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Tavis Smiley to Moderate First Presidential Debate to Feature Panel Consisting Entirely of Journalists of Color

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Television and radio host Tavis Smiley is set to host the third presidential debate tonight between Democratic candidates. They will be questioned for the first time by a panel made up entirely of journalists of color. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: All eight Democratic presidential candidates meet at Howard University for their third presidential debate. They’ll be questioned for the first time by a panel made up entirely of journalists of color. The debate, dubbed the “All-American Presidential Forum,” will be moderated by TV/radio host Tavis Smiley and will air on PBS. The panel will include Michel Martin of National Public Radio and columnists Ruben Navarrette and DeWayne Wickham.

AMY GOODMAN: Tavis Smiley is the host of Tavis Smiley on PBS and The Tavis Smiley Show from PRI. He is the author and editor of 11 books, including The Covenant with Black America. I had a chance to speak with Tavis Smiley before the broadcast. I began by asking him how tonight’s forum originated.

TAVIS SMILEY: Well, last year we put out a book, as you know, Amy, called The Covenant with Black America. It was or is a book that lays out the top 10 issues of interest to African Americans and says to African Americans, and others who read, this is what we have to do if we’re going to make Black America better. I believe that when you make Black America better, you make all of America better. So this book, The Covenant with Black America, comes out and, to everybody’s surprise, goes to number one on The New York Times bestsellers list, and so everybody else’s list the book is number one on, as well, from Barnes & Noble to Amazon to Washington Post. It goes to number one everywhere.

It says to me, Amy, that there is then this thirst, this hunger, for a thoughtful conversation about how to make Black America better. And again, I believe when you make communities of color better, you make the country better. And so, the book, long story short, really became the impetus and gave us the leverage to say to the candidates, Democrats and Republicans, that you need to come to the table and tell America where you stand on the issues that matter specifically to people of color. And so, the Democrats at Howard University tonight at 9:00 p.m. Eastern on PBS — check your local listing — and then September 27th, we’ll be at Morgan State University, another HBCU, historically black campus, in Baltimore, where the Republicans will join us. And so, here’s a wonderful opportunity for us to get all these candidates on the record about where they stand on the issues that matter most to people of color.

AMY GOODMAN: All the candidates coming?

TAVIS SMILEY: All the Democrats are coming, and at this point we’re getting close to getting all the Republicans confirmed for September 27th. We’ve got, you know, a few more weeks to make that happen, but I’m absolutely confident, given my conversations, that every Republican will be there. At the moment, of course, though, tonight, all the Democrats, long since confirmed, so tonight should be a good conversation.

You know, there are some issues, Amy, that haven’t even been raised. I’ve been so disappointed in these previous debates with issues having not even been raised yet. We haven’t talked about Katrina and what we’re going to do for the victims and the survivors, those who are trying to put their lives back together in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast. That issue has not been discussed. We haven’t really talked about Darfur on the international level. What about Darfur? Race is still a part of almost everything in America: black and brown folks still denied three or four times, or more so, home loans than other Americans, and in education, in access to capital or the lack thereof. There are so many issues where race plays a factor. These kinds of issues have not come up yet.

There are other issues, Amy, that have come up, but the treatment on these questions have really not included all the rest of us who make up this place called America. We live now, again, in the most multicultural, multiracial, multi-ethnic America ever. And something is wrong when there’s more diversity on the stage — I mean, who knew, Amy? — there’s more diversity on stage running for president than there is amongst those of us who get a chance to ask the questions. Now, if every white brother, if every white sister was like Amy Goodman, I know the questions would be asked that mattered to all of us anyway, but we don’t live in that world, unfortunately. And so, at some time, at some point, we have to take a moment to say that these are issues that matter to everybody in America, but particularly because they disproportionately impact black and brown people, these questions need to be asked.

So we’ve debated immigration at every one of these debates, but nobody has asked about the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy. Why do Cubans get in and Haitians get turned away, sent back home to die? We’ve talked about healthcare, but nobody has asked how is it, why is it, what are we going to do about the fact that AIDS no longer a gay white male disease. It is a black disease. It is the leading cause of death for young black women and their babies in America. We have haven’t talked about that yet.

So, again, some issues have not been raised. Others have been raised, but not given a proper treatment. We’ve got 90 minutes tonight with eight candidates. We’re only going to get about a dozen questions out, given that time frame, but my sense, Amy, is that there are 12 good questions that have not been asked that we can ask this evening.

AMY GOODMAN: And tell us what the format is. Is this an outright debate? Are there going to be people — you say “we” — in addition to you who are asking those questions?

TAVIS SMILEY: Yes. Good question, Amy. There are three other persons of color asking questions for 90 minutes in 12 questions. I obviously could have done it by myself, given what I do every day, but I wanted, again, to showcase, to spotlight other journalists of color and give them an opportunity in prime time in this historic conversation to express themselves and ask questions, as well. So I’ll be joined by DeWayne Wickham of USA Today, Michel Martin of NPR, and Ruben Navarrette, a Hispanic brother who writes a syndicated column, so black and brown asking questions tonight. There will be three other journalists of color that I’ll select, that we will select, for the Republican forum, September 27th.

But the forum is essentially this — and, by the way, we’re calling it, to your question, a “forum” and not a debate, because I really don’t think with eight people you can really get the kind of vigorous debate that we really want to see. We’ll get there, but it’s important to get these people on record now, just in case any one of them breaks through as president or breaks through as the vice-presidential pick. Let’s get them on the record now. It’s important to do that, even though you can’t get a real debate. That said, everybody gets to answer every question, and everybody has one minute to answer every question.

