Tavis Smiley fights back

If the drumbeat of sexual harassment allegations against an increasing number of men is the work of a political dirty trickster operation, as some have suggested, it seems that it would have required knowledge that PBS, in these cases, wouldn’t have bothered to contact the accused. It’s entirely possible, but probable? That seems like more of a lucky guess than a strategy.

Tavis Smiley, the PBS talk show host, is the latest takedown. He lost his distributor for his show when PBS walked away yesterday, issuing only this statement.

PBS engaged an outside law firm to conduct an investigation immediately after learning of troubling allegations against Mr. Smiley. This investigation included interviews with multiple witnesses as well as with Mr. Smiley. The inquiry uncovered multiple, credible allegations of conduct that is inconsistent with the values and standards of PBS, and the totality of this information led to today’s decision.

But Smiley fought back hard, and with a denial that makes it hard to completely dismiss the notion that he was set up.

On the eve of the 15th season and 3,000th episode of my nightly talk show, I was as shocked as anyone else by PBS’ announcement today. Variety knew before I did.

I have the utmost respect for women and celebrate the courage of those who have come forth to tell their truth. To be clear, I have never groped, coerced, or exposed myself inappropriately to any workplace colleague in my entire broadcast career, covering 6 networks over 30 years.

Never. Ever. Never.

PBS launched a so-called investigation of me without ever informing me. I learned of the investigation when former staffers started contacting me to share the uncomfortable experience of receiving a phone call from a stranger asking whether, I had ever done anything to make them uncomfortable, and if they could provide other names of persons to call. After 14 seasons, that’s how I learned of this inquiry, from the streets.

Only after being threatened with a lawsuit, did PBS investigators reluctantly agree to interview me for three hours.

If having a consensual relationship with a colleague years ago is the stuff that leads to this kind of public humiliation and personal destruction, heaven help us. The PBS investigators refused to review any of my personal documentation, refused to provide me the names of any accusers, refused to speak to my current staff, and refused to provide me any semblance of due process to defend myself against allegations from unknown sources. Their mind was made up. Almost immediately following the meeting, this story broke in Variety as an “exclusive.” Indeed, I learned more about these allegations reading the Variety story than the PBS investigator shared with me, the accused, in our 3 hour face to face meeting.

My attorneys were sent a formal letter invoking a contractual provision to not distribute my programming, and that was it.

Put simply, PBS overreacted and conducted a biased and sloppy investigation, which led to a rush to judgment, and trampling on a reputation that I have spent an entire lifetime trying to establish.

This has gone too far. And, I, for one, intend to fight back.

It’s time for a real conversation in America, so men and women know how to engage in the workplace. I look forward to actively participating in that conversation.

Smiley’s stand appears to carry with it a different strategy than that from others similarly accused. He appears ready to tell — and be questioned about — his side of the story from the start.

  • MrE85
      • MrE85

        Fixed.

        I can’t help but wonder what Dunlop & Ryan are feeling about this quote from their story, from Mrs. Johnson: ““We know what you’re going to do,” she says. “And you’re going to have blood on your hands.”

        Even thought the article reveals him as man who had no business being at the pulpit or the state Capitol, that line hits like a punch in the gut.

  • Mike

    It seems that legitimate debates about these topics (e.g., sexual misconduct) often descend into some sort of moral panic; Smiley’s case might be just that. The mass media and social media feeding frenzy that any sex-related allegations induce in American culture almost precludes reasoned debate, examination of facts, and dispassionate assessment. And the difficulty of actually knowing what happened years or decades ago doesn’t preclude judgment on the part of many.

    Rather, people invent paranoid justifications of why one side must always be right or wrong. Or they clumsily try to apply political slogans and axioms to individual circumstances, with tragic or darkly hilarious results.

    I’d be interested in hearing what a sociologist would have to say about this topic. From my perspective, these phenomena never really change. From the Salem witch trials to the Stalinist terror to the child molestation and drug panics of the 1980s, the only thing that differs is the severity of the consequences for the accused.

    • MikeB

      It’s more than a stretch to compare the recent allegations of sexual assault and harassment to the Salem witch trials or Stalin’s purges. Read Salma Hayek’s article in the NYT, read the complaints against the NFL Network on air employees – just for starters.

