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Tavis Smiley isn’t giving Obama a free pass

Smiley found himself between race and a hard place when he criticized Obama on-air for choosing not to appear on Smiley’s annual State of the Black Union cablecast on C-SPAN in February.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tavis Smiley is all wound up. His voice is rough from too much vocalizing, but the host of public television’s “Tavis Smiley” talk show and public radio’s “The Tavis Smiley Show” is on an oratorical roll about race, politics, and his fellow African-American, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.

“There is no such thing in America as race transcendence, and Obama’s going to find that out real soon,” says Smiley, leaning into his words. As he sermonizes, he sheds suit jacket, tie and belt in succession, getting comfy in his spacious suite at KCET in Los Angeles after taping two installments of “Tavis Smiley” (Monday-Friday in various time-slots on PBS stations).

Despite the peaceful vibe inside his sanctuary, with its African masks and scented candle, Smiley frowns. “There’s no such thing as ‘post-racial’ in America, because if you push the envelope too far, you’re going to hear about it.”

Smiley should know. For months he has been the object of an Internet firestorm for his perceived negative comments about Obama on commercial radio’s syndicated “The Tom Joyner Morning Show.”

Smiley found himself between race and a hard place when he criticized Obama on-air for choosing not to appear on Smiley’s annual State of the Black Union cablecast on C-SPAN in February. Smiley’s remarks sparked a blaze of invective by African-American bloggers, who questioned Smiley’s loyalty, motives and ego.

After 12 years as a fixture on Joyner’s show, Smiley delivered his final commentary on June 26. Smiley insists his departure was not a reaction to the flak, but rather a decision that he had been on Joyner’s show long enough.

“Just because Barack Obama is black, doesn’t mean he gets a pass on being held accountable on issues that matter to black people,” Smiley says. “I’m not an Obama critic or a McCain critic. The term itself is dismissive and insulting.”

For Smiley — a multimedia entrepreneur who is an important voice in the African-American community, who owns his TV and radio shows, who has authored 11 books and created the nonprofit Tavis Smiley Foundation to empower youth — the disparagement by black bloggers still stings.

‘Searching for the language’His dilemma is also emblematic of the media conundrum of the moment for black and white journalists alike: how to responsibly and sensitively address the issue of race and couch coverage of the likely first-ever run for the White House by a major-party nominee who is black.

“We have an awkward history about how to talk about race in the nation and in newsrooms,” says Gwen Ifill, senior correspondent for PBS’ “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” and author of “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,” slated for publication early next year.

“I don’t see any hesitancy about addressing it,” Ifill says. “But I do think we are all searching for the language.”

David Bohrman, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, agrees. “It’s still a sensitive topic, but I think the door’s been opened to the conversation ... Whether or not that conversation will happen in a reasonable or superficial way — I don’t think anyone has a real sense of how it will play out right now.”

Smiley will broadcast his talk show live to select markets from the Democratic convention in Denver Aug. 25-28 and the Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn., Sept. 1-4.

“I want to do what I always try to do, which is to be authentic in my coverage,” Smiley says. “I’m an advocacy journalist, not a journalist in the traditional sense. I believe my role in the media is to get people to re-examine the assumptions they hold.”

That challenge is not always obvious on Smiley’s talk show. In its five-year run “Tavis Smiley” has included a stew of both stars and politicos, from Obama, last fall, and Hillary Clinton in February, to Harrison Ford, Dustin Hoffman, and hip, young-skewing musical guests such as Ne-Yo.

But it is Smiley’s role as vigilant media inquisitor — and never mind political correctness — that he seems to relish most.

“This is what I do — asking critical questions,” Smiley says. “Now some of you regard it as keeping a brother down, holding a brother back. Because you regard it that way, you don’t understand that this is the role that I’ve always played.”