Many conservatives who feel passionately about reaching out to black voters are infuriated that the Republican front-runners have not consented to a PBS debate hosted by PBS and public-radio talk show host Tavis Smiley. Newt Gingrich assured ABC viewers the other morning that "Tavis Smiley is a very responsible, very clear-cut commentator and analyst. He's going to run a very fair debate." But have these critical voices ever really looked at Smiley’s actual record when it comes to Republicans?
Start with October 24, 2000. Smiley told Geraldo Rivera on CNBC that George W. Bush was a serial killer. "There are, there are some issues on which if you are a voter of color, certainly if you are an African-American, you have a hard time choosing. For example, both of these guys support the death penalty. As far as I’m concerned, Bush in Texas is nothing more than a serial killer." Does Gingrich think that's "responsible" commentary?
On Inauguration Day 2005, ABC's Peter Jennings invited Smiley to comment over video of leftist protesters (and certainly Bush fans, too) being restrained by fencing. Smiley took a whack at Bush's speech about freedom, accusing Bush of being a hypocrite for allowing security fences:
"These pictures are disturbing to me, Peter. This is exactly what I suggested earlier when I tried to make the point that it’s not what you say, it is what you do. And it’s one thing, just an hour or two ago to have a President talking about spreading democracy and freedom around the world, much less at a place called Freedom Plaza, named after one Martin Luther King Jr. And these pictures indicate very clearly that these people are having a very difficult time expressing themselves....I think people around the world, certainly around the country right now, are having a very difficult time juxtaposing the pictures that we’re seeing with the words we heard from the President earlier today, and this is that hypocrisy that [Newsweek’s] Fareed Zakaria spoke of earlier, that other people around the globe look at America and just can’t quite understand."
Jennings respectfully replied to Smiley's assertion: "Point noted."
Back on May 3 on his PBS show, Tavis Smiley pushed around Washington Post columnist David Ignatius demanding he share the leftist outrage over/ Bush’s war in Iraq: Far be it for me to argue with you, but let me just take the devil's advocate position on this, just to press you a little bit more on this. Why shouldn't we be outraged? Why shouldn't we be angry with George Bush? Why shouldn't this be the issue around which we will throw down a gauntlet and be angry? We're losing lives every day, why not this, if any issue, to be just outraged about?"
Smiley demonstrated he wasn’t really just posing the question without believing it. When Ignatius talked about our mistakes in Iraq, Smiley wouldn’t be part of a "we": "But we didn't make those mistakes. George Bush and his administration made those mistakes. So, how do you hold a guy accountable when you send him legislation, he vetoes it, sends it back, and says, 'I dare you to override it?’"
On April 23, he interviewed Bill Moyers about his completely one-sided jeremiad "Buying the War." While he asked Moyers if the show was fair and balanced, Smiley concluded by showing his own bias: "Finally, is it just me or is this administration the most secretive of all time? You've worked in the White House. I wonder to what extent, again, their modus operandi -- which is secrecy at all costs -- has anything to do with the story that you're going to unveil for us on Wednesday night?"
Smiley, on the other hand, very explicitly advertises his support for Bill Clinton and other Democrats. On Monday, Arkansas Blog reported Smiley interviewed Bill Clinton at the Clinton Center in Little Rock on the fiftieth anniversary of desegregation at Central High School. Smiley offered Clinton a platform to bash the racist Republicans:
Smiley welcomed Bill Clinton to the third recording session, in which Clinton gave a brief history lesson in the evolution of the Republican Party from the party of Lincoln to the conservative bastion it is today, which has built its recent successes on the white Southern vote. "The sea change came," Clinton said, "when Reagan declared [for office] in Philadelphia, Miss., talking about states rights." Philadelphia was where three civil rights workers had been murdered. "And the mainstream press thought it was all right."
Early this month, Smiley hosted a book party for Bill Clinton's new book Giving in Harlem. "He is pushing America to engage in a dialogue to make this a better world," said Smiley, by way of introduction.
Even the leftist site Salon.com knows the Smiley score. Years of commentary on Tom Joyner's incredibly influential black radio show and as host and executive producer of "BET Tonight," a public affairs show that ran from 1996 to 2001, has made Smiley the Negro Larry King (and a multimillionaire). 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.
Is this the kind of PBS personality who is an ideal representative of PBS's objectivity and balance?