to the bottom would begin so quickly. One can disagree with the Tea Party . . .

LAWRENCE O'DONNELL: Why did you see this coming?

SMILEY: I saw it coming because it's pretty clear given how the Tea Party has acted, given that Donald Trump is now playing to the worst in the Tea Party, that this would be possible. I don't want to demonize or cast aspersions on the Tea Party broadly. I believe that there's a certain angst that many people in that entity feel, and I share that angst about government. I don't believe that it's the solution to reduce government.

Government does have a role to play. We've got to figure out, we can figure out and debate what that role is, but there have been some antics they've engaged in that made it clear to me: showing up at rallies with guns, and the Secret Service, you know, working overtime to protect this president. More threats against his life than any president in the history of the nation, indeed, presidents combined. So the evidence is pretty clear that they would do anything and say anything in order to make sure he does not get reelected.

'Not Within PBS' Purview'

I asked both PBS and WNET in New York about Smiley's comments. Smiley's talk show is produced by The Smiley Group, Inc./TS Media, Inc., in association with WNET. PBS and WNET both, not surprisingly, said much the same thing. A PBS spokesperson said Smiley "is an independent producer who appears in many media outlets. The remarks made by Mr. Smiley on MSNBC's 'The Last Word' are not within PBS' purview."

A WNET official put it this way: "Tavis Smiley is not a spokesman or a representative of PBS or of WNET. He is an independent producer and anchor of The Tavis Smiley Show, which WNET co-produces. We respect his right to express his opinions, but they do not reflect the views of WNET or its subsidiaries."

But Within My Purview

I, too, respect Smiley's right to express his opinions and there is no doubt that there are some among us — within the Tea Party and the bigger parties and within no party — for whom President Obama's race is unacceptable. Smiley is hardly alone in expressing that view. There is also little doubt that we are experiencing a truly toxic time, even for American politics, and that race plays some part in that poisonous mixture.

If I were a Tea Party adherent who was strongly anti-Obama but deep down I knew it had nothing to do with his color, would I feel angered by what Smiley said? Yes. Would I be surprised? No. Would I understand how he could feel that way? I hope so. Would I read what he said carefully? I hope so. He said, in part, "I don't want to demonize or cast aspersions on the Tea Party broadly . . . there's a certain angst that many people in that entity feel, and I share that angst about government." He talked about Donald Trump "playing to the worst in the Tea Party."

Smiley is many things — radio and television talk show host, author, promoter, businessman, foundation head, celebrity and an energetic advocate for what he calls the Black Agenda in America. Although he owns his own program, raises most of his own funds and is not a PBS employee, he is also widely identified with PBS because of his program. So when he expresses views on MSNBC, people will still identify him with PBS and that's understandable whether he, and PBS, like it or not.

I've written about Smiley many times in this column over the past few years. Last year, the issue was a forum on the Black Agenda that he was going to moderate and critics tagged him with the "PBS host" label. "I can't help that," he told me at the time. "PBS is not my employer. Taxpayers are not funding this and it has nothing to do with PBS. I never gave up my right to host other forums. As long as I meet PBS standards on PBS," he said, that's what's important.

As I've written before about Smiley and some other high-profile PBS on-air figures, however independent they may feel, their celebrity is often very clearly tied to, or the result of, their exposure on public broadcasting, which isn't MSNBC. So what they sometimes say or do elsewhere, which they obviously have a right to say or do, gets associated with the special, and always vulnerable, institution of public broadcasting.

As I write this on Friday afternoon, I'm told that Smiley will be a guest tonight on the weekly PBS public affairs program "Need to Know."

Then There Is Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

That's a lot about Tavis Smiley. The other mail was mostly from viewers taking issue with one part of a new four-part series PBS called "Black in Latin America." It deals with the influence of African descent on Latin America and features, as producer and writer, the well-known writer and Harvard University scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The segment about Cuba aired on Tuesday, the same night Smiley was on MSNBC. The series is being produced by PBS-member station WNET in New York. I asked WNET for a response to the criticisms but so far it hasn't arrived.

Finally, the last two letters posted below refer to a segment of the PBS NewsHour that aired on Wednesday evening.

About Smiley

Please tell Smiley that the only thing that will make the 2012 election "racist" is him and his fellow racists. People, like myself, don't like Obama because of his VIEWS, but here we go again with racists like Smiley AUTOMATICALLY throwing the race card into the mix. We have serious issues to deal with and all the pro-Obama people don't want to try and explain his poor decisions because they are bad. So what do they do? Pull out that old, worn out race card. It has been overused to the extreme. Enough.