AMY GOODMAN: Also, the issue of war, Tavis, certainly Iraq, the issue of war, has been raised. But in terms of, when you look at over the years who, what population, has been most opposed to this war in Iraq before the invasion, you’re talking the African-American population. And I don’t know if there is a direct correlation between the fact that what we usually see on television: The pundits are usually white; you’ve had an overall pro-war bias in the media leading up to the invasion, not to mention after. Do you think there’s a correlation between the tenor of what we see on television, and yet, and those who have been excluded from the discussion?

TAVIS SMILEY: I absolutely do. The point I’m making, Amy, is it’s not even so much the color of the person who’s asking the question. It’s the sensitivity, the sensibility, the research, the background, how they frame the question, how they treat the question. And so, your question — again, we’ve talked about Iraq 'til we're blue in the face. It’s a legitimate issue. It ought to be talked about. People of color have thoughts about this war, as well. To your point, we have been — certainly black folk — the most vocal and vehement group in the country, out early, opposed to this war. And yet, we are very patriotic. Disproportionately, more of us serve in the armed forces than anybody else. So those two things are not mutually exclusive.

That said, that’s the kind of treatment that a question can be given that would elicit a different kind of response. So I’m certain that while we’re not going to dwell on Iraq, by any means — trust me, we’ve only got, you know, 90 minutes — I’m sure that there will be a question about Iraq that comes up, and it will be asked by one of these journalists with the kind of treatment that you’ve just offered.

AMY GOODMAN: Tavis, you’ve written a piece called “Moving Healthcare Beyond Politics.” This forum is happening in the same week that Michael Moore’s film SiCKO is coming out.

TAVIS SMILEY: Yeah, as a matter of fact, Michael is the guest on my TV show on Thursday night — tonight, as a matter of fact. Tonight, he’s a guest on my regular TV show late night on PBS. And we’re going to talk on the show tonight — we’ve already taped the conversation, but we talk about the fact that the timing of this conversation about healthcare, with his movie, with the campaign underway, the timing couldn’t be more propitious. I just hope that the SiCKO film and the debate tonight and the other debate that comes September 27th with the Republicans and all the other stuff that you’re doing, in courageously raising these questions, I really hope that when all is said and done at the end of this campaign, I hope that when all is said and done, more will not have been said than done. I really think this is a critical and propitious opportunity for us in this moment to do something to provide healthcare, a basic level of fundamental and universal healthcare, for every American. I hope that out of these conversations something, Amy, constructive, beyond the talk, can actually happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Tavis, I was wondering your response to this letter from David Brock of Media Matters to PBS for after your discussion, the forum that you’re having with the presidential candidates, having Frank Luntz. The headline of the Media Matters objection is ”PBS Using Discredited GOP Pollster to Provide Analysis of Democratic Forum? Selection of Frank Luntz Raises Serious Questions Heading into [the] Presidential Forum.”

TAVIS SMILEY: I thank you for the question, because it allows me to set the record straight. First of all, with all due respect to Mr. Brock, I think one has to consider the source. It always amazes me that people, through their own choices, lose their own integrity, lose their own credibility, and for some reason find a way to then, from time to time, start attacking others who protect and regard their integrity and their credibility, like I do, about things that they’re quite frankly wrong about. Mr. Brock first reported that Frank Luntz was going to be on and participating in the debate. He’s not. You will not see or hear from — his name will not be raised Thursday night, tonight, in the debate, Frank Luntz.

What Mr. Luntz has been asked to do, what he quite frankly offered to do, was to set up a people-metering room where some 30 African Americans — they’re all black, they’re all Democrats, they’re all voters — are going to be asked what they think of the debate, the forum, as it unfolds. So, you know, Amy, how this people metering works, so we’ll be able to read the data as to what they thought about every person on the stage answering these questions, as they were answering the questions. And so, on my Friday night show — Mr. Luntz has been a guest on my program a couple times, as has Newt Gingrich and any number of other Republicans. I talk to everybody and try to ask them questions I think they ought to be asked. He’s been a guest on my TV program before, he’s going to be again on the program Friday night. And the role he’s playing is helping us to understand what the top line is for what these African-American Democrats had to say.

Mr. Brock is wrong. There is no spin being done here. How do you spin 30 black folk who are Democrats, and the machine tells you what they thought. So Frank does this for a living. He works for any number of organizations: CNN and FOX News Channel and NBC and the BBC. He’s done this for a lot of people. And so, he’s doing people metering for us. He’s going to tell us at the top of the show on Friday night, the day after. So tomorrow night, Frank Luntz will give us the three or four headlines that we can take from what these African Americans thought, what they thought during the forum tonight, and then we can talk to them. I’m going to be joined by all 30 of those persons. So the balance of the show, the bulk of the show Friday night, tomorrow night, is really talking to the people who were in the people-metering room to understand what they felt. I might also add that we’ve been invited all kinds of media people, and many have accepted, to sit in that room to cover that aspect of the story about the African-American Democrats who are being people-metered.

So this is really, quite frankly, much ado about nothing. I have wasted three minutes of your good television time responding to something that is, quite frankly, nonsensical, it is erroneous, it’s absolutely not true. PBS put out a statement on Wednesday addressing those issues. I think that when people put lies out, you’ve got to respond to them quickly. With all due respect to Mr. Brock, he got this one wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: Tavis Smiley, PBS host, tonight the moderator of the Democratic presidential forum that will be taking place at Howard University.

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