“I shouldn’t say this, but there’s so much empty space here. I don’t really see why a pipeline couldn’t be built in this state,” Tavis Smiley tells me as we are driving on a snowy two-lane road through the vast nothingness of the North Dakota plains toward the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock. We were on our way to tape a special for The Tavis Smiley Show directed by Academy Award–winner Jonathan Demme.
“The owner of the pipeline, Kelcy Warren, was a contributor to the Trump campaign, and Trump himself had invested in Energy Transfer Partnership,” I tell him, “so this whole occupy reservation camping thing is pointless anyway regardless of what razzmatazz the Army Corps of Engineers comes up with.”
“I’m writing this piece for Time magazine right now,” he answers, “I want you to work on it. I’ve just heard how my former boss at BET, Robert Johnson, is already trying to appease Trump and be his best friend. He is saying that we should give Trump a chance. He’s trying to be all righteous now, but the guy made his money selling musicians short by not paying royalties and by promoting videos about pimps and hoes, what a joke.”
Tavis’ misogyny is always creeping around, barely camouflaged by Midwestern good manners
I look back in the car and see Blanca, a young woman that Tavis had picked up at the Orlando airport and brought along as a fuck buddy. “Look at her, she’s so stupid,” he tells me, during our stop over from New York to Bismarck at Chick-fil-A in the Minneapolis airport Delta terminal after Blanca had left us at the counter and walked toward the gate. “How am I gonna carry all this food and my bags now? I specifically told her to wait for us,” he tells me angrily. Tavis’ misogyny is always creeping around, barely camouflaged by Midwestern good manners in line with the most duplicitous guys who always open doors, buy flowers and carry luggage until their girlfriends end up scrambling for some hotline 800 number.
“You have to call Johnson a Booker T. Washington in your Time piece,” I tell him after reading his first draft. “Write that we need more W. E. B. DuBois and less Booker T.s, especially now . . . ”
As a senior producer on The Tavis Smiley Show I wasn’t exactly sure how I was now rewriting his op-eds for USA Today and Time magazine with my name nowhere to be seen on the byline, a direct violation of every deontological WGA rule that his op-ed editors, Claire Howorth at Time magazine and Jill Lawrence at USA Today, surely would be very surprised to discover.
I was in London last year when the Leave camp won, and I emailed Tavis about what I had observed. Although big cities like London, which had just elected a Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, overwhelmingly voted for Remain, Brexit happened in England because provincial blue collars voted for it, people who had voted Labour all their lives. I told him Brexit was a dress rehearsal for what was about to happen here on November 8 with a long list of shocking doppelgängers: Donald Trump/Boris Johnson, Bernie Sanders/Jeremy Corbyn and a disintegrating Clinton/Cameron. More shocking than Brexit was to see Tavis the next weekend on Face the Nation repeat to John Dickerson word for word what I had told him.
“If anyone back in L.A. mentions the name Blanca,” Tavis tells me as soon as we are alone in the rented SUV once we arrived at the Oceti camp, “just tell them she was your girlfriend, that you brought her along. Don’t say anything about her to Kim in particular.” The question of my relationship status and if saying I was with Blanca would put me in a very difficult situation with people at the show who knew about my private life never even crossed his mind.
The Kim in question would be Kimberly Logan, the supervising producer on the show and, according to the word around town, Tavis’ alleged occasional love interest. “Supervising producer” is a made-up title, Tavis being the all-controlling EP, but in this case it is not a misnomer. Kim runs that show like a Carmelite mother superior, a Wal-Mart micromanager fermenting idiotic secrecy out of the most asinine decision, a narc with Southern charms, an all-smiles viper with reserve, steely poise and a relentless vindictiveness masking her crippling insecurities thanks to her Rasputin-like grip on Tavis. Appropriately, Wal-Mart is sponsoring the liberal PBS show that Tavis owns.
“I hate the people who run PBS. I hate Beth Hoppe, Mary Nelson, Mishi [Margaret Ebrahim],” Tavis once told me, “every single one of them…and they hate me too. I don’t take their calls, I don’t return their emails. I’m the only black guy on PBS, all these white people are waiting for me to tumble. My show is very fragile, like a Fabergé Egg…don’t drop it.”
It is difficult to sum someone up when you first meet them. Most of the time we tend to ignore and block out the obvious signs of the imbecile, knowing very well that we might end up for various reasons being stuck with that person and overly confident in our ability to prevail. If you have a sugar daddy or mommy, you might be inclined to disregard their immense self-portrait in the foyer—we all do it, suck it up and move on, not realizing that later down the line we will pay a heavy price for such self-suppression, whether with pills, booze, sex or greasy food. We could always walk but who would pay the monthly Audi Q5 bill? Capitalism is a very Mephistophelian proposal, a numbing prophylactic that will enable you to forget, usually while shopping, that you are not decrepitating by the day. It nonetheless takes only one word to bring to the court of intelligence the discovery of evidence to a screeching halt and get a jumpstart to an always terrifying verdict.
