PBS’s Tavis Smiley on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

Tavis Smiley. Photo: Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images

We’ve always had a tradition of alternative news outlets: black newspapers, LGBT papers. How do you think the internet has affected that kind of journalism?
With these issues of race and violence and what we’ve been experiencing of late, the alternative media is more important and more necessary now than ever before. And by alternative, I certainly mean specifically the black media.

I go back to the Trayvon Martin case. In this present moment, the catalytic moment was the murder of Trayvon Martin. The reality is that that story would never have made it to the front pages were it not for black media: black radio, and the presence that wasn’t there 15 years ago, but black radio and the black blogosphere blew that story up. The mainstream media — I’m talking about the Washington Post, the New York Times, everybody, Time, Newsweek — the mainstream media was late getting to that story. Had it not been for black radio and the black blogosphere, that story would never have taken hold. And that’s not really surprising. Oftentimes the mainstream media, particularly where people of color are concerned — it’s on the late freight. So the alternative media, black press in particular, are more relevant and more necessary now than ever before — even in the era when corporate media seem to be smothering everything. There seem to be basically three companies that own everything in the media space.

Why do you think the Travyon Martin case was different? There must have been innumerable cases like that most of us never heard about because they didn’t catch fire in the same way.
I think the answer is, because there are so many parts of Trayvon’s story that everyday black people — who were young black men, or who have young black brothers, young black sons — there are so many parts of Trayvon’s story that we all connect to. He was wearing a hoodie; he’s young; he’s walking home; he’s eating a bag of Skittles. I think that became, in part, catalytic. The story was just so ripe, and so rich, and so raw. All three of those.

Do you think it had anything to do with the medium? Do you think it’s easier for these outlets to make a story catch fire now? Do they have a greater reach because of the internet?
That’s a good question. I wouldn’t even just say it’s easier. In many ways, I think corporate media is obsolete. Particularly around these kinds of stories. That sounds strange to suggest, that even in the age of corporate media, corporate media is obsolete, but it is in this regard. The Civil War was one of the first wars that was photographed. And this war is the first digital war. And in the digital area, the mainstream media, corporate media, is obsolete. They’re obsolete in getting these stories first, they’re obsolete in getting exclusives, they’re obsolete except to the extent that they end up making money from everyday people’s efforts in this digital war. And that’s the irony: that the corporate media end up being the ones that make the money! So that when you’re watching Fox, or CNN, or any of the other online outlets, everybody is rushing to accompany their stories with this footage. I mean, look at the footage shot by the girlfriend in the Philando Castile case. Or the footage shot in so many of these other cases. The networks end up being a secondary vehicle, in many ways tertiary to the story line, because they didn’t get the footage first.

When you talk about this current war, you mean the police versus —
Yes, yes.

It’s not like this is a war that recently broke out. I don’t know that there’s been a big uptick in the cops’ wrongful uses of force against black people. The reason they’re getting all this attention now is a shift in consciousness — probably, in part, because of incidents like the Trayvon case.
I agree with you, in this regard: It’s a shift in consciousness borne of live streaming. And that’s why I say again that the networks, the cable players, they can’t live stream these stories, so they end up relying on the footage garnered by other people. Their ratings go up, they end up raising their advertising rates, and everybody makes money, except the people who shot the footage in the first place.

Why do you think they’ve traditionally ignored these incidents?
The truth is that inside of newsrooms, which are just a microcosm of the country itself, there still does not exist the respect for the humanity, the dignity, and the sanctity of black life in this country.

Do you think that’s in part a function of not having diverse-enough newsrooms?
There’s no doubt about it. I mean, we now live in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever. And our newsrooms, and certainly those who make news decisions, the news directors, still don’t reflect the depth of diversity and inclusion in this country. They don’t reflect it. The same is true of Hollywood. I’m sitting in L.A. right now, where I live, and the reason why this year we could have this fallout about the Oscars being so white is that even in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever, even in an America where there is a black president sitting in the Oval Office, we still do not have the kinds of decision-makers in newsrooms, in Hollywood, in every sphere of human endeavor in this country, we still don’t have a leadership that reflects the diversity in the country.

Let me be more even more exacting: It is the same unconscious bias at play in police departments as in newsrooms. The same unconscious bias that exists in police departments exists inside of newsrooms. And the proof is very clear: If those persons who make decisions about the staffing in our newsrooms, if those persons had the same respect for the dignity and the humanity and the sanctity of black life — that is to say, if they thought more of black people and the gifts and the talents that they bring to the table — then there would be more of us sitting at the table. And I say to my friends all the time that if you’re not at the table, then most likely you’re on the menu. And the reality is that not enough of us are sitting around the table. And every now and then, when you have that sort of unconscious bias, when you don’t have that deep-seated respect for the humanity and dignity and sanctity of black life, every now and then some rogue cop goes off the range. And the same is true in Hollywood: When you don’t have the respect for the sanctity, the dignity, the humanity, the gift, and the talent that black actors bring to the table, you look up every now and then and you have an “Oscars So White” year. It’s the same kind of institutional, unconscious bias in all of these arenas.

