I’m a big believer in accountability — especially in the era of Bush II — but after watching Tavis Smiley this past Tuesday on KCET, I’ve decided that some outrage is best left unanswered. Smiley hosts an eponymous late-night talk show that is broadcast nationally on PBS and that is largely underwritten by Wal-Mart. Thanks to some mercenary business practices that range from exploiting immigrant workers to routinely busting the merest hints of union sentiment in its ranks with cold-blooded efficiency, America’s biggest retailer has gotten some very bad press of late (some of which has appeared in the pages of L.A. Weekly). The latest story revolves around the company’s railroading the city of Inglewood into offering a ballot measure that would give the retailer exclusive power to build the Southland’s first SuperCenter — a Wal-Mart that sells groceries — with no traffic or environmental reviews and no public hearings. Wal-Mart’s been trying this kind of thing in other towns, but the difference in the Inglewood campaign, which culminates in a vote on Tuesday, is the sheer breadth of the initiative and the slick but emotional appeals for the populace to embrace Wal-Mart as a savior of historically depressed black urban communities. Of course, a good share of the populace doesn’t buy that line, and some are criticizing Smiley — a high-profile member of the community who likes to point out that his offices are on Crenshaw Boulevard — for being indebted to Wal-Mart while avoiding the issue altogether on a talk show that’s supposed to address matters of some importance to black people. Smiley’s sit-down with Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott was clearly meant to silence the critics, which, quite frankly, included me.

The ploy didn’t work. Because Smiley’s television show tends to be more sparkle than substance — somewhat unlike his NPR radio show — it turned out to be the worst possible forum in which to address such untelegenic issues as profit margins and political leadership. Smiley tried to be Bill Moyers in an Oprah format (two comfortable armchairs as opposed to hot seats, potted plants, no desk), and the effect was simultaneously leaden and surreal. First he chatted up Scott, cracked a joke about coming to dinner (yikes!), inquired about the plaster cast on the CEO’s hand. Then he let us know he was turning Serious About the Issues by stroking his chin and knitting his brow in concern; I half-expected the lights to dim and music to swell. But the stage that Smiley set remained empty. For all his declamations about the community being the real star of his enterprise, Smiley accorded Scott the same benefits of instant intimacy and celebrity-driven deference that he’s accorded cultural icons like Prince and Magic Johnson. He told the cameras once again that he resides in the hood, right across the street from the Crenshaw Wal-Mart, yet he never brought up the fierce opposition in nearby Ingle-hood to a ballot measure that by any analysis would seriously disempower the majority black local government. He ignored the fact that black leadership all over the state came out of the woodwork to oppose the measure, and the fact that they all characterized it as a big step backward in the ongoing fight for civil rights, economic justice and self-determination. In short, Smiley did not address the very reasons why he was compelled to do a Wal-Mart show in the first place. Talk about an elephant on the sound stage.

Smiley did play the black-themed commercial Wal-Mart’s been
airing for months, the patronizing one that features people sweeping porches
and rhapsodizing about Wal-Mart bringing the community hope — but he had nothing
to say about it. The questions for Scott were generic, along the lines of, “Now,
you’ve received lots of criticism from certain quarters about low wages and
driving smaller businesses out of the neighborhood, and what have you. How do
you respond to that?” Scott, of course, hit fastballs like these right
out of the park by not responding to the question at all, but getting misty
about all the people his company’s helped with jobs, and about one little old
gray-haired grandma at the Crenshaw store who patted his shoulder and personally
thanked him for it. (Nothing like an old black lady to give you moral authority
where you need it most, which may be why Wal-Mart used a photo of another black
senior, 82-year-old Annie Lee Martin, on its neighborhood mailers with pro-Wal-Mart
quotes that weren’t hers. See “Duped
by Wal-Mart.”

Wal-Mart got to play community hero and innocent victim of the big bad unions, while Smiley got to play black inquisitioner to get himself off the hook; after half an hour of this, everybody went home happy. The only compelling moments of the whole charade came at the very beginning of the show, when Smiley solemnly read aloud some e-mails he’d gotten from some very irate folks in the community (who, I dare say, did not get what they wanted out of the broadcast). They called Smiley a sellout, a sop to the white man and to big corporations, a disgrace to his own cause. The notes were over the top, but they stripped away the Hollywood veneer and canned equanimity of the show and got at the real anger underlying the whole Wal-Mart fight, and how it bears on black public figures like Smiley. Like others in his position, Smiley has a burden of representation that he did not create and that frequently doesn’t serve his own interests very well. But it’s a burden he says he welcomes and that in fact gave him the visibility he currently enjoys. It’s a complicated issue that can hardly be resolved by a single television show, or by a hundred shows, but in the meantime it would be nice if Smiley and his ilk tried harder not to drop the ball.

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