“We should have David Boies and Ted Olson on the show,” I once told Kim as we were discussing potential guests to discuss the even number imposed by Congress on the Supreme Court.
“Who?” she answered.
In a capitalistic society, it is not as is often suggested that every single one of our interactions is reduced to the sad binomial buy and sell, even our most intimate and definitive ones like courtship or marriage, but more likely that these interactions are determined by our resumes, however invented these might be. You are not what you do but what you have done.
By this benchmark, prior to joining The Tavis Smiley Show as a producer, Kim had been Cedric the Entertainer’s assistant and a location scout on the bikini masterpiece Out of the Blue. A producer on a major network TV talk show finds guests, pre-interviews them and writes down talking points on these ubiquitous blue cards we see these vacuous hosts smacking on their high school principal desks. The bits leading the way to the talent part of these perennially stale shows using the same lame tropes (with the exception of Seth Meyers who at least tried a reset) are nothing more than embarrassing recess hijinks, frat pranks really, that Jimmy Kimmel for instance, always dependable for heralding his stupidity, excels at reviving. When Bill Maher flips these cards around on Friday nights it is clear to anyone who has attended one of his vapid one-man shows that there is one thing he is good at: hiring the best writers and producers. ”Garry Shandling tried to expose this pointless exercise in mass marketing, consumption and public relations. The only difference here is that The Tavis Smiley Show is not supposed to be funny.
“My main problem,” Tavis once told me in a rare moment of self-examination, “is that I don’t read.”
It shows and Hollywood started to take notice.
When I invited Oliver Stone on the show to discuss Edward Snowden, the petulant director prefaced one of his statements on the “improved” Patriot Act by saying to Tavis, “I don’t know if you know this but,” Tavis later explained to me, “I don’t have time to read or do my research on the guests because of my movie deals with Warner Bros., and that’s why I need very good producers.
“One of the very good producers on the show, Devin Maverick Robins, had just proposed in a pitch meeting to invite Oliver Sacks, who had passed a few months prior…but this is Hollywood and maybe she meant in spirit or as a hologram. There were excellent producers on the show, but as often the case with petty, sketchy, vapid people like Kim at the helm, they were relegated to the sidelines. According to the Wal-Mart Machiavelli handbook that Kim knows by heart, first you eliminate the weak, then the strong, and mercifully you end up with the mediocre. Christabel Nsiah-Buadi and Lauren Castaneda were the most intelligent producers on the show, but they were kept at bay, on the periphery. Not surprisingly the majority of producers working on Tavis Smiley are white, while the crew is mainly black. On taping days the crew eats in its self-segregating corner, and I would on occasion sit with them and taunt the producers walking by craft service into joining us. ‘Come sit and eat with the unwashed,’ I would tell them.”
David Hockney lives in L.A. and rarely appears on television, other than once on Charlie Rose where the North Carolinian asked him in a discussion on Vermeer if Caravaggio was his neighbor. I made it my duty to have Hockney on the show. He invited me to his house and studio in the Hills, and walking around his adjacent studio, I instantly thought that Tavis should tape the show there. Seeing on the walls the original portraits he had just finished for London’s Royal Academy of the Arts exhibit ‘82 Portraits and 1 Still-Life was magical and awe inspiring. “It would cost us $8,000 to bring our unionized crew up these Hills,” Tavis told me. It became very apparent to me that no one at the show knew or cared that one of the most important artists alive lived only a few miles from the set.
Wal-Mart handsomely sponsors the show, but as a producer I soon realized that there was no money left to actually produce the show. I tried right before the elections to get a remote for the editor of The Economist in London and Glenn Greenwald in Rio de Janeiro but was told that we had no money. The feed from London would have cost $500 and the one from Brazil $1,500. So frustrated I became I even proposed to pay for the feeds with my salary.
“Wal-Mart is the best,” Tavis told me, “they give me a check each year and never ask a single question. They are the least intrusive.” Maybe they should. Why were we running that show on such a shoestring budget? Where does the annual budget of more than $7 million go? Since a good chunk of it comes from PBS, code for donors like you suckers, is there any accountability? All the guests have to be present in L.A. on a Monday, as all the week’s shows are taped the same day to cut production costs, and they have to pay for their own flights and accommodations. Since nobody watches the show you need an ego the size of Louie Anderson to be booked. After I booked Harper‘s Magazine editor James Marcus, it became clear that to justify paying for the trip, this moron wanted to know, as his unhinged publicist who asked to be part of the pre-interview told me, “What’s in it for Harper’s?”
“We don’t do infomercials or content branding,” I told them, “this is PBS.”
“Well, we are not Vanity Fair” was their answer to a discussion that started with the state of the country after the elections.
