Media Neglects 'Issues of People of Color,' Says Broadcaster

By Matt Purple | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

( - The mainstream media and the political process have not given enough attention to "issues of people of color," in the view of Tavis Smiley, the broadcaster who moderated last week's PBS Democratic presidential debate. A conservative black activist in response shot down the notion that some issues are "black issues."

Speaking at the liberal Center for American Progress Friday, Smiley said political dialogue was largely aimed at white Americans and tended to exclude black journalists and issues important to the black community. He called for greater diversity in the political process and said it was "time to start having a national discussion on race."

"The mainstream media has a hard time accepting that we live in the most multicultural, multiracial, and multiethnic America ever," he said.

Smiley was particularly critical of recent presidential debates, which he said had failed to demonstrate racial diversity among their moderators. He cited in particular the debates on CNN which were advertised with pictures of Larry King, Anderson Cooper, John Roberts, and Wolf Blitzer - all white males.

"And then to top it all off, they stole Paula Zahn's timeslot for the debate and she didn't even get to participate," Smiley laughed.

Smiley also accused the media of focusing insufficiently on "issues of people of color" and said there was an effort to "marginalize" topics of discussion that disproportionately affect minorities.

"How do you get this far into the process and, until last night [at the PBS debate], education had not come up?" he wondered. "Or [Hurricane] Katrina? And why hasn't there been more discussion about poverty?"

"There are other issues beyond Iraq to be discussed," he added.

Smiley criticized both Democrats and Republicans, saying that "Republicans ignore the black vote and Democrats take it for granted."

While he conceded that the African-American vote leaned overwhelmingly to Democrats, he said blacks would be wise to hold politicians they support accountable and make their voices heard.

"I hope the Democrats are at risk of losing our vote because then they won't take it for granted," he said.

Also in attendance at Friday's event was Princeton professor Dr. Cornell West, whom Smiley hailed as "either the smartest Negro in America or America's leading public intellectual." West made brief remarks about what he called "continued white supremacy in America."

Smiley's comments came the day after the "All American Presidential Forum" - a debate aired on PBS between the Democratic presidential candidates - which Smiley both organized and moderated. He has scheduled a similar debate in September featuring the Republican candidates, an event he said would be "interesting, to say the least."

The Democrat debate featured questions from an entirely black panel of journalists and several audience members who questioned the candidates on issues such as race, poverty, AIDS, crime and Hurricane Katrina. Neither the war in Iraq nor the immigration crisis was discussed.

The candidates called for a host of new social programs to help African-Americans, including government-funded preschool, childcare, and universal healthcare. They also advocated rolling back President Bush's tax cuts, although only one, Governor Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), said there should be additional tax cuts for the middle class.

Smiley hailed the forum as a great example for minorities to have their voice heard and develop a greater understanding of the issues that matter to them. He said that by the time the weekend was over, it would be the most watched of all the presidential primary debates so far.

'Insulting and elitist'

But not everyone in the black community supported Smiley's contentions.

Mychal Massie, the chairman of Project 21, a black conservative think tank, sharply criticized what he saw as the black community's separation from the rest of the body politic and called for a greater sense of responsibility on the part of black Americans.

"There is a significant, monolithic group in the black community that has, for reasons explicable only to themselves, self-segregated," Massie told Cybercast News Service. "And they do so with a false pride, not realizing that they are condemning themselves to mediocrity and not helping themselves enjoy and take advantage of all that America has to offer."

Massie particularly condemned Smiley's notion of a "black issue," which he called "a canard and an outrage."

"There are not black issues," he said. "The only black issues are the issues of those persons who are black and seek to corrupt and cause differences when there are none."

"[Blacks] should be concerned about owning their own homes and investing in their families as two-parent families," he added. "Those are not black issues, those are American issues."

Massie also criticized the Democratic candidates' emphasis on government programs during the debate. He compared such proposals to "Great Society welfare programs" which he called "a failure for everyone who has entered into them."

"How insufferably insulting and elitist is it for a group of successful, white, elected people to sit around and say they're going to give more handouts to the poor, insufficient black people?" he asked. "People of color should be outraged by such ignorance and insult, and yet they swan over it."

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