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Monday, February 18, 2008

Tavis on the Hot Seat...

Reactions to Tavis "make America better" Smiley's blunder can be found at the link below the article.

New Media

Black Commenter, Criticizing Obama, Causes Firestorm

Tavis Smiley leading a town hall at the Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., April 6, 2006. (Michael Temchine/The Washington Post).

By Darryl Fears
Tavis Smiley, the bestselling author of the "Covenant With Black America," is in a world turned upside down. He said he's being "hammered," "barbecued," and is "catching hell" from black Americans for suggesting that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) made a major mistake by declining to speak at the State of the Black Union event that Smiley plans to host next week in New Orleans.

"There's all this talk of hater, sellout and traitor," Smiley said to me in a telephone interview. Smiley even mentioned getting death threats, but wouldn't elaborate. He said his office has been flooded with angry e-mails. "I have family in Indianapolis. They are harassing my momma, harassing my brother. It's getting to be crazy," Smiley said.

Smiley's problems started early this month after he invited Obama to speak at the State of the Black Union, an event Smiley founded nine years ago. Held annually during Black History Month and broadcast by C-Span, the event gathers a Who's Who of black intellectuals, pundits, activists, entertainers and politicians to discuss and brainstorm about where black America is and where it is headed. This year's topic is "Reclaiming Our Democracy, Deciding Our Future."

The State of the Black Union has grown into a key event for black people since its start, but as Smiley has discovered, Obama's presidential run is far more highly regarded.

As the first black person to have a legitimate shot at a presidential nomination, defeating Sen. Hillary Clinton's rich campaign juggernaut, Obama is virtually a third civil rights movement, the manifestation of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream. His candidacy has produced a fervor in black America born of centuries of wanting. Nearly every black vote that Clinton thought was hers at the beginning of the race has been siphoned by Obama.

Each of the presidential candidates were invited to speak, but only Sen. Hillary Clinton accepted. Clinton is desperate to bolster her flagging campaign with a larger share of the black vote after losing all but a small percent to Obama. Smiley said he wants the candidates to focus on the issues that black Americans care about.

If the blogosphere is any reflection, however, black America believes Smiley should check his ego. Commenters would much rather see Obama campaigning against Clinton in Texas and Ohio than at Smiley's confab in Louisiana, a state he's already won. Critics burned up Internet chat rooms, taking turns at denouncing Smiley. Pundit Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an Obama supporter, authored a biting anti-Smiley opinion on (which is owned by Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive), entitled, "Who Died and Made Him King?"

A fan of Smiley commented on one blog, saying, "Tavis, Ya Killin' Me, Man." An angrier writer headlined his comment, "This is just dumb." "This man is involved in the fight of his life for the presidency of the UNITED STATES, not black states," he wrote of Obama. "I don't know if Tavis got the memo, but Hillary is leading in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the governor said that his white folks won't vote for a black." Other comments would likely be blocked by Net Nanny and can't be printed on the Web pages of a family newspaper.

For Smiley, the tumult is a major turnabout. Until now he was a darling commentator in black America. His passion for the people endeared him to many. People listened to his commentaries on the popular Tom Joyner Morning Show, and snapped up so many copies of the "Covenant" that it made the top ten lists of the both the New York Times and the Washington Post. When Smiley talked, black people listened.

"One of my friends said, 'you are being barbecued in the blogosphere,'" Smiley said. He told Black America Web writer Michael Cottman's that "I'm catching hell." In our interview, Smiley said: "This is the first time in my entire career that I have found myself in this kind of relationship with some folk in black America. I now know what it feels like to have the weight of the Internet world bearing down on you. Man, it's an eye opener when you get caught in the middle of it."

Obama's campaign said he called Smiley twice on his cell and office phones. Smiley said he returned the calls but got no response.

On the Tom Joyner Morning Show recently, Joyner brought up the controversy during an interview with Obama, relating how Smiley was taking heat for saying he thinks Obama doesn't want to talk about issues black people care about.

Obama chastised Smiley, but spoke as if the two were friends. "I'm going to have to call Tavis up and straighten him out on this," Obama said. He said he's addressed issues that Smiley cares about, such as health care and eliminating the legal sentencing disparity that allows judges to send mostly black crack cocaine offenders to prison with sentences that are five times longer than powder cocaine offenders who are mostly white and Latino.

Obama followed up with a letter to Smiley, dated Feb. 13. In it, Obama explained why he declined the invitation, saying that he needed to campaign in states that Clinton must win to in order to topple her candidacy.

"I will be on the campaign trail every day in states like Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin talking directly to voters about the causes that are at the heart of my campaign and the State of the Black Union forum such as affordable housing, economic opportunity, civil rights and foreign policy," Obama said in his letter. He had offered to have his wife, Michelle, speak in his stead at the State of the Black Union, but Smiley had declined. "I ask that you reconsider," Obama wrote. "Michelle is a powerful voice for the type of reach change America is hungry for."

Smiley responded in a commentary on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, condemning Obama's decision with his usual strong, passionate, rapid-fire delivery. He recounted the gist of his statement in the interview. "I think it is a miscalculation on his part not to appear and a missed opportunity."

"I love Barack Obama and I love black people," Smiley said. "I celebrate his past accomplishments and I celebrate his future aspirations. I never wanted to stand in the path of his growth."

However, he said, "My job is to ask the critical question, to raise these issues and keep these guys focused. There are some people who are disappointed that I'm not jumping up and down saying, 'Vote for Barack Obama.' That's not my role as a journalist. That's not what I do."

Posted at 11:15 AM ET on Feb 16, 2008 | Category: New Media

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