I stayed over for dinner at Hockney’s and soon sadly realized that he was now living like a recluse under the spell of a bunch of people, who allegedly seem to control the deaf and aging painter’s every move, always lurking around for the kairos moment when David finally conks out and money starts to pour into the philistines’ pockets. Many celebrities are surrounded by these pilot fishes, who at first are put in charge of social media and emails before they can graduate to access control. By the time they carry the cash, the celebs are done, neutralized. They say, “Power is not carrying your own luggage,” but what they never mention is what comes right after: not paying for anything because your minions or what they call in Hollywood “accountant” or “manager” (and every schmuck has one) carries the cash or controls the flow, making you ultimately lost and helpless. Celebrities don’t go on Priceline to book a flight or Bumble to find a date, they don’t drive to Whole Foods (unless their publicist calls In Touch first) to get that Persian endive essential oil. They all have their “guy” or assistant do that.
Hockney’s main gripe seems to be that the world has become a smoke-free zone, and his main loves are Walt Disney’s Snow White and Pinocchio. “Liz Taylor once sat in the chair you are in,” the senile gasbag told me. His main intellectual preoccupation is, fittingly, perspective, and he showed me this amazing projection of an animated rendition of the vanishing point-free masterpiece Wang Hui’s The Kangxi Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll Seven. I had prepared a B-roll of the anime to be shown as Tavis talked to Davidm, and I had no choice but to “film” the studio on my iPhone.
“We can’t talk about this Japanese painter,” Tavis told me about the Chinese painter in his dressing room 15 minutes before he was to join David on set. “I can’t pronounce the guy’s name.” The interview, available online, is a festival of grotesque. David spends the meager 20 minutes that a reluctant clueless Kim Logan had allocated to him peering at Tavis from above his glasses as if he were scrutinizing in sweet bewilderment a UFO that had just crashed through the wall.
The questions lobbed at him are vapid and gone were the hours of fascinating banter I had up in the Hills a week prior with Hockney. It might have also been that David sensed how uncomfortable Tavis was sitting across from him. Tavis didn’t know Hockney’s work, this much is obvious on the air, but there was something else that viewers might have picked up right way. “There are two topics I don’t deal with on the show,” the very pious Tavis told me right at the onset. “Homosexuality and abortion.” Great, I thought, there goes half of my guest list. There are times in our lives, on a first day at work or right upon meeting a new colleague, that we know instantly this is not going to work out.
I was given to produce the guest Corine Woodley, mother of Gavin Long who had killed cops in Baton Rouge. Suddenly, Tavis had found money to fly Corine Woodley from across the country and put her and a friend up at a nice hotel in L.A. She brought to L.A. her son’s diaries as well as his Kindle, and the idea was, as Tavis put it, that “everyone is someone’s mother.”
“Can’t believe it didn’t happen sooner,” Tavis told me.
Sure enough, as I was reading the diaries I realized that, although Long had a Nietzschean slant to his thinking (he actually quoted him)—and it should be pretty clear by now that I have nothing against philosophizing with a hammer—the man was certifiable and certainly the wrong candidate for a modern-day Eldridge Cleaver. Tavis asked me to prepare the list of books that Long had in his Kindle so we could show it on the air while he was interviewing his mother. When I stumbled upon Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Tavis told me to leave it off of the list.
It became clear to me that what we were doing was not just shamelessly apocryphal but the construction of the hagiography of a sad fuck anti-Semitic raging maniac. I was so disgusted by the segment that I emailed Tavis later that evening that the show was an epic failure. We need to reconsider our relationship, he instantly fired back.
I had just moved to L.A. for the show, signed a contract and already spent a huge advance on salary in the process, so I decided to prepare for my return to New York as soon as possible and to quit the show.
Tavis had his accountant send me a bill for the remainder of all the money I still owed him, money that I couldn’t refund unless I kept on working for him till the end of the year. I flew back to New York without telling anyone and just tried to find some chill.
“I want you to be my No. 1 political adviser,” Tavis told me over the phone. “You will be in charge of all my different interests. Come to my office in South Central tomorrow, and we’ll discuss it.”
“It’s ok,” I told him, “I’m already in New York. I can produce the show from here.”
“All right,” a shocked Tavis answered, “I’ve never in 25 years let my producer work from New York, but since you are already there, produce from New York.”
“Why don’t we bring to the show guests who have nothing to sell? Philosophers, scientists, poets?” I asked Tavis as I was now embarking on my necessary self-ejecting journey.
“Yes,” he said, “excellent idea. All the guests that Devin and Kim bring to the show are shit. Just bring me smart people.”
Kim had another idea. After I invited on the show a plethora of people from Harvard and Princeton she convinced Tavis that they weren’t ready for prime time and that they were changing the very nature of the show, code for taking over her beloved dumb celebrities’ real estate. Any guest whose name she didn’t know had no value for the show, and since Vogue and US Weekly are her bibles, I assumed David Chalmers and Toni Morrison were out. And they were, even after Tavis had previously green lighted them.