      The culture is changing due to new standards about how to treat women, not a paranoid craze used to control the masses.

      • Mike

        No, it’s not a stretch. We may not be sending people to the gulag or executing them, but if we rob people of their careers and livelihoods due to unverified or unverifiable allegations and/or possibly consensual relationships, then it’s still unjust.

        A better example might be the McCarthyism of the 1950s, which is back in vogue today in a very literal way where Russia is concerned. Merely the accusation (denunciation) of communism back then was enough to end some people’s careers. No evidence needed.

        • MikeB

          Tavis Smiley and others have legal recourse, they can sue for wrongful termination of employment. Politicians resign under political pressure. Happens all the time. Thems the breaks.

          A reason not to sue is that the discovery process will be very embarrassing, much more so that what has been made public so far. They go away because they know they’ve been caught.

          Which public figure has been fired for a complete set of lies about harassment or assault?

          • Mike

            Winning a lawsuit is not the same thing as having a viable career, especially in a field that’s subject to the whims of public opinion. A vindication in court does not necessarily restore a reputation. Your attitude towards the veracity of accusations is very cavalier, and one that most people would not want applied to themselves.

          • MikeB

            Your objections about false accusations is in the abstract. You are disregarding what is happening in reality.

          • Mike

            My argument is that there is often a tipping point in these moral panics, where legitimate accusations against certain figures become scurrilous ones against others. My question is whether we’re at that point.

          • Barton

            No. we aren’t at a tipping point.

        • Barton

          While I do understand what you are saying, I also know of many women who have been robbed of their livelihood and careers through the years because of abuse/allegations that were verified and proven, or who even just dared to complain about the comments of male co-workers. So, the pendulum is swinging a bit far the other direction: I am not certain I see that as a bad thing in the overall scheme of the universe.

          Also, it’s not a court of law proven/unproven doesn’t mean anything when organizations are attempting to protect their reputations and protect themselves from lawsuits. And even in a court of law, it is reasonable doubt, not actual proof.

          • Mike

            I’ve never been a fan of the “two wrongs make a right” philosophy. Or of the “you need to break a few eggs to make an omelette” maxim. The latter is all good unless one happens to be the egg.

            More seriously, my point is that I want good due process for everyone – both the accusers and the accused. It doesn’t sound like that happened in Smiley’s case.

          • Lindsey

            However, in a court of law, it is innocent until proven guilty (beyond a reasonable doubt). The nature of these investigations seem to be guilty, with no option of innocence.

        • Jared

          A major difference between this moment and the examples you cited is that there’s a wealth of evidence against the accused in a majority of the cases where people are losing their careers. In addition, the purges (Stalin and McCarthy) were done for political gain while the accusers here have nothing to gain beyond seeing those that harassed and assaulted them punished. Finally, unlike the purges what many people are being accused of here is universally awful and I can’t imagine anyone would say these actions are ok (in theory, in practice some people clearly don’t have as much of an issue with it).

        • Worthing remembering, though, as this use of McCarthy gets increasing traction w.r.t. to sexual harassment that many of the people swept up in that time actually WERE spies.

          • Mike

            Alger Hiss, Julius Rosenberg (not Ethel, if memory serves). I’m sure there were others, but many more people tarred with the scarlet C were just average leftists and/or liberals who might have flirted with communism in the Great Depression. It didn’t matter whether they had been committed or not ideologically, let alone engaged in espionage. Merely the association was enough to ruin their careers.

  • Guest

    I WAS concerned how society would evaluate accusations, separating true and false claims. NOW I am concerned the outfits themselves don’t seem interesting in finding out any facts.

    To refuse to hear the accused, to refuse to speak to current staff: rots our sense of fair play and justice.

    Does “women deserve to be believed” = don’t bother to verify, just accept an accusation as guilt???????

    • Barton

      Sure. Why not. We (women) have honestly never been even believed before, just summarily dismissed and even fired/blackballed in our industries for even bringing accusations, which is why we remained quiet.

      And please note (as stated above) an investigation was done in Tavis’ case: whether they talked to the accused or not does not mean they didn’t verify the accusation. It is possible the evidence was all there without needing to talk to him.

      • Guest

        “We checked with ourselves and found out we were right all along”

        Very scary to think in any situation, hearing only one side is sufficient.

