By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 12, 2008
One of Sen. Barack Obama's toughest African American critics is quitting his long association with a national radio show after facing a backlash from the program's listeners.
Tavis Smiley said yesterday he will resign in June as a twice-weekly commentator on the syndicated "Tom Joyner Morning Show" after more than 11 years with the program. He cited fatigue and a busy schedule in a personal call to Joyner on Thursday night, but Joyner indicated otherwise on his program and in his blog yesterday, writing: "The real reason is that he can't take the hate he's been getting regarding the Barack issue -- hate from the black people that he loves so much."
Smiley has taken on Obama in a series of commentaries that began as the Democrat from Illinois emerged as the party's front-runner for the presidential nomination in early January. Days after Obama's win in the Iowa caucus, Smiley warned on Joyner's show: "Don't fall so madly in love [with Obama] that you surrender your power to hold people accountable. . . . I'm not saying overlook Senator Obama, but you now better be ready to look him over."
That commentary brought a hail of critical phone calls and e-mails down on Smiley, who replied two days later on the Joyner show that he stood by his criticism. "It's all about accountability," he said at the time.
Since then, amid mounting counter-criticism, Smiley has stepped up his critiques, contending that Obama wasn't sufficiently attentive to issues involving African Americans.
He was also critical of Obama's decision not to attend an annual forum, the State of the Black Union, that Smiley hosted in February in New Orleans. Obama's rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, accepted Smiley's invitation to the event. When the Obama campaign offered Michelle Obama, the senator's wife, as a substitute speaker, Smiley said publicly the offer was unacceptable.
He also rebuked Obama this month for not traveling to Memphis for the 40th anniversary ceremonies marking the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and for Obama's decision to distance himself from controversial remarks made by the Obama family's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.
Joyner's daily program, heard in the Washington area on WMMJ (102.3 FM), reaches a predominantly African American audience of about 10 million listeners weekly via more than 100 stations. The four-hour show features banter between Joyner and sidekicks, comedy bits, music and news; Smiley is the sole political analyst.
Smiley is the author of the best-selling "Covenant With Black America" and hosts self-named interview shows on PBS and Public Radio International. He formerly hosted a show on Black Entertainment Television in Washington.
Late yesterday afternoon, Smiley said in a statement that he would stay with Joyner until the end of June, adding: "Contrary to what has been suggested, I have decided to clear some things off my plate so that I can devote my time and attention to some exciting and empowering projects." He did not mention Obama.
Roland Martin, a CNN political contributor who hosts a talk-radio show aimed at African Americans in Chicago, said by phone that he was "very surprised" by Smiley's resignation. "You have to expect to get heat the moment you decide to offer critical comments about politics or social issues," Martin said. "You have to be tough enough to take it."
Added Martin: "For a long time, Tavis was used to people applauding him for taking tough stances. . . . This was the first time he had taken a position that flat-out ticked off his core audience. But [criticism] comes with the territory."
On the Huffington Post Web site yesterday, author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson suggested that Smiley was the victim of "the black Obama thought police," which had subjected him to "a verbal public lynching" for comments that ran counter to mainstream black opinion.