“I will have the last word on who comes on the show, not Kim. You will report to me,” Tavis told me when he hired me in New York. Very quickly into production he took me aside and told me, “Enough with the white Ivy League professors,” and that was that. When I presented him with an all-black panel for the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, he instantly shot me an email, “We need white folk,” revealing the confusing price to be a token.
Compounding the fact that an imbecile is running his show, Tavis is completely delusional. He believes that all we have to do as producers is to pick up the phone and everybody will fly out to L.A., on their dime, on a Monday. I don’t know if you have ever been to Los Angeles, but L.A. is not exactly the Bauhaus in Weimar. The problem is that nobody wants to do Tavis’ show. One reason might very well be that people in Hollywood are not exactly political scientists, as recently proven by their unanimous support for Hillary Clinton, who made the fatal mistake of running on the Obama legacy that Tavis spends his spare time tirelessly decrying.
“I’m not even against the Empire,” he once told me as we were speeding through the streets of L.A. in his Mini Cooper, not really sure at first if he was alluding to Darth Vader or foreign policies. “I get it, this is America, we are an empire, but what Obama did domestically is disgraceful. I don’t get the guy, what happened to him? Blacks are now worse off than they were eight years ago. We used to play basketball together, and now Valerie Jarrett won’t even put my calls through.”
“Let me push back,” I told him, trying my best Vincent Harding pivot. “As our hero MLK said in the ‘Beyond Vietnam’ speech, if you act jingoistically and imperialistically abroad, you will certainly act the same over here.”
“Hmm, it’s true,” he said, “You are right. But Obama is not the same guy I’ve known for twenty years. This guy I know, a top historian, was invited to go talk to him in the Oval Office about his legacy, which seems to be the only thing he cares about. At one point he stops my friend midsentence and asks him, ‘How long do you think it will take before they put me on Mount Rushmore?’ My friend at first laughed thinking he was clearly joking, but Obama had this stern look on his face. He wasn’t.
“I lost so many sponsors after I criticized Obama,” Tavis told me in one of his frequent delusion of grandeur episodes. “Car makers, Enterprise, you name it, they all left, that’s what you get when you talk truth to power.”
Such a misunderstanding of corporate America struck me as hubris since more likely his flat ratings and subpar show, at least since Kim took over, were responsible for sponsors jumping ship. How else could he possibly justify his hemorrhaging of affiliates?
Undaunted, I invited the philosopher Peter Singer to the show hoping that he would be able to talk about ethics. But during the only 12 minutes that, to my horror, Kim gave him, the topic discussed was the most obvious one: who is this guy Singer to tell us what’s right? The great Frederick Wiseman was treated with the same contempt; all Kim wanted to talk about was whether or not he would bring his recently acquired Oscar to set. Craig Wilder, with his fascinating contribution to a new American history, was asked to squeeze the fundamental role played by slavery in the birth of capitalism to 10 minutes as Kim made sure to give her guest Meg Ryan a full show that week. When I put Matt Berninger up on the board Kim instantly emailed me, “Who’s that guy?”
Matt had confided to me some very personal details regarding his creative process and the important role that his wife Carin of The New Yorker plays in it as well as his inner struggles with alcohol. The segment ended up being about supporting Clinton. Right after the elections I worked very hard to have the editor from The Washington Post on the show. He was bumped because “Kathy Griffin makes Tavis laugh a lot.”
“Couldn’t we give her 15 minutes and keep the editor?” I asked, committing a crime of lèse-majesté.
When I put Al Raboteau on the show for his latest book American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice, the fascinating discussion I had with him on the intricacies of the slave trade and Christianity, Dorothy Day, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Fannie Lou Hamer morphed into a bore fest about the obvious merits of BLM that had nothing to do with his book. I canceled two guests who wrote a book on SQF from the bottom-feeding sham that is NYU Press and invited instead Judge Shira Scheindlin, one of the strongest and most intelligent women I’ve ever met. The interview went so well that Tavis in the next pitch meeting started off with a whole speech about how from now on we would only have smart guests like the judge on the show.
“I don’t care about celebrities,” he eructed, “I only want people like her on the show. O.K., Devin, you first, who do you have to pitch this week?”
One of the only political commentators who made sense for me around the elections, other than Chris Hedges (who I also had on the show), was the Russian specialist and media blacklisted Stephen Cohen. He was alarmed that Obama’s and Clinton’s rhetoric on Russia had upped the DEFCON antes all over the world at levels unseen since the Cuban Missile Crisis and believed that Trump was the only candidate whose policies toward Russia defied the orthodoxy of these increasingly dangerous platitude peddlers. I put him on the show, but Kim had him on the air election night when the show was dark on the East coast and in most of the country, and despite a promise from Tavis to have him repeat over Thanksgiving it never happened.