Kimberly Brockway, Random Lake, WI

~ ~ ~

Tavis Smiley has already declared the 2012 Presidential elections "the most racist in the history of this Republic" without a GOP candidate and without one single vote being cast. Any actions that a future GOP candidate takes will be seen through his "Racism Goggles." Any questions directed at President Obama will be filtered through his "Racism Hearing Aid." He will make no pretense of trying to find truth as he has prejudged opposition to President Obama as racism.

I learned a long time ago, if all you look for is one type of behavior, that's all you will find. If you believe everyone is racist, then all you will find is racism. His self-fulfilling prophesy has no place on PBS. Nor does his close mindedness. If I do not vote for President Obama, it isn't because of the color of his skin, it is because of the content of his policies and programs that he has implemented and will implement. Tavis Smiley needs to open his mind to the fact that Americans can disapprove of President Obama and it has nothing to do with the color of his skin.

Summerdale, AL

~ ~ ~

Tavis Smiley's comment that 2012 will be the most racist election ever is itself a racist statement and a form of "hate speech." It presupposes Americans who elected Mr. Obama without reference to his race are now going to vote on the basis of race. It reflects Mr. Smiley's distorted view of America. He should apologize or resign. His remarks are highly offensive.

Miami, FL

~ ~ ~

How DARE Tavis Smiley make the statement that this will be the most RACIST election in history. Talk about painting entire groups with a wide brush of HATE. It would appear that Mr. Smiley believes that if you oppose the political and economic policies of Obama that makes you a racist. The only RACIST I see is Mr. Smiley! I guess Mr. Smiley can't discuss politics on a mature, subject matter level without throwing out the race card. How pathetic, sad and ignorant.

William Vojak, Battle Ground, WA

~ ~ ~

Just as Juan Williams was fired for racist comments, (according to NPR), Tavis Smiley must be fired for his racist comments on MSNBC. On The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, Tavis said that the Tea Party is racist (It is not. I'm one of them so I'd know.) and [he] is against Donald Trump who may be a Presidential candidate, and PBS and NPR hosts need to be objective. Mr. Smiley is not objective at all. He is extremely talking from the left, and is one of the biggest proponents of President Obama. Mr. Smiley mentioned that Trump said a "bunch of nonsense" when he said that Obama would go down in history as the worst president ever. To most Republicans, Conservative, Tea Party members, many independents, and even a few Democrats, he has already become the worst president ever. Why are Obama cheerleaders working for PBS? I believe this is another good reason why government funding for NPR and PBS must stop.

Elkhart, IN

~ ~ ~

Tavis Smiley is Caucasiaphobe. He is racially divisive. He hates white folks. I believe him to be the most racist (YES, black folk that HATES white folk are RACIST!) person I've seen on your network yet.

Darroll Fitzpatrick, Noblesville, IN

~ ~ ~

I just saw a PBS spokesman/commentator, Tavis Smiley, make blanket and untrue statements about the Tea Party. I fear PBS cannot maintain the balance and quality I used to respect it for due to his presence. And, no, we are not talking about his "opinions." He flat out lied about the Tea Party. If your people can not state Truths, then you are unwelcome in my house.

Columbus, OH

~ ~ ~

I was disappointed to see that one of your colleagues said that the coming election would be racist. Does that mean that if a person does not vote for Obama he is a racist?!!! I think not. Race has nothing to do with it. I would have voted for C. Powell, I would vote for Allen West, etc, etc. BUT, I'd never vote for Obama after what he has done this term. If a white president, on Easter, went to church that said the things his preacher said & the kinds of things he said on Easter, very unChristian & inappropriate, there would be negative headlines! You people are inconsistent in your views. Shame on you! Shame on you! Horrible horrible, I am so sad & disappointed in PBS. NPR & PBS are both unfair & biased.

Mary Montalbo Luersen, San Antonio, TX

~ ~ ~

When your on-air personality predicts a racist campaign, how can he not, subsequently, fulfill his self-serving promise? Is there nothing at PBS any longer except these utterly, blatantly biased people and their inner wishes? At what point does management step in and say enough is enough? Or rather, when does management step in and apply the rules to everybody who is not named Juan Williams?

Tulsa, OK

On Gates

I have been watching the series "Black in Latin America" but after watching the episode on Cuba I have to say I have become increasingly disappointed. PBS is constantly denigrated by the right as being "liberal" and the failure of Professor Gates to interview members of the Cuban diaspora about racial issues in Cuba will further exacerbate this claim. It completely plays into the hands of your detractors. Unfortunately, it also resulted in a less than complete understanding of race in Cuban culture on the episode.