        I DO grant more weight when friends can testify they heard her say so back when it actually happened.

        • Laurie K.

          From the story… “PBS engaged an outside law firm to conduct an investigation immediately after learning of troubling allegations against Mr. Smiley”. So although your leading sentence is cute, it is inaccurate. They paid an independent law firm to investigate.

      • Lindsey

        Sure, it is possible. But it is not the way our justice system works and doing these investigations on only one side will serve to “prove” to men that the women are lying.

        • Barton

          But THIS isn’t about justice: that is what the government is responsible for. This is about private companies and publicly held companies and what they can or cannot do to employees or contracted entities. We have to separate that idea. Companies don’t need due process, they don’t need proof – not about anything, and everything they do is to protect the company or shareholders. That is what they are legally required to do.

          • Lindsey

            But firing someone for this, especially in a public manner, says that there is proof that they deserved it, regardless of whether that was present or not.

            Additionally, the part that is most important is that women have not been believed for these situations, because they are lying. Regrettably, we are the ones who have to be careful here and we have to have proof, as we are already fighting an uphill battle.

          • // Additionally, the part that is most important is that women have not been believed for these situations, because they are lying.

            And there it is.

      • John Climber

        “Sure. Why not.”

        Do you actually mean that seriously? Are you perfectly comfortable with its implications? For the sake of argument, imagine if your husband, son, father, or good friend were accused but was actually innocent. Are you comfortable with their lives being unjustly ruined?

        • Lindsey

          How about imagine if a man’s live was unjustly ruined? I doubt Barton needs to imagine that they are a relative/friend in order to have empathy for the situation.

          • John Climber

            I would hope so. My point was simply to bring out a contradiction. If it’s not OK in the personal case, then one is extremely hard pressed to justify it in the general case.

          • Lindsey

            Sure. It’s just disheartening to imagine that women who have been treated as important only as family members would need to make it personal to have empathy.

  • Rob

    It sounds more than a little Kafka-esque that a credible investigation would not, at a minimum, let the accused know he was being investigated – and spend at least a few minutes to interview/question him directly. Or maybe it’s just plain old garden-variety incompetence.

    • Guest

      I would bet on deliberate rather than incompetence. Consider the way College Rapes were “investigated” by their Human Resource departments.

    • BJ

      Usually the ‘Accused’ will be the last person interviewed and will not be told anything about it, like who and what it is about. Questions around items not related to that actual issue will often be asked to establish if the Accuser and Accused is telling the truth about other parts of the story. For example Garrison Keillor mentioning in his interview and statement a hand on a bare back with someone who was his friend still – probably not that actual thing he was ‘let go for’ / ‘accused of’.

      The ‘Accused’ will be the last person interviewed is very deliberate, and normal in almost all investigations where someone is accused of something. You do this for a number of reasons, mostly because if you find that it is not true before hand you haven’t gotten them upset for no reason. But if you have found something it is a time to ‘catch’ them off guard, not having a chance to ‘taint’ potential witnesses.

      Now I never under estimate human incompetence. But sounds like pretty standard process to me. (Having Hired people to do this kind of work)

      • Rob

        Thx for lecture. I understand how investigations work, and hope that you don’t routinely conduct investigations In which the accused is never interviewed at all – absent the threat of a lawsuit by the accused regarding lack of same.

        • BJ

          Since he was interviewed (he said it was after he pressured them, but maybe it was just at the end as they had planned) and told at that time about the investigation. And that’s what I also described. Your implied sarcasm to my routine of conducting of investigations (Fortunately hired people to do it, not done it myself) without notification or interviewing of the accused is noted.

  • KTN

    There is a new legal canon for this type of case – and while outside the law, it carries the weight of the law.
    Accuser = truth
    Accused = liar.
    No exceptions.

  • Gary F

    There has been talk of him since spring possibly having some problems with this. It will be interesting what happens in this case if it runs it course.

  • Peter Sharma

    Smiley is no different than many of the other men that have terrorized women at work under the veneer of phony gentlemanly conduct. Many of these black men have the habit of throwing off macho lockerroom talk when it suits them. White folks are afraid to tackle the issue fearing they would by called racist by groups like ‘Black lives Matter’ and big mouths like Jessie Jackson…..