In every office there is a Kim. An employee who rose through the ranks from entry level and is now in the corner office. They, for years, have earnestly reported on their colleagues to the higher ups with the precision of a retired Stasi officer. When nothing was to be reported, they made things up. They blew every honest mistake out of proportion, every gossip was successfully maligned. And they waited. Commensurate to their mediocrity, in Kim’s case 10 years, sooner or later, because all of the other contenders had already fled such a toxic environment, they are now the last one standing and by default, voila, they get that corner. Judging by the ever expanding number of deputy assistant managing vice presidents who clog the office spaces of media elite newsrooms, it is no wonder that only the most squirrely architects are now selected to build the magnificent headquarters always preceding the fall, with the proviso that they will be paid by the corner. In order to be able to pass the blame around, these corner office holders have weaponized what constitutes the essence of civilization, the meeting, and perverted into double speak what made it come to life, language. Only a rookie dares to lament the pointlessness of these constant, endless meetings.
Two years ago when she finally got the top job, Kim was able to give herself the only perk that interests her: booking celebrities and attending private screenings. Nobody in the industry I talked to respects her and many credit her for bringing the show to the ground after Neal Kendall abruptly left and Jacoba Atlas, to everybody’s lament, followed suit. On our board, scheduled to appear on the show this fall were the biggest names of this movie season: Andrew Garfield, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone for La La Land, Manchester by the Sea‘s Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, Star Wars Rogue One‘s Felicity Jones. Of course none of them ever made it to set.
“We can’t book anyone anymore since the Tonight Show moved to New York because we used to piggyback on their bookings while A-listers were in L.A.,” was her perennial excuse. Aren’t all the stars living in L.A. in the first place and isn’t the show that now attracts the biggest A-listers, The Late Late Show With James Corden taping on Fairfax? “Tavis got into fights with many guests on the air,” she then tried, “scolding them, like with Octavia Spencer or Viola Davis, for taking parts in black exploitative movies. And he only wants to be pitched A-listers, he doesn’t want to hear about B-listers, so by the time we are closing the show on Fridays I’m left stranded with no one to tape on Mondays.”
Kim didn’t know how important the playwright August Wilson was and probably thinks The Pittsburg Cycle is a bike maker so I decided to book Denzel Washington after he turned her down for The Magnificent Seven. “That’s weird,” Tavis told me at the time, “he’s a friend of mine, we box together every morning.” Tavis, who insists on calling books “texts” and is known as a guest on political shows for his fiery rants, is strangely subdued on his own show. I invited Maureen Dowd and was surprised to discover that for all of her rhetoric about Trump being an empty vessel being filled up at will by the Alex Joneses of the world, she had no idea who Leo Strauss was. “I’ll research him if you want,” she told me, all media trained. “Talk to her about Leo Strauss,” I told Tavis before he went on the air. “Whaaa?” he said “Nah, I know what I am going to ask her.”
In a twist that even I couldn’t have concocted, someone hacked into Tavis’ Twitter account and wrote tweets praising Donald Trump, which ultimately resulted in Macy Gray canceling at the last minute. Instead of letting things go, Tavis went on the air and rectified the obvious. Since nobody from the Trump camp agreed to come on the show, to Tavis’ great surprise, after he went on every single cable talk show and hurled insults at Trump, I asked my crush, the always funny comedian Ann Coulter, to come.
“I’m sure Trump will win,” a knee-high-booted Ann told me as the spidery veins on her temples were covered with makeup.
“I agree,” I told her. “Some of your writings are racist,” I later tried in vain.
“Not at all, quite the contrary. I’m black people’s biggest supporter, with no illegal immigration from Mexico, minorities will regain full employment,” she answered, unfazed as if she had asked me to pass her the M&Ms she was feverishly shoving in her purse not even noticing that she was doubling down, as if minorities were only working in orchards in Florida and kitchen basements in Manhattan. To her credit, Trump’s probable victory was what I had been killing myself to tell anyone who would listen in the office.
“She really believes Trump is gonna make it,” I told Tavis. “Nah, Hillary will win in a landslide thanks to the Latino vote. Find some Hispanics to talk about it.”
I invited Margaret Huang, the director of Amnesty International on the show.
“Are you gonna talk about child slave labor in Turkey refugee camps as we previously discussed?” I asked her.
“I asked my teams on the ground to investigate your claim and they found nothing,” she cluelessly answered.
“Ask her about how she got her job as AI director after she orchestrated the ousting of her black predecessor who was devoting most resources investigating domestic killer cops,” I advised Tavis.
“You can’t do that. She’s coming here as a guest. I don’t want to embarrass her,” he answered.
After I noticed that Cornel West had been repeatedly crossed off from my list of potential guests, I asked Tavis if he was estranged from the prophetic genius, his former colleague and best friend.
“His new wife hates me,” he answered.
