When Chicago public radio station WBEZ canceled its Sunday noon program Smiley & West, it raised concerns among public broadcasting critics who say the medium is failing its mission to “give voice to the voiceless” and to provide a home for views that don’t find one in corporate media. Tavis Smiley and Cornel West are both left-leaning African-Americans whose show largely focuses on issues of poverty and inequality.
Those concerns increased when Chicago Public Media, the parent company of WBEZ, publicized its reasons for the cancellation of the Public Radio International (PRI) distributed program. As one CPM spokesperson told Time Out Chicago (10/9/12): “The show had developed much more of an ‘advocacy’ identity, which is inconsistent with our approach on WBEZ. The goal is to present public affairs content that is reasonably balanced.”
CPM president Torey Malatia was quoted in Time Out Chicago (10/9/12) saying that Smiley & West was “becoming like Democracy Now!.” Malatia wrote a rambling, 2,200 word op-ed in the public broadcasting trade paper Current (11/9/12) defending the cancellation, citing low ratings and, oddly, suggesting that the show’s “advocacy journalism” was damaging to WBEZ’s goal of “inclusiveness”:
Public media journalism will forfeit its greatest promise if it turns to advocacy journalism, or to fighting perceived ideological fire with opposing ideological fire. Inclusiveness in journalism brings forward the notion that difference is an asset to decision-making. And it demonstrates inclusiveness by being a place where every person served feels that journalists seek to sincerely represent the lens through which she or he views human experience.
In Malatia’s cramped view, Smiley & West—a show with two African-American hosts focusing largely on the powerless—was an obstacle to inclusivity because its opposition to poverty and inequality alienates those with other views.
A more truly inclusive approach might take into account the reality of public broadcasting, which is largely a white middle-class enclave, favoring elite guests who lean more conservative and Republican than liberal and Democratic. FAIR’s 2004 study (Extra!, 5–6/04) of NPR flagship news shows Morning Edition and All Things Considered, which air every day in drivetime on WBEZ, found that “NPR’s guestlist shows the radio service relies on the same elite and influential sources that dominate mainstream commercial news, and falls short of reflecting the diversity of the American public.”
According to the study, the NPR shows favored Republican (61 percent) and male (79 percent) sources; right-wing think tank representatives (62 sources) outnumber centrist (56 sources) and left-wing (15 sources) think tank sources; and nine of the 10 most frequently appearing sources on the shows were white male government officials.
It took NPR 33 years to launch its first show with an African-American orientation. The now-defunct Tavis Smiley Show first aired in 2002 after a years-long effort by African-American activists and media professionals. As the New York Times (4/21/02) reported:
Representatives of 38 black-oriented stations banded together to lobby the network’s hierarchy. Years of meetings, debates, surveys, studies, consultants, conference calls and proposals followed.
Less than three years later, the show died when Smiley quit, charging NPR with lagging behind the rest of the country on diversity and failing to do adequate outreach for his show (Current, 12/13/04).
NPR—like PRI—provides programming to local public radio affiliates across the country, but those local stations also have diversity and inclusivity problems of their own. FAIR’s 2002 survey of seven public radio stations in major urban markets revealed that, even in signal areas where white people were a minority, white hosts dominated daytime schedules. In that survey, WBEZ and Atlanta’s WABE stood out as stations whose daytime weekday programs featured no non-white hosts.
Malatia was WBEZ’s general manager then, a title he retains today, and the station’s daytime weekday schedule remains overwhelmingly white. WBEZ features one Latino host and no African-American hosts, in a metropolitan area with a population that is 22 percent Hispanic and 17 percent black. In a response to his show’s cancellation, Smiley wrote in the Huffington Post (11/16/12):
When will WBEZ and other public stations get serious about making media that looks and sounds like America? We have a two-term African-American president from Chicago but not a single daily program on WBEZ hosted by an African-American.
Poverty, an issue affecting nearly 50 million people in the United States, is also marginalized throughout the media. FAIR’s September 2012 study of how eight prominent U.S. media outlets covered the U.S.’s sky-high poverty rate in stories about the 2012 presidential campaign found “just 17 of the 10,489 campaign stories studied (0.2 percent) addressed poverty in a substantive way.” Among the eight outlets studied was NPR’s All Things Considered, which ran no stories substantively discussing poverty in the course of its campaign coverage.
Considering the way African-American voices and poverty are marginalized by public media, it should be evident that a show including both would enhance inclusivity at WBEZ.
In an open letter to Chicago Public Media (10/15/12), Smiley wrote that the show’s ratings suffered from its Sunday noon slot, when “most black Chicagoans are in worship service.” And writing in the Huffington Post (11/16/12), Smiley expressed puzzlement over the accusation of advocacy journalism:
The only advocacy I have done on the program has been in discussing the importance of alleviating poverty in America. Poverty is such a threat to our democracy that it undermines national security. Heaven help us if public media producers and personalities risk cancellation because we shine a light on the suffering of poor people. If that’s my crime, I stand accused and happily plead guilty.
For all the allegations of “liberal media bias” we endure, I’d hate to think that even public media has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the 1 percent. We are the only platform called upon to interrogate critical issues like economic inequality and the maltreatment of the 99 percent.
Smiley has also suggested that Smiley & West was cancelled because it criticized President Obama’s lack of action over rising poverty—criticism that has not endeared the show to some liberal and African-American listeners. Appearing on Democracy Now! (11/9/12) with his co-host Cornel West, Smiley said:
This is the president’s hometown, and they didn’t want us on the air in the last six weeks of the campaign talking about holding the president accountable and pushing him on why he’s not talking about poverty and why he’s not talking about the drones. So a decision was made here in his hometown, without our know-ledge, without our consultation, to just simply pull the plug on the Smiley & West show.
Whatever the specifics, axing a show hosted by and dedicated to people severely underserved by media on the grounds of “inclusivity” is nothing short of Orwellian. Chicago public radio is the poorer for it.