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Correction to This Article
A Jan. 17 Style article contained an incorrect name for one of the magazines in which National Public Radio bought ads to publicize Tavis Smiley's radio show. The magazine is called Black Enterprise, not Black Entertainment.
Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Broadcast All Over

Tavis Smiley's NPR Show Is History, but the Talk Lives On

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 17, 2005; Page C01

When Tavis Smiley walked away from his National Public Radio show last month, he did not go quietly.

In a series of interviews, he cast aspersions on his former employer, telling Time: "It is ironic that a Republican president has an administration that is more inclusive and more diverse than a so-called liberal-media-elite network."

Tavis Smiley with Bill Cosby. Smiley's NPR show lasted three years. (David Perry -- AP)

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More Discussions

But NPR executives say Smiley simply would not negotiate after an agent delivered his demands. "We tried to meet, we tried to talk by phone," says Washington lawyer Robert Barnett, who represented NPR. "We were woefully unsuccessful. . . . I have been doing this 30 years, and I have never had an experience like this. I was disappointed because I wanted to make a deal, and more important my client wanted to make a deal."

Says Smiley: "What NPR is apparently upset about is not that I would not negotiate, but that I wouldn't acquiesce. I do not do my best work in chains and shackles. For black kids and brown kids yet unborn, I felt I had to say no. They were being disrespectful."

Divorces are messy. About the only thing both sides agree on is that Smiley didn't ask for a salary hike.

Among what were viewed as unrealistic demands, says NPR spokesman David Umansky: Smiley wanted to tape the daily show a day early, which the network deemed impractical for a topical news show. Smiley wanted not only to own the program but to control the rebroadcast rights, which NPR says is a violation of its federal funding rules. And Smiley insisted on a $3 million promotion budget, which NPR found absurd since its entire advertising budget is $165,000 -- 80 percent of which, executives say, was spent on Smiley's program in each of the last two years. (NPR spent $138,000 last year on ads in Essence and Black Entertainment magazine.)

Smiley says it would be ungentlemanly to discuss contract details, although his spokesman, David Brokaw, says the $3 million figure is "just not correct." But a letter from Smiley's agent says NPR must make a "cash marketing commitment" for the show "of not less than $3 million."

"He did in fact demand a sum that is about 25 times what our annual marketing budget is," says NPR chief operating officer Kenneth Stern. "We also put millions of dollars into the show. . . . We were deeply disappointed and rather astonished that he wouldn't even have a conversation with Bob [Barnett]."

Smiley challenges the math. "I don't believe that 80 percent figure," he says. "I have never known any Negro at any entity where he is the only Negro to be given 80 percent of the marketing budget. That's a lie." Smiley dismisses Umansky's contention that NPR was prepared to up the promotional spending to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

He also objects to NPR's use of "a powerful Washington lawyer" who "has no relationship with me." Abandoning the three-year-old show was "a coerced decision," Smiley says, and a "painful" one.

NPR officials were pleased with the show, which was carried by 87 member stations and reached an audience of 900,000. Smiley's audience was 29 percent African American, compared with 10 percent for the network overall.

The show was created with a consortium of African American public radio stations. "We believe NPR has really made a valiant effort to increase diversity," says Loretta Rucker of the consortium, saying that she's "sorry" that Smiley left but that "Tavis is very, very ambitious."

After Smiley's agent, Ken Browning, made the proposals, Barnett had one phone conversation with him and asked for follow-up talks. Nothing happened. Smiley says Barnett was busy prepping Sen. John Edwards for the vice presidential debate, but Barnett scoffs: "I never received a call that wasn't promptly returned. Unfortunately the calls were not forthcoming."

"Quite frankly, there weren't any conversations to continue when they said no to everything," Smiley says. "I wasn't making unreasonable demands."

Some tension developed last year, when NPR officials insisted that Smiley return a free Chrysler the automaker had given him. Smiley says DaimlerChrysler surprised him with the car -- and a $50,000 donation to an intern program he started at Texas Southern University -- when he gave the school $1 million on his 40th birthday. Smiley says he was happy to give back the car "once we heard it was a violation of ethics."

NPR, meanwhile, has hired former "BET News" anchor Ed Gordon as a new host. And Michele Norris, an African American and a host of "All Things Considered," says that although Smiley was "an important voice," listeners should not get "the impression there is no one to pick up the mantle of diversity at National Public Radio."

Pointing Fingers

Other news outlets have been heaping condemnation on CBS News for its botched story about President Bush and the National Guard -- including, last week, USA Today's editorial page.

An outside panel's report on CBS's mistakes was "an appropriate rebuke," the editorial said. "Even after the experts who had reviewed the documents for CBS said they could not vouch for their authenticity, [Dan] Rather and CBS stuck by the story, stoking charges that the report was motivated by political bias. . . . Getting it right trumps getting it fast."

Right. But what about this USA Today news story, published the morning after the Sept. 8 broadcast: "President Bush's commander in the Texas Air National Guard concluded that Bush was failing to meet standards for fighter pilots, but the commander felt pressure from superiors to 'sugar coat' his judgments, according to newly disclosed documents. The memos, obtained by USA TODAY and also reported Wednesday on the CBS program '60 Minutes' . . . "

Editorial Page Editor Brian Gallagher dismisses the idea that he needed to address his own paper's role. "We think the editorial covered everything it needed to cover," he says. "CBS broke the story using the documents, and to my knowledge we would not have without CBS."

To Gallagher's credit, the editorial did mention past ethical problems at news organizations, including a reference to the Jack Kelley fabrication scandal at USA Today, which prompted the resignation of the paper's top editors and Gallagher's move from his executive editor post.

That Was Then

In the never-ending chronicles of the marriage of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, People magazine seemed to have a scoop.

"Rift? What rift?" the headline in its Jan. 17 edition said. "After being apart, Brad and Jen enjoy a romantic reunion in the Caribbean."

"If you believed the rumors," the piece began, "the four-year marriage of Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt was, if not on the rocks, veering dangerously close to the guardrail." But People assured America that the Hollywood duo "were quite lovey-dovey, basically all over each other, hugging and kissing" on their getaway weekend, according to a source.

Too bad Pitt and Aniston announced they were splitting up while the issue was still on the newsstands last week.

"It was certainly a change in course," says Deputy Managing Editor Larry Hackett. He defends the story by saying it was basically about the photos. "We didn't say they were making a baby or reenacting their vows."

People moved up its deadline to crash a special issue on the Brad/Jen split, competing with US Weekly and InTouch cover stories. "It's a story people are crazy about," says Hackett.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company