When Carol Bayer Sager asked to come on the show to promote her insipid new book, Tavis vetoed her not because the book was trash but because she had dared to go on Charlie Rose, his nemesis, before doing his show, “Even though she lives right here in L.A.,” he told me. The fly in the milk here was that Bayer is married to Robert Daly, former head of Warner Bros., and that Tavis has a development deal at Warner now for a bunch of miniseries to be adapted from his train station books on MLK and Michael Jackson’s last days, with J.J. Abrams attached as a producer.
On two occasions Tavis told me he got calls from Kevin Tsujihara asking him to reconsider. “I am furious,” Tavis told me, “I feel used and forced into something I don’t want to do. Not for my deal with them I would have told him to go F himself. Who knew the head of WB had this kind of free time on his hands, going around making calls to have this has-been on my show like I’m his house negro.”
“Don’t do it. These types of soft blackmails never end up well for the appeasers. Don’t have her on the show, fuck it,” I perniciously told him, truly believing that “Fuck It” will be the epitaph engraved on my tombstone.
“You really don’t get it, do you?” he answered.
“I get it that you are these Warner Bros. fuckers’ indentured servant, this is humiliating,” I suggested, hoping to wreak havoc on our lunch at the Sunset Marquis.
(Representatives of Warner Bros. insist that Tsujihara never called Tavis Smiley. According to Dee Dee Myers, Executive Vice President at Warner Bros., “Kevin doesn’t know Tavis, has never met him. And he certainly doesn’t spend time telling hosts of shows he doesn’t watch, shows that have no affiliation with Warner Bros., who they should or should not have on their programs.” She acknowledges that “Tavis has a small deal with our TV division.” Ms. Myers, who has a long history in Democratic politics at the highest levels, added, “By the way, I’ve known Tavis for 30 years. I worked for LA Mayor Tom Bradley back in the day, when Tavis was there as an intern. We have always been friendly, and I have no beef with him. But this just isn’t true.” The author stands by his account of what Tavis Smiley told him.)
Bayer ended up on the show this past November.
Tavis always refers to his “friends” when talking about some celebrity who happened to do his show once. When Arianna Huffington turned down my request to appear on the show, Tavis told me, “Really? What did she say? She just invited me to a party at her house this weekend.” When Kellyanne Conway also declined to appear, Tavis said, “That’s surprising, she’s my friend.” I was starting to feel sorry for him, probably the most dangerous feeling you can have for someone. In this particular case, feeling sorry for Tavis, turning a blind eye to his self-serving and aggrandizing ruthlessness, wanting to protect him, to fight alongside him for the plight of blacks as if we were about to board a freedom rider bus to the Delta, might have been quixotic, the product of the liberal disease, a condescending proxy war and ultimately not my fight because as I very soon realized, I had been hired by a man who rightfully so distrusts white people, as nothing more than a mercenary with all the contemptuous respect that such a position entails.
“All of us are for Reparations,” he once said to one of my guests as I was watching in the control room.
“Can we put a disclaimer chyron saying that not all black people think the same way?” I heard Kim say in the background.
Tired of this insufferable pettiness I decided to try my best Rupert Pupkin and to subvert the boringness of the show. After the preposterous Commission on Presidential Debates blocked the third party candidates in a remarkable curtsy to oligarchy and plutocracy and since no corporate networks had thought it reasonable and legitimate to pick up the mantle and organize the lost third party debate, I decided that The Tavis Smiley Show would do it. The Jill Stein camp was first to accept, and after much petty cat herding, Gary Johnson, who for months had refused to debate Stein, finally relented.
“Let’s not do a debate,” Kim instantly proposed, never missing an opportunity to showcase her stupidity. “We’ll do a top and bottom show.” I had worked for weeks on this and wasn’t about to let this hoser, who had systematically tried to undermine me from day one with her insecurities and inferiority complex, ruin my coup de grace.
“Kim and Devin came to me and asked me if she were about to lose her job because I hired you,” Tavis told me on my first day at work. “I told everybody to calm the F down. Kim is also mad because she had found someone for the senior producer position before I hired you.” No doubt some provincial reject she could control and dominate at will and sure enough no sooner than when I quit the show, a meek producer named Shirley Jahad—who, according to everybody in the industry, is hopeless—popped out of nowhere.
“Am I the only to see how big and important this debate is?” I asked Kim and Tavis on a conference call from the children’s section of Waterstones in London, the only last-minute quiet place I could find, ready to strangle a baby out of frustration.
“Let’s do it,” Tavis said, thankfully overruling Kim and always running after the press release that would finally put him in the big guys’ intellectual league. “I’ll send a press release immediately and involve the full force of PBS.”