When the media outlets do pay attention to these cases, or cover the Black Lives Matter movement, what do you think they get wrong?
The Black Lives Matter movement tends to be covered from the vantage point of being antagonistic. We don’t cover police as antagonistic; we cover them as peacekeepers. Police are covered as peacekeepers; protesters are covered as antagonistic. Even the way it’s shot sometimes: You see police shot … I saw the other day, as we all did, when the bodies went by in Dallas, they stand in their beautiful blue uniforms. They stand at attention in this beautiful line of formation. And when you see Black Lives Matter, they’re screaming, they’re yelling, the footage is grainy.

I also want to get your take on the presidential candidates. Do you have any theory about what it was about Bernie Sanders that made him less appealing, maybe not to all black voters, but at least to older black voters?
Sure, sure. I think it’s been overplayed. Bernie Sanders simply started too late. He started so late that he didn’t have the time to establish the kinds of relationships that lead to the sort of name recognition and endorsement that you need to win a primary contest. So clearly his issue wasn’t money, because he outraised Hillary in some of those quarters, some of those months. The issue wasn’t money; the issue was time. He started too late. There will be a postmortem on this campaign, and part of the postmortem is going to be that he started too late. But Bernie happened to catch fire because he was raising the right issues. But you cannot be an outsider candidate, and start that late in the process, trying to tell the truths that he was telling about the system, and think that you can win. Trump has won, or is winning, because he’s telling a very different narrative. He’s playing to people’s fears. And that always works. When you’re playing to people’s aspirations, but you want to tell them unsettling truths about the way the system is rigged against them, that’s outsider status. If you don’t start early enough — it’s two words: early and often. That was his problem, he wasn’t there early enough, and he wasn’t there often enough. And the Clintons, when you say early and often, they covered that 40 years ago. They were there early and they certainly have been there often: that is to say, in the faces of black people, black voters.

It totally squares with Trump’s case, because even though he hadn’t been in politics, he had that name recognition.
He’d been campaigning for 30 years! I saw a story in the Times the other day — you probably saw it — about how he’s been campaigning for years on these late-night shows. And he had a TV show. I mean, Trump didn’t need to start as early and often as Bernie. He was sending a message of fear, but he had so much name identity going into the race! His name is on every building in New York, he’s on TV, he has his own show, the Miss USA pageant, all these late-night-show appearances, all these cameos he’s done in movies. And Bernie, he’s an old white guy from Vermont.

Right. If you weren’t really into politics —
Even if you were into politics, you wouldn’t know who he was!

That is, unless you were into leftist politics.
Yes. He’s an old white guy from Vermont; he’s rarely on television. People can slice and dice that thing a number of different ways, but at the end of the day, on the issues — the issues that matter most to black voters — he was right. On the issues that matter most to black voters, walk down that list of issues. On those issues, Bernie is right. Again, he’s not perfect, and neither is Hillary. Neither of them is right on every issue. They’re public servants, not perfect servants. So they both made mistakes, and they’re both wrong about certain things, but at the end of the day, if you go down that list of things that matter most to black people, he’s right on the issues. It wasn’t early enough, and it wasn’t often enough, and to read it any other way is just to put too much on it. He was late to the party.

You know, Michelle Alexander wrote something really good on this a few months ago —
Powerful piece. I read it. About how the Clintons are wrong on criminal justice.

Well, and also about how the Clintons have this relationship with black voters that goes back years and years. Do you have any opinion about how the media was involved in that? Did it have any role in solidifying that bond?
There’s no doubt about the fact that Hillary and Donald benefited from media borne of their name recognition. That’s not even my conjecture; the data is so clear that the major broadcast networks did not give Bernie anywhere near the coverage that they gave to Donald Trump. That’s been documented in so many places it’s not even funny.

Do you think there was something broken in the mechanism then, where Sanders’s views weren’t sufficiently conveyed to the voters?
The problem is that it takes a lot to break through that message. It takes a lot to break through when you don’t have the relationships. Democratic Party politics is about relationships, and the Clintons have had so many relationships for so long. They lined up those endorsements, from California to the Carolinas, practically every major black elected official came out early in support of Hillary Clinton. I mean, she had the breadth and depth of the black political Establishment in her pocket before Bernie even announced. So Bernie is not just an outsider, but he’s trying to campaign with black outsiders — Cornel West and a few other people. It’s not just Hillary talking to black people; it’s all these black surrogates that she has talking on her behalf. That’s insurmountable. The truth of the matter is, the gig was up for black voters when Bernie made the announcement. When he announced he was running, the chances of him winning the black vote were slim to none, and slim was out of town.

What keeps you up at night? Have there been any times when your job has troubled you, or when you’ve wished in hindsight that you’d done a story differently?
I’ve never referred to myself as a journalist, and when people do use that word to describe me, I ask that they refer to me as an advocacy What keeps me up is the fact that I believe the future of this democracy is tied to how seriously we are going to take Dr. King’s words. King suggested that the future of this democracy is tied to how seriously what he called the triple threat that this country’s facing: racism, poverty, and militarism. The thing that troubles me most at night is whether I’m doing everything I can to try to advance the conversation. Clearly, none of those are easy subjects. They’re not sexy topics. And yet, every day I wake up, I look at my work as trying to get us to focus on those three issues that King raised 50 years ago.

The Transcripts: A Master Class in What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media by Those In the Know

Tavis Smiley on the Media