The FishbowlDC Interview With Tavis Smiley

TavisSmiley_hires_4x4.jpg Say hello to Tavis Smiley. He hosts Tavis Smiley, a late-night show on PBS and radio show Tavis Smiley from PRI. Some standout details about him: He doesn’t cuss. Ever. And he doesn’t own a cell phone. His career path has included hosting “The Tavis Smiley Show” on NPR and “Tonight With Tavis Smiley” on BET. In 1999 he founded the Tavis Smiley Foundation. His communications company is The Smiley Group. The third installment of the PBS prime time series, “Tavis Smiley Reports,” is called “New Orleans: Been in the Storm Too Long?” It’s life in New Orleans five years post Hurricane Katrina and airs on July 21. Is that enough “Tavis Smiley’s” for you? We thought so. Read on.

If you were a carbonated beverage, which one would you be? I’m gonna go with Coke, because whatever the strongest carbonated beverage is, that’s what I’m gonna be.

How often do you Google yourself? Almost never. I live with myself 24 hours a day 7 days a week. The last thing I need to do is to read more about myself.

Who is your favorite working journalist? I’d probably say Frank Rich at the New York Times.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever said to an editor, or vice versa? I did a piece one time that somebody had asked me to do. And I guess there was so much truth in the piece that they decided to pass on it. I basically told them, quoting Jack Nicholson, “You can’t handle the truth.”

What’s your favorite word? Next year I’ll celebrate 20 years of being in the media business, and for all of those 20 years I have always closed all of my shows with the same salutation, “Keep the faith.” So I guess “faith” is the word that people have heard come of out my mouth the most, and that’s the favorite.

When did you last cry and why? I have an art exhibition called America I AM that is traveling around the country. It’s in Cincinnati now, but the last week it was in LA, Michael Jackson’s mother, Katherine Jackson, called me. She wanted to come through with Michael’s kids and she asked if I would give them a private tour. And I did. Long story short, when she saw the Michael Jackson memorabilia, she broke down crying and just lost it. She lost it, I lost it. And it hit me in that moment that for all the rest of us that are sad about Michael being gone, this is Michael’s momma. And when I saw his mother break down, all I could do was hold her. I grabbed her and held her. She was crying, I was crying.

What word do you routinely misspell? I’ve always been a very good speller. My thing is not spelling, my thing is grammar. And by that I mean I want to make sure that I have the right verb tense, the right pronoun.

What’s the name of your cell phone ring? I don’t have a cell phone.

What swear word do you use most often? I don’t swear. I used to, 8-9 years ago. And one day I got into it with one of my producers because something had gone wrong on the show that day. She was a friend. But I was cussing at her and she was cussing back at me. And somebody in the studio recorded me. And when I heard myself on tape, I said to myself, this is not how I ever want to be portrayed. There has got to be a better way to communicate what I’m trying to say. And I stopped on a dime and decided I would not use that language anymore.

What TV show do you have to watch? The only channel that I really watch with any regularity is TVLand. Pretty much whatever’s on there. I just like old school stuff.

What do you prefer for daytime talk? Dr. Phil, Oprah, Tyra, or the women of The View? None of the above. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a full episode of any their shows because I’m never watching TV during the daytime.

Who is your mentor?
Two. Dead: Dr. King. Living: Dr. Cornel West.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received in the course of your career? To bring my whole self to everything I do. By that I mean, don’t ever be afraid to bring everything you are: your culture, your experiences, your blackness, your upbringing. Everything that you have is what makes you who you are.

What’s the first job you had in journalism? I had a little one-minute commentary of just a thought that I created and started here on local radio in LA.

What’s Tavis’s most embarrassing career moment? You can’t
miss this one…

What’s your most embarrassing career moment? The night that Russell Simmons called me a house nigger when I was on BET. My very first night hosting my own TV show on BET back in 1996. Russell Simmons didn’t like one of my questions and he called me a house nigger, twice.

Pick one: Leno, Letterman or Conan. Leno.

If you were trapped on a desert island, which public official would you want to be trapped with, and why? Barack Obama, because we’d have a whole lot to talk about. A lot of accountability talk and bonding.

Which one interview of your career did you enjoy the most? That’s an impossible question to answer because 20 years later I still love what I do every day. And I look forward to the interview every day as much as I did the day before.

Which interview did you enjoyed least? Probably Russell Simmons, huh? [Laughs] I never thought about it that way, but I guess it would have to be Russell Simmons.

What’s the biggest scoop you’ve ever had? After the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton didn’t do any interviews for nine months. When he decided to do his first one-on-one interview after the scandal, he gave me that interview when I was on BET.