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So What Do You Do, Tavis Smiley, Author and Talk Show Host?

The quintessential pressman talks about taking on the media, the president, and even his own fans

By Janelle Harris - July 21, 2010
Tavis Smiley has never been one to just cover an issue. He likes to pounce on it, rip it apart, see how it ticks from every angle before he can dust his hands off and move on to the next one. "And because my experiences as a black man are different than most everybody else on TV who does what I do," he admits, "my questions are different. What interests me, what I want to get at, what I want to know is a bit different."

With a TV show on PBS and a radio show on NPR, the community-activist-turned-hard-hitting-commentator has plenty of air time to press the issues he thinks need to be addressed. When caught up with the quintessential pressman, he was most excited about his third Tavis Smiley Reports PBS primetime special, "Been in the Storm Too Long," airing July 21. The episode investigates what's been done -- and what still needs to be finished -- to rebuild New Orleans five years after Hurricane Katrina ravished the city. Here, Tavis talks about his undying love for his community, even when his community doesn't always love what he has to say.

Name: Tavis Smiley
Position: Author, and radio and television show host
Resume: Began as an intern and aide to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Transitioned to radio as a commentator, then co-hosted local cable shows in LA. Became a regular on The Tom Joyner Morning Show in 1996; that same year, he began hosting Tonight with Tavis Smiley on BET. Current host of the PBS talk show Tavis Smiley and the weekly radio program, The Tavis Smiley Show. Author of 14 books, including The Covenant with Black America, the first nonfiction book by an African-American publisher to reach No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list.
Birthday: September 13, 1964
Hometown: Kokomo, Indiana
Education: Bachelor's degree in public affairs from Indiana University
Marital status: Single
Favorite TV show: "Anything on TV Land"
Guilty pleasure: "Watching Flavor of Love."
Last book read: Color Blind by Tim Wise
Twitter handle: @tavissmiley

As a member of the press, what irks you most about how the media covers stories like Katrina?
Often times, I find the media will wrestle with a story when they're forced to wrestle with it. We're good at crisis coverage. But it leads to surface and spotty reporting. Part of the reason is because doing the drill down into the underlying causes of the crisis makes too many people uncomfortable. Covering the crisis makes everybody happy and it leads to ratings and ratings lead to revenue. But there is no crisis in the world that does not have connected to it underlying reasons.

So how does your coverage differ?
My edict to my production staff: I want them to bring me ideas for conversations that might not otherwise be seen or heard if I don't conduct them. And we do a good job of that, I think. On any given night, you never know what we're going to talk about on our TV show or on our radio show every week. At the same time, there is obviously some subject matter that we have to cover that everybody else is covering. And I think even when you do that, there are ways to give those interviews, those conversations, a different kind of treatment so that you don't have to ask the same questions.

"There's always good that comes out of these public crises if we're willing to wrestle with it in the public space."

What are the positives that came from the Katrina disaster?
So much of the ugliness that we didn't want to see in that city -- and quite frankly, in so many other urban centers -- came to the surface. The issue of race and class, which was always there but now on display for everybody to see, being exposed is obviously good for the nation. When [Hurricane] Rita hit in Texas weeks after Katrina the governor, Rick Perry, had a plan, and said publicly, 'for those who cannot get out because they don't have a way out, here is where the buses are going to be to get you out of the city.' That plan would never have happened if Katrina hadn't happened. So there are all kinds of examples where some of this stuff coming to the surface is good for the country. I do believe in that adage, in every dark cloud there is a silver lining. There's always good that comes out of these public crises if we're willing to wrestle with it in the public space.

What's one area of the news that you think is still grossly uncovered or unaddressed by media?
That's an easy answer: poverty. That's because the people who cover the news are not in poverty, their friends are not in poverty, they don't come in contact every day with poverty. Most of our media is educated, white and better off financially than most Americans. The people who cover the news don't reflect the people who are impoverished. The same is true of elected officials. They're the ones who really have a role to play on poverty. But I think the media has fallen down on this story. The gap between the have gots and the have nots in this country has never been wider and this recession has made it worse. Every empire in history has eventually fallen, and our arrogance and our elitism won't even allow us to consider that about the grand United States of America. If we continue to ignore this issue of escalating poverty, it's going to be the undoing of us. To say that is unpopular, but that's the reality of what we're dealing with and somebody's got to say it.

During the 2008 election season, you took then-Senator Barack Obama to task on key issues during your commentaries on the Tom Joyner Morning Show. Were you surprised by the backlash you got from black audiences?
When you do what I do every day, you have to accept the fact that there are times when you're going to be challenged with merit and sometimes you're challenged without merit. That's just par for the course. The thing that was most interesting to me was that I did nothing with Senator Obama's campaign that I didn't do with anybody else running for office. It was always about holding them accountable to the best interests of black people, of all Americans. A cursory look through my work would remind people that the issues I challenged then-candidate Obama to address were the same issues I talked about when Reagan ran. Walk that down the line from Reagan to Bush to Clinton. Then all of the sudden, when Barack shows up, I'm supposed to abandon what I've always done. Put it this way: I sleep well at night. I'm comfortable with the long view of history about the role that I played in that campaign.

"I got pushed out, but I'm grateful for the push because sometimes a pink slip will really fire you up."

Many viewers were upset when you were dismissed from BET in 2001, and the network has since dissolved its News department entirely. Looking back, what do you think was behind their decision to cancel your show and what did you learn from that experience?
When I started with BET, it was owned by Viacom. I had the right in my contract to produce whatever I wanted to for any other network. I couldn't do another talk show, but I could do a special. I produced a special that I offered to CBS because CBS was also owned by Viacom. They turned it down three times. That's on record. I offered it to ABC, who bought it. Then all of the sudden, the people at Viacom said, 'why is Tavis Smiley, who works for our network BET, doing a special on ABC that killed us last night in the ratings?' Everybody got egg on their face, but because I was an uppity Negro, I got let go. I stayed at BET for five years. It was a wonderful run. It made me a household name in black America. I now own my TV show and PBS distributes it. I own my public radio show and PRI and NPR distribute it. I'm an owner now, and not just an employee. My friends joke around and tell me every year, I should send Bob Johnson a thank you note because I wouldn't be where I am now if I hadn't gotten pushed out.

What would your advice be to others who are enduring a firing or lay off?
I've said to people many, many times: there is no standing still. You're moving forward or you're moving backwards. You can progressively move forward or you're regressing. Sometimes you jump and sometimes you get pushed, but you have to move. Sometimes you have to create your own opportunities and that's what I did. So with regards to BET, I got pushed out but I'm grateful for the push because sometimes a pink slip will really fire you up.

What's one subject that you're passionate about that you haven't been able to really dive into yet?
All of the things that I'm passionate about, I get to work on them. I'm passionate about childhood obesity. I'm passionate about all kinds of racial disparities and inequities. In a nutshell, my life's work is ultimately about making the world safe for the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., who I regard as the greatest American we have ever produced. The legacy for me is essentially justice for all, service to others and a love that liberates people. I started out as an advocate in the community and that's where my heart always has and will be and these media platforms are just that -- platforms -- for me to raise issues and discuss topics. Everybody has a right to a livable wage, healthcare, to live free of violence, to live away from environmentally toxic dumpsites and other killers. We're not all going into the race at the same place, but every one of us as Americans ought to at least have an equal opportunity. That's what I call social justice.

Janelle Harris is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. She documents her editorial adventures at

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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