Tavis Smiley didn’t like my post saying that he and Princeton University professor Cornel West have too much baggage to lead a bus tour on poverty. In it, I argued that their respective petty grievances with President Obama made their seven-day, 14-city bus tour suspect and that the call for a defined black agenda at the expense of an American agenda was counterproductive. And I let the words of radio host and comedian Steve Harvey speak for me and — judging by the response on Twitter and Facebook — many others who are shaking their heads over what Smiley and West are doing.  

An email arrived this afternoon from Smiley’s publicist with a letter from the best-selling author and television host.


Dear Jonathan,

Just read your most recent blog post.  

As you know, I have called you personally in the past about the inaccuracies in your writing.  How you stay employed at such a venerable newspaper is beyond me, given your allergy to fact checking.

So…here we go again.  Michelle Obama did NOT attend the 2008 State of the Black Union.  The Obama campaign declined to attend and did not offer or send anyone. Mr. Obama DID join us one year later in 2009 as POTUS; with opening remarks quite congratulatory on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the State of the Black Union symposia. This data (including video) of both events is online everywhere --- or you can find it at C-Span which covered both events live. You really should make SOME effort at doing your homework.

Finally, just this morning Steve Harvey apologized live on air for his reckless and derogatory comments. The same comments that you declared “brilliant.”  I would NEVER celebrate anyone in the media business who would call you a “poverty pimp”, “hustler”, “monkey ass”, “uncle tom”, etc.  I think your writing is wretched, and I would still defend you against these types of personal ad hominem attacks. But that’s just me.

The Washington Post must be made aware of how you continually undermine the credibility of the institution with your sloppy work, and I intend to make them aware.

All best,

Tavis Smiley

So, here’s some fact checking — no EpiPen needed.

Yes, I got it wrong when I wrote that Obama sent his wife Michelle to Smiley’s State of the Black Union in 2008. What I should have said was that then-candidate Obama TRIED to send his wife. Contrary to Smiley’s assertion that “[t]he Obama campaign declined to attend and did not offer or send anyone,” a  Feb. 13, 2008, letter fromObama to Smiley shows that the offer to send Michelle was rejected.

I am not able to attend the forum. I understand that you have declined the campaign’s request to have Michelle Obama speak on my behalf. I ask that you reconsider. Michelle is a powerful voice for the type of real change America is hungry for. No one knows my record or my passion for leading America in a new direction more than Michelle Obama.

Yes, the newly inaugurated Obama did address the 2009 State of the Black Union, which would be that gathering’s last. He did so via live video from the White House and the entire symposium was carried by C-SPAN.

Now, about that apology from Steve Harvey for “his reckless and derogatory comments.” Harvey did apologize — for calling Smiley and West “Uncle Toms.” That’s it. On the website housing the clip Harvey leaves this message in all CAPS.


Harvey was right to apologize for the slur. As someone who has been called an “Uncle Tom” throughout his career, I should have condemned Harvey for having used the pejorative against Smiley and West. That being said, what I characterized as brilliant was “everything else [he] said.” Especially when Harvey said, “How can he raise a flag for black people and be the President of the United States? It’s utterly ridiculous.”

But did you notice a glaring omission in Smiley’s letter to me? No mention of what he and West have seen and learned on their tour. There’s nothing about how many people they’ve helped. Nothing about what they plan to do when the bus tour is over. Not once did he address the substance of Harvey’s or my argument. That whatever he and West have to say about poverty and Washington’s inadequate response to it — no matter how right, true or fair — will forever be colored by their personal pique against the president.

Tackling poverty and unemployment in the United States, especially among African Americans, demands attention. And it demands action. The kind being taken, for instance, by the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) this month with its five-city “For the People Jobs Initiative.” The action was in Detroit today.

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Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), chairman of the CBC: In Cleveland, last Monday, we had 7,000 people who started standing in line at 4 a.m. in the morning for 2,200 jobs. Here, at Cleveland State Community College, we had people lined up early before dawn this morning. We have hundreds down here on the floor putting in applications with about 78 employers who are hiring. This is not a fair where people listen to an employer talk about how great their company is. People are actually getting jobs. We have hundreds of people still outside standing in the heat hoping for a chance to come in. This is bold testimony to the pain that’s taking place in the United States.

I would have loved to have Smiley put me in my place with a boast of similar concrete accomplishments helping people in need instead of continuing to wallow in what he sees as slights against him.