Beth Hoppe, Margaret Ebrahim, Jennifer Byrne, Atiya Frederick, Shawn Halford, Eric Freeland, Kevin Dando and Marie Nelson at PBS instantly recognized the value of this debate for the shriveled network and decided to bring together their programming, promotions, digital and social media teams to fully support it. The next day they agreed to “distribute a separate PBS media release to amplify the show release, send out a station message alerting them to the plan for this special programming, provide a feed of the show for live streaming on Facebook” and very importantly for what’s to come in a few lines, “activate a social media effort to push to broadcast and to help generate additional questions for the program.” A closer inspection to these bullet points reveals just how out of touch PBS is. There is nothing worse than seeing your grandma trying to become a social media queen when a simple on-air promo alert would have sufficed. With their thousands of assistant managing executives and vice presidents, it is not surprising that no one in Virginia had the idea to bump Suze Orman or that insufferable British Upstairs Downstairs gentry soap opera from prime time to make room for the debate.
‘I’m the only black on PBS,’ Tavis told me. ‘They can’t touch me, they also know that I’m the only black talk show host in America, and they like to have this privilege.’
I told David Cobb and Ron Nielson, the two respective campaign managers, that, although taped on the same day, the debate would be spread over three nights, the first on the Monday of Halloween for domestic affairs, then on Tuesday with foreign policy and the third day with questions that would be asked directly from the public via social media. Both campaigns, a few days before election night, got heavily involved and fully rallied their troops behind the PBS debate. I flew in from London to produce it. When I arrived in L.A., Kim, deploying all her sabotaging incompetence, a few hours before taping, had still not received the lecterns and was planning on having the candidates sit in “directors chairs.” I wanted the background to be similar to the blue reproduction of the Constitution that had been used in the three presidential debates to infer continuity and leveling of the playing field, but Kim changed it at the last minute. She had her priorities the day of taping. We were running late because we first had to tape a British starlet James Bond girl, (Tavis’ favorite movies) Naomie Harris, and she was procrastinating over which of the eight designer dresses shipped to her in the green room she should wear on the show.
Gary Johnson cornered me in the hallway with a half crazed stare and giant village-idiot smile, all on display at the same time as he was insulting me, a very puzzling triangulation, because, “I’m always punctual, and you are late and rude,” the latter epithet thrown in there probably due to my accent. I must admit for a second to have thought about slapping this doofus across the face and ask him for his choice of rapier, but instead I tried to have him sit in the make-up room and be quiet. Unfortunately, Jill Stein was still in there getting pampered for the last two hours. “If it were a beauty contest, you would win, hands down,” I told her, annoyed.
I had written all the questions, and some were very tough, to the dismay of both campaigns. Stein, whom I voted for, was asked about her personal stock investments with Big Pharma Merck and Big Carbon Exxon, Johnson was asked about New Mexico’s abysmal fiscal record with runaway spending and debts, surprising for such a tight-assed loony libertarian anti-government expenditure and debt control freak.
“Horseshit!!!” he yelled at Tavis on the air in the tone your grandpa used at Thanksgiving when his denture fell into the stuffing.
The night before, Tavis came to visit me at the Sunset Marquis and looked at my questions.
“What is all this text underneath each question?” he asked me.
“Each question has its own card,” I told him, “and underneath each question I wrote the news outlet and direct quote from the candidate from which I based my questions.”
“Scrap all of this,” he told me, “this is too much writing for when I’m on the air.”
“You will need it in case the candidates refute the questions asked,” I said.
“Just get rid of it and leave just one question on each card,” he told me. “And make sure my name appears in large fonts on the back of each card.”
Now Tavis, who against my repeated advice still refuses to wear a com, had been rebuked vehemently on the air by Gary “Aleppo” Johnson and his ego took a direct hit as he got caught off guard by this nincompoop since, as usual, he hadn’t done his research. Between the domestic and foreign tapings, Tavis, Kim and I huddled in his dressing room. “You didn’t put on the card where you got these quotes from, now ‘horseshit’ is all YouTube is gonna pick up. I’m gonna make up some fake social media questions in the third part of the debate and pretend someone asked him a question on social media regarding his failing fiscal tenure when he was governor of New Mexico,” Tavis tells me. “Just find me some data to back it up with direct references from a major news outlet like The New York Times. We need to shut him up.”
I thought, You didn’t do your job, so now you are going to violate at least six FCC Quiz Show rules? So poorly executed his travesty was that when Tavis asks Johnson on the air the made-up question regarding his fiscal record in New Mexico from “someone from social media,” he stumbles and says, “This is from John . . . I think,” without even mentioning where the question came from, whereas every other question is clearly prefaced by a specific handle name and respective social medium. It is remarkable that PBS didn’t even bother to check, for something so important and sensitive as a presidential debate that ultimately informed the decision of millions of voters, if the questions from the public asked on the air could be traced back to matching time-stamped actual questions on social media.
The debate ended up being one of the most-watched PBS programmings of the year, so much so that their server went down, unable to deal with such unprecedented traffic. Two weeks later, Tavis very smoothly renewed his contract with the publicly funded and trusted network. Indeed, when I got the idea for the debate, one of my biggest selling points to Stein and Johnson’s campaign managers was that PBS could be trusted to give them a legitimate, fair and balanced platform to debate.