Reliance upon the words of people in a totalitarian society to discuss a highly charged political issue without hearing from the exiles is one-sided and does not paint a complete picture. While I am not Cuban I am close to a number of Cuban-Americans and their visions of race are often quite equivalent to those of Southerners in years past. While Cubans of mixed race in the communist political structure may want to promulgate the idea that all Cubans have mixed racial heritage, Cubans of European descent have a cultural of hyper-vigilance about their white ancestry that is identical to that of white Southerners — not necessarily something to be proud of for sure but something that was completely missing from Gates' one-sided episode.

Professor Gates in most of the series' episodes that I've seen so far uses American terminology about race ("black") when entirely more nuanced and more technically correct terms are used in Latin America — "mulato" or "persons of color" or "mixed." When reporting on a different culture it is more appropriate to use the local racial and cultural references, not those of the reporter. Use of the term "black" smacks of yet another form of U.S. cultural imperialism. Finally, Gates' use of the term "America" instead of "U.S." in the series, especially when talking to Latin Americans, is yet another example of his parochialism. Everyone from Canada to Argentina lives in "America." It is unfortunate that what could have been an excellent series is less than that because Gates sees all through the prism of U.S. ideas and culture.

Tallahassee, FL

~ ~ ~

SHAME on PBS for airing this Black in Latin America — CUBA Edition! Dr. Gates is clearly a Communist that tries to justify the Communist Island as a normal place to live. CUBA has no freedom, human rights regardless of your race and any place that a human being has to escape or has no freedom of religion and/or rights with a dictator that has controlled the island OVER 50 yrs . . . Wake up Dr. Gates and smell the coffee! As a 'tourist' you justify Communist Cuba for blacks, but if you lived there it would be a different story! I am a Black Cuban and lived the hell of the island along with the white Cubans!

Tampa, FL

~ ~ ~

I visited relatives in Cuba last year. Couldn't you at least find a racist that speaks Spanish to distort Cuban history?

Harry Hawker, Detroit, MI

~ ~ ~

Being from Cuba, a multiracial society, and having been involved in international business for over 36 years, I have a strong interest in international cultural topics. The program showing the evening I watched was the one covering the Dominican Republic and Haiti. I have to state unequivocally that Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s coverage of both countries was completely and totally biased and one sided. He, obviously, has an ax to grind and it answers the puzzle of why he ended up handcuffed in the back of a Massachusetts police car in 2009. At the time I thought he had been falsely arrested by a bigoted or thin-skinned police officer, but after seeing his program last week I now realize Gates is simply a well-educated bigot, and professional complainer, who masks his prejudice with the veneer of university degrees and intellectuality. How PBS airs such one-sided garbage is beyond my comprehension. He fed lines to those he interviewed and who had limited command of the English language, leaving them ignorant of the extremely biased picture he was deliberately painting. Reprehensible of him, and reprehensible of PBS. I would have loved to have seen a well presented and balanced program on the subject, since prejudice against blacks in Latin America is a very valid and substantive subject.

Atlanta, GA

And, Finally, the NewsHour

Am I the only NewsHour viewer who found a glaring deficiency in Jim Lehrer's April 27 interview with Dan Balz over President Obama's birth certificate? I perceive racism as a likely — and possibly the likeliest — motivation for the birther nonsense; I doubt if I, a lay person, am any more perceptive than two experienced journalists like Mr. Balz and Mr. Lehrer, yet neither of them mentioned racism as a possible factor. The nearest they came was to refer to the code words about the President being "not one of us."

Racism is a persistent blight on our country and should not be allowed to hide the way Mr. Balz and Mr. Lehrer allowed it to hide; as the interview progressed and Mr. Balz didn't mention racism, it was up to Mr. Lehrer, as the NewsHour interviewer, to do so.

Rochester, NY

~ ~ ~

I thought the segment on the Lehrer News Report last night regarding the release by the White House of President Obama's full birth certificate was profoundly bad journalism — treating Donald Trump's charges as if they had any merit whatsoever, when, one would hope, Mr. Lehrer knows better. For example, he asked: Why do you suppose Donald Trump said "I hope it's true." In other words he deliberately chose to play into Trump's insinuation -- just to keep the lie going — that maybe even now the White House is lying. I was ashamed of the NewsHour for being so dishonest in its reporting.

Mildred Pond, New Preston, CT