PBS

Print This Page

The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: Tavis Smiley, President Obama and Race

It's been hot outside and quiet inside the Ombudsman's inbox these past few weeks. But that quiet ended in the aftermath of the July 15th edition of the Tavis Smiley late-night talk show.

Smiley introduced the program this way: "Once again, a verdict in a high-stakes trial has shunned and stunned many in this country, and reignited the debate about race and the justice system that has smoldered for generations. A Florida jury's decision to acquit George Zimmerman of killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old boy, has outraged many Americans who find it hard to accept that in 2013 an African American teenager could be killed while walking home from a store, and no one is held accountable.

"Joining me tonight from New York to talk about where we as a nation go from here, Professor Tricia Rose, the director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University."

Back in May, Smiley celebrated his 2,000th show on PBS, a run that spans a decade and has put a diverse parade of guests and often controversial subjects in front of a loyal audience for 30-minutes each weeknight. I have written many times about Smiley in my years here. He is not your grandfather's talk show host. He is controversial, not just his subjects. He is a sharp interviewer with strong opinions of his own. He is also, as I've pointed out, an author, promoter, businessman, foundation head, celebrity and an energetic advocate for what he calls the "Black Agenda in America." Mostly, he is a force. He owns his program and does a lot of things other than a PBS talk show.

He also has been a critic, on occasion, of President Obama so, in one respect, the critical letters from viewers posted below should come as no surprise. Indeed, Smiley's questions and views early this week seemed to have provided an irresistible trifecta — a liberal African-American talk-show host slamming an African-American President on PBS — for the conservative media-watch site NewsBusters.

So the July 15 broadcast, which came less than 48 hours after the Zimmerman verdict, has escalated, at least for those who wrote to me, the question of Smiley's role on PBS. But whatever one thinks about the views and opinions expressed on that broadcast (which is definitely worth catching-up with if you haven't seen it), this was, I thought, powerful, provocative, high-octane television. That was also due in part to the presence of Prof. Rose, who is also African American and not your grandfather's professor, but rather a powerfully expressive force of her own who can go toe-to-toe with Smiley.

Smiley, of course, is entitled to his opinions and he is going to express them, whether through questions or statements, and this program captured the raw feelings that many felt after the verdict. Where it fell short factually, in my opinion, was in Smiley's failure to make room for at least some consideration of the legal process — not just the racial dimension — in the discussion and the President's role as an outsider to that process.

I did not get a great deal of mail about this program, but all of it was critical. There were also only a handful of comments from viewers posted on the program's website. Those were mostly supportive of Smiley's approach. But aside from the emails to me that are posted just below, I've also included two postings from the comments on the program's website that seemed to me to capture the different ways that viewers absorb a program like this one.

Here Are the Letters

I am a 21-year Veteran of the United States Air Force; one of those who have fought for the freedoms we as Americans hold so dear...one of which being the freedom of speech. I'm also an ardent supporter of PBS...financially, and otherwise. I have always been able to depend on PBS for great programs and objective, professionally presented news stories. To me, PBS has always maintained the highest standard of integrity among all the broadcast outlets; that's why it pains me to have to write this. I don't know if you're aware of this, but there's a cancer in the PBS Organization that is eroding the public trust and its professional reputation. That cancer is in the form of someone named TAVIS SMILEY.

Tavis Smiley and his friend, Cornell West, have been on a years-long campaign of disrespect, denigration, and flat out hate-mongering against President Barack Obama. They clearly have a very personal and obsessive vendetta against the President. Unfortunately, Tavis Smiley has been using the PBS platform for his disrespectful verbal attacks and illogical tirades against the President of the United States. His latest tantrum was on full view during the Tavis Smiley Show which aired on July 15th, with his guest Dr. Tricia Rose. After being subjected to Tavis Smiley's eye-popping rant, Dr. Rose tried to steer him toward some level of civility in his comments about the President, but she was unable to calm that raging beast of a Host.

As a viewer, I found Smiley's on-air behavior reprehensible and beyond unprofessional! He came across as a shrill, grudgeful, ninny who was hell-bent on using that platform to get even for some personal slight (real or perceived) that's eating away at him. I'm all for freedom of speech. But I don't think it's appropriate for any reputable broadcast outlet to enable or disregard such personal vendetta and disrespect toward the President of the United States...especially coming from a host on one of their programs. Unfortunately, in his constant zeal to besmirch the Presidency of Barack Obama, Tavis Smiley has done a disservice to the PBS viewers and tarnished the reputation of the entire PBS Organization. Tavis Smiley's behavior is far beneath the standards I've come to expect from the professionals associated with PBS. Please do something about this.

J. Lyons, Panama City, FL

~~~

I am a man that has seen first-hand how the balance of racism over the last 50 years has changed. I live in a predominately black neighborhood which was once white. I see racism in the media and your Tavis Smiley is one. Love PBS; hate racism. The media needs to stop making things worse. I am inside looking out and can see racism from afar. I will truly miss PBS but until Tavis is gone so am I.

Cleveland, OH

~~~

I've enjoyed PBS for many years. I don't tune in to the Tavis Smiley show every week but have enjoyed the show, his guests and subject matter over 50 times. I have always known he was a liberal thinker and an advocate for the black community. I was just stunned today to discover that he is an Al Sharpton clone and a racist. I couldn't believe my ears. I, my direct family or anyone I can convince will never tune in or donate to PBS again until Mr. Smiley is no longer a member of the PBS family. I know you can provide great programing including all races and views without race-baiters in charge.

Michael J., Brookfield, WI

~~~

I am a regular PBS viewer. It seems that some of your commentators (Tavis Smiley) are turning into fanatic, hate-mongering "Al Sharptons." If this is what PBS supports, I have to look for a different source of information/news/education.

Friedrich Schuckert, Woodstock, GA

~~~

The fact that my tax dollars are going to help fund radical racists like Tavis Smiley is a disgrace. We know that the programming leans left. That's a given. But, when you give a platform to someone who makes a living fomenting racial tension it is an outrage. I realize it's too much to ask you to be objective and fair, but can you least lean back to a 'moderate/left' agenda?

Doug Rowland, Dallas, TX

Two Comments

Here are two of the comments posted on Smiley's website.

Dan Peters

The high profile nature of certain cases does not change the fact that they are won or lost in the courtroom. Guilty persons go free every day. To expect President Obama or Attorney General Holder to intervene in the George Zimmerman trial as Tavis seems to be demanding is to undermine our Judicial system. I'm disappointed by the suggestion that President Obama and Mr. Holder should be doing more because they are black. They are doing a fine job representing ALL Americans and no group should expect any actions based on their race.

Selena Ricks

Tavis, this was one of the best conversations I've had the pleasure of hearing you do and I have heard many but this tops the list. I look to you to always break it down and you did just that. I have listened to a lot of the other conversations surrounding Trayvon's death and for me, no other media outlet I've been listening to could put this issue in a clear and concisely formatted dialog. If your mission is to empower, enlighten and encourage others to reevaluate the assumptions they hold than you have done that for me. If more people could develop a taste for truth-letting and hold our officials ACCOUNTABLE from the top down or bottom up then the world would be a place of love and not dissension at every turn. This was a brilliant conversation between you and Professor Tricia Rose.