“I’m the only black on PBS,” Tavis told me. “They can’t touch me. They also know that I’m the only black talk show host in America, and they like to have this privilege.”
Before leaving the show at the end of December, once the money owed in my contract would be finally paid in full, I decided to end with a bang and produce a special at the William Holman Detention Center in Atmore, Ala., where inmates have been on strike over cruel and unusual punishment and slave labor at the adjacent tag facility. The subject, mass incarceration and slavery in U.S. prisons, had been something I had worked on for years. I had made a documentary and had almost written about it for Rolling Stone, but Jann Wenner ultimately decided that Justin Bieber’s drunken arrest in Florida and potential deportation to Canada was more important.
Tavis and I met with the director Jonathan Demme at Standing Rock for the special I produced on the Dakota pipeline. The problem is Demme, a washed-up dimwit who got lucky to option a Thomas Harris book and has been milking that accidental cash cow for decades, directed the Standing Rock special and refused to give us any say in the editing process. The result ended up a disaster.
“The guy is clueless,” I told Tavis. “He told me that the biggest story at the camp was the arrival of the vets, not realizing that by filming that, this idiot perpetualized Orientalism, complete with the white man swooping in at the last minute to save the inferior races. He refused to have us edit what he shot with us there. ”
“Yes, you are right,” Tavis told me. “His special at Oceti was not good. You barely see me in it.” He added, “I never understood the vet worshipping going on in this country, the over-the-top reverence we have for the military. These guys don’t deserve any of it. We are rewarding killers, and I know it my dad was in the military.”
As Tavis was talking to a white girl at the Oceti Sakowin camp, it became clear to me that she thought she was at Burning Man. I saw Demme, who was filming the interview, react to her Wikipedia platitudes about protecting and loving Mother Earth with glee. I leaned to Demme’s ear and told him, “Let’s talk to indigenous people, the last thing I want is for Tavis to only talk to white people.”
“I’m here for three reasons,” the girl said. “To protect the earth, fight for justice…and…I forgot the third one…Oh, yes, fight against cop killers.”
The saddest part of this whole story is that Tavis is a very interesting guy, but something, somewhere along the yellow brick road of Sunset Boulevard, went awfully wrong. Tavis was so enamored with Demme’s Oscar (“He keeps it on his fridge,” he told me as if this banal detail made the director any less of a hack) that by now he was attached to the Alabama prison exposé too.
“Find me a list of the biggest donors,” Tavis told me, “we need to get at least half a million dollars that we could tap into for social justice specials with Jonathan as a director. What I have and what he doesn’t have is distribution so he’ll come around. I’m going to ask my friend Warren Buffet for the money.”
When time came to vet the crew with the Alabama DOC, I collected social security numbers and realized that this clueless Demme wanted to bring with him his assistant Hugo and his son Brooklyn.
‘‘What is Brooklyn doing on set exactly?” I asked Tavis. “I observed him at Standing Rock standing there with his hands in his pockets looking around. He’s a nice guy, but Alabama DOC commissioner Jeff Dunn is former military: He needs to know who is who on our crew doing what, and having Demme’s clueless hangers-on coming with us to the prison might jeopardize our chances to do the inmate interviews.”
I’m convinced that had I pressed on, Demme’s spiritual life coach from Woodstock would have also made the trip to Alabama. When I met Demme in Nyack to finalize the deal, I realized that the old coot was not going to give us the final cut, so I made sure that Demme and his useless entourage crew were out.
“Let’s scrap this Alabama prison thing,” Tavis told me, “now that Demme is out.”
Tavis often praises himself as having put through college many on his staff, which is true, and his ethos can be summarized by these three words he repeats ad nauseum to whoever passes by: integrity, humanity and dignity. He produced many shows on social justice and equity, but power is not about not carrying your own luggage, health insurance for all or raising the minimum wage, especially when Wal-Mart of all corporations is financing your show.
“You are so sensitive,” he once told me.
“You mean indifferent?” I answered him. I surprised him once backstage yelling at the top of his lungs to his most devoted subject Kim with such rage over something so trivial that I actually thought he had a mental problem. America can be such a racist country that for Tavis, being in the limelight, and more importantly fighting daily to maintain his rank, the effort must come with a tremendous amount of damaging pressure and scrutiny. But there was such a coldness in his tone, especially targeted at someone so devoted to his show, that it must have come from somewhere else and at that point I didn’t care enough to find out what it was.
Mikhail Bakunin was wrong: It is not just the dictatorship of the proletariat that we should fear but the mediocracy with its extreme center and worship of the average.
A few weeks ago, Kim Logan was finally named executive producer of the show.
UPDATE (March 7, 2017, 10:55 PM): This story has been updated to reflect Kevin Tsujihara’s denial of having called Tavis Smiley.