MEDIA WATCH: Protests against censorship and blacklists at WTTW and WBEZ to grow after 'public' radio in Chicago dumps popular Tavis Smiley show... Substance and Substance reporter have been blacklisted by WTTW and WBEZ for decades

Right in the middle of their "Pledge Drive," officials at WBEZ radio, Chicago's public radio outlet, are again facing questions and challenges about their blacklisting and censorship policies, following the dumping of the popular "Smley and West" and "Tavis Smiley" shows. Both WBEZ radio and WTTW television have long practiced censorship of news about Chicago's corporate school reform, with the blacklist of Substance now approaching the end of its second decade. With the dumping of the Tavis Smiley show, however, a bigger window is now opened through which citizens can understand how the issues of the day are carefully framed in "public media" and how certain reporting and analysis is blacked out completely and has been for years.

Despite the ongoing popularity of "Smiley and West" on WBEZ radio — especially with audiences in cities like Chicago, where Substance staff and CORE members were regular fans — WBEZ management, under the watchful eye of the plutocrats who sit on the WBEZ Board and who help fund Chicago's public radio and television stations, decided that the show was not "balanced" enough to the right wing of the political spectrum. As a result, "Smiley and West" joined Substance and other entities that are blacklisted from public media in Chicago so that the dominant narrative in the media stays as far to the right as possible. The latest discussion came about after WBEZ announced it was dropping the Tavis Smiley show. Smiley has long been a noted commentator, but during the past three years has increased his criticism of the policies of President Barack Obama, becoming one of the most prominent African American journalists in the USA to question the President's polices and practices.

Substance has regularly noted the unusual right wing and establishment tilt of Chicago's "public" media. WBEZ has what amounts to a policy of never quoting Substance or Substance stories in its coverage of education, while WBEZ's companion station, WTTW television, has blacklisted Substance (and this reporter) for nearly two decades. The blacklisting followed on-the-air factual criticisms by Substance of WTTW directors and contributors such as Martin Koldyke. As a result of the earlier blacklisting, numerous teachers have refused to join the pledge drives, and with the censorship of Tavis Smiley the number will grow.

The most recent controversial report by WBEZ that Substance had fun with came when the station decided to portray the recent Chicago Teachers Strike of 2012 as a kind of corporate "team building" exercise and quote university professors who had no knowledge of the strike about that angle while ignoring thousands of teachers and dozens of union officials who could have been used as sources. The story was a clear example of how corporate media, including "public" media, will attempt to reduce every narrative about class issues to the pablum of corporate jargon.

The censorship of Tavis Smiley is an even greater example of the same kind of bias in how the "public" media selects how to report its stories. Behind a fig leaf of "balance" WBEZ and WTTW actually tilt the entire narrative in the directive of various corporate versions of reality, ignoring the perspectives of working class people — or of people who speak on behalf of working class people, like Cornel West and Tavis Smiley — completely.

On Monday, October 15, 2012, Tavis Smiley blasted the decision by Chicago public radio to drop his show. Smiley's response has been reported on the Huffington Post (below).

Tavis Smiley Blasts Chicago Public Media CEO Over Show's Cancellation, Posted: 10/16/2012 3:23 pm EDT


On Monday, the co-host of "Smiley & West" fired off an open letter to CPM President and CEO Torey Malatia criticizing statements Malatia made justifying the cancellation.

Smiley begins:

"In my 20 years of being a broadcaster, this letter represents the very first time I have felt compelled to write a personal note to the head of a local station."

Smiley goes on to say that while he "respect[s] the public media model that stations know best," he had a different take once he caught wind of comments Malatia had written to WBEZ listeners disappointed by the cancellation. In his letter to listeners, Malatia suggested Smiley's program had become "far less inclusive." Smiley pointed to his array of diverse guests, including this past summer where he featured exclusively conservative voices for a week.

"As an African American in the still-too-lacking-in-diversity world of public media, one does not survive in these environs—much less thrive—if one's interview style is remotely akin to the intellectual bullying of Bill O'Reilly. To compare my work to his in your letter to listeners is to defame me in the worst way. I take pride in being the first African American in the history of PBS and NPR to simultaneously host his own signature weekday public television and radio shows, opening the doors for other persons of color to now host or co-host award-winning programs over public media."

Robert Feder of Time Out Chicago reported that a CPM spokesman cited audience erosion as the key reason for cancelation:

"The show had developed much more of an ‘advocacy’ identity, which is inconsistent with our approach on WBEZ. The goal is to present public affairs content that is reasonably balanced. We feel that Smiley & West had become a departure from this approach.”

In his letter, Smiley indicated that he's already in talks with other Chicago radio stations to possibly pick up "Smiley & West" in the wake of WBEZ's cancellation of the program. "Smiley & West" has been cancelled by other stations prior to WBEZ's move, including WBUR-FM in Boston, KWMU-FM in St. Louis and KMOJ-FM in Minneapolis.

Smiley hosts the late-night television talk show "Tavis Smiley" on PBS and "The Tavis Smiley Show" from Public Radio International (PRI) in addition to co-hosting "Smiley & West" with Cornel West.


October 17, 2012 at 11:07 AM

By: Rod Estvan

Thanks for the story

This story was really enlightening. Thanks for taking the time to examine the removal of Smiley & West.


October 17, 2012 at 7:06 PM

By: john kugler

Institutional Racism

Nothing new that corporate media prepetuates intitutional racism just as CPS policy also promotes racism. UNO schools are a perfect example of modern facism and racism.

October 22, 2012 at 12:43 PM

By: Scott Sanders

Take Action

Add your own comment (all fields are necessary)

Substance readers:

You must give your first name and last name under "Name" when you post a comment at We are not operating a blog and do not allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Our readers deserve to know who is commenting, just as they deserve to know the source of our news reports and analysis.

Please respect this, and also provide us with an accurate e-mail address.

Thank you,

The Editors of Substance

Your Name

Your Email

What's your comment about?

Your Comment

Please answer this to prove you're not a robot:

3 + 4 =