Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Tavis Smiley

Tavis Smiley is a black man who other black men should look up to. Both his intellect and job description make him a role model. His defiant activism places him on the short list of black leaders.

By Richard Prince

Talk-show host Tavis Smiley calls his Web site "Tavis Talks," and that's exactly what the activist has been doing as he promotes his autobiography, "What I Know for Sure." In bookstore appearances, he reportedly has mentioned that he has not been invited onto Oprah Winfrey's or Larry King's talk shows but still took his previous book, "A Covenant With Black America," to No. 1 on the New York Times nonfiction paperback best-seller list.

And in an appearance on C-SPAN on Sunday, he talked about National Public Radio, Black Entertainment Television and its founder Bob Johnson, and his first BET guest, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, sometimes quoting from the book in the best tradition of those who use their memoirs to settle scores.

Smiley was mild in his criticism of NPR, which he lambasted when he quit "The Tavis Smiley Show" in December 2004, telling Time magazine then it was "ironic" that President Bush's administration was more diverse than public radio.

Discussing "News & Notes," NPR's successor show, Smiley said, "There are still concerns about whether or not NPR gets it, where inclusion and diversity are concerned. "And I'm not here to cast aspersion on them," said Smiley, who now does a weekly show on an NPR competitor, Public Radio International, as well as a late-night television show for PBS. "I'm here to say that all of our institutions—government and private sector—American institutions need to reflect more the breadth and depth of diversity that is America. And NPR has a way to go in that regard."

Smiley recalled that the first night he hosted the live "BET Talks," Simmons was invited on the program to talk about slain rap idol Tupac Shakur, who had died over the weekend.

"And I asked a question about how great an artist Tupac would have become. How much more did this brother have to offer to contribute to the world of hip-hop music, had he lived and had he continued to mature?

"Because clearly, you look at the guy's life," Smiley said. "There were points in his life, not unlike the rest of us, where Tupac was conflicted and confused. I used those two words, conflicted and confused.

"And for some reason, Russell Simmons just lost it, just snapped on the air, and jumped all over me for asking what I thought was a legitimate and critical, loving question about what kind of artist this guy could become.

"Russell snapped on live TV, my very first night on the air—live—and called me a 'house nigger.' He said, 'You ain't nothin' but a house nigger. I turned down all these other interviews today. I came on BET to talk to you, because I thought you were different, you were better. You ain't nothin' but a house nigger.'

"It took me two or three years to convince the hip-hop community on BET that watched my show, that I wasn't some guy who didn't care about, didn't love rap music, or some guy who hated Tupac Shakur. It was quite the opposite," Smiley said.

Smiley said he turned down Simmons' requests to come back on the show until a few years later, when Simmons agreed to apologize, but then did not. "He got on the air and acted like he didn't know what I was talking about," Smiley said.

Simmons' publicist, Gretchen Wagner, did not return a telephone message and e-mail seeking comment. Smiley said the lesson from that experience was, "You have to engage in a conversation that is honest, that is truthful, that is authentic, even if the person being questioned, the guest, doesn't like the question."

And then there was the tension between Smiley and Johnson, who eventually fired him.

In 1999, Smiley told a Newsweek correspondent, "It gets frustrating to be asked by young black people how I can work for a company with no social consciousness. I get that wherever I go, and it's something I can't answer."

By Smiley's account, Johnson exploded, and, on a speakerphone with his vice presidents listening, told Smiley, "How the 'f' do you come off criticizing me in public? What gives you the audacity to say something negative about this network, when this network has been paying you big money for years now? What the hell is wrong with you?"

Smiley replied, "In the four years I've been working for BET, you never called me once, never had a one-minute conversation with me. Never sent me a single note or card. Never said, 'great show' after I interviewed Clinton or Castro.

"You never invited me to lunch, never introduced me to your family. Now you call me up and cuss me out in front of a bunch of VPs. What kind of jerk are you? I watched Ted Turner on 'Larry King.' They have a relationship, a friendship.

"Here I am, the highest paid talent you have, and you don't give me the courtesy of a single word in four years. And now you feel you have the right to excoriate me. How dare you disrespect me this way! You can take this program and ram it up your black ass!"

Johnson's public relations firm did not return a call seeking comment, but as Brett Pulley reported in his 2004 book on Johnson, "The Billion Dollar BET", Johnson told viewers when he fired Smiley in 2001, "The relationship was fraught with tension. And I didn't want this relationship to go any further."

Smiley said the scholar Cornel West, whom he said he considers a big brother, said to him after the 1999 incident, "Tavis, you must, even when you're justified, be dignified. Even when you're justified, you must also be dignified."

"It's a lesson that I've learned the hard way," Smiley told Lamb.

Spokeswomen for Winfrey and King confirmed that Smiley had not appeared on their programs, but Bridget Leininger, a CNN spokeswoman, said "he and Larry are pals. They see each other at events all the time."


Brother Lightness said...

Leave it to Tavis (see inset profile picture) to renew my faith in the conscience of media.

Brother Smartness said...

Great article...I must admit, I didn't know much about his history with Johnson or Simmons (grew up without cable).

"You can take this program and ram it up your black ass!" is priceless, however. I'll be sure to add that punchline to my arsenal of random, yet humourous quotations(i.e., "Baaaallin," "CANNON," "I knoooow you seee it," Dew it, dew it, dew it, dew it.")