‘This has gone too far,’ says defiant Tavis Smiley after PBS suspends his show for ‘misconduct’

An inquiry by outside law firm revealed 'multiple, credible allegations' of misconduct
Television host Tavis Smiley at a roundtable discussion in New York in April 2007.
Television host Tavis Smiley at a roundtable discussion in New York in April 2007.

PBS is “indefinitely” suspending distribution of the late-night talk show “Tavis Smiley” after multiple misconduct allegations emerged against the show’s 53-year-old host, PBS announced Wednesday.

While a statement from a PBS spokeswoman did not say what sort of misconduct was alleged, PBS News Hour, on its website, said the allegations involved “sexual misconduct.”

In a Facebook video posted early Thursday morning, Smiley said he was “shocked” to hear PBS’s sudden announcement and intends to “fight back” against the network’s “so-called investigation.”

He said he has the “utmost respect” for all women, and celebrates “the courage of those women who have come forth of late to share their own truth.”

“Let me also assure you that I have never groped, inappropriately exposed myself or coerced any colleague in the workplace ever in my 30-year career,” Smiley said.

“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,” he added in a written statement posted on Facebook.

In its statement, PBS said it had “engaged an outside law firm to conduct an investigation immediately after learning of troubling allegations regarding Mr. Smiley.”

“This investigation included interviews with 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.”

The news was first reported by Variety on Wednesday afternoon. The probe revealed allegations that Smiley had engaged in sexual relationships with multiple subordinates, Variety reported, citing unnamed sources.

Some witnesses “expressed concern that their employment status was linked to the status of a sexual relationship with Smiley,” Variety reported. They described the longtime TV personality as creating a “verbally abusive and threatening environment” and raised concerns about retaliation, according to Variety.

Smiley, in video and written statements released hours later, said PBS launched the probe without telling him about it. He only learned about the investigation after former colleagues and former staffers told him they were receiving phone calls from “some PBS investigator.” The investigator asked the individuals if Smiley ever made them feel uncomfortable in the workplace, Smiley said.

“Only after threatening a lawsuit,” Smiley said, did investigators agree to sit down with him for an interview. “And even then, their minds must have been made up,” Smiley said, because almost immediately after the three-hour session ended, the Variety story broke.

Smiley alleged that investigators refused to look at certain documentation, refused to interview any of his current staff members, refused to give him the name of any of his accusers, and “refused to give me any semblance of due process.”

“It is clear that this has gone too far,” he said. “And I for one intend to fight back. PBS overreacted and they launched a sloppy investigation. It’s time for a real conversation in this country about where the lines are, about how men and women can engage each other in the workplace. And I look forward to actively participating in that conversation.”

In his written statement, Smiley said he learned more about the allegations through the Variety story than during his meeting with the investigator. His attorneys received a formal letter invoking a contractual provision to halt distribution of his program, “and that was it,” Smiley said.

He said the allegations “led to a rush to judgment” and trampled “on a reputation that I have spent an entire lifetime trying to establish.”

Smiley is the latest broadcast host to face misconduct allegations in recent weeks. Last month, PBS terminated its relationship with longtime television host Charlie Rose for “extremely disturbing and intolerable behavior” following a Washington Post report that detailed his alleged unwanted sexual advances toward women.

The PBS suspension came on the eve of his 15th season and the 3,000th episode of the “Tavis Smiley” show, which is produced by independent production company TS Media. While PBS has been airing the series since 2004, it does not employ Smiley or his staff.

The 30-minute news interview show airs weeknights and is filmed in Los Angeles. The show features interviews with politicians, celebrities, athletes, and other high-profile guests.

Smiley has written more than 18 books, including several that became New York Times bestsellers. He was also in the process of teaming up with J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot to develop a television adaptation of Smiley’s book “Before You Judge Me: The Triumph and Tragedy of Michael Jackson’s Last Days” for Warner Bros. Television.

He has been a vocal, and at times controversial activist on issues of race and politics. In 2009 TIME magazine named him to its list of “The World’s 100 Most Influential People.” He has received a W.E.B. Du Bois Medal from Harvard University and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

But growing up, Smiley was raised in a poor, Pentecostal family in a trailer outside Kokomo, Indiana. He lived alongside nine siblings and cousins, along with his stern mother and stepfather, he wrote in his memoir, “What I Know for Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America.”

His stepfather once beat him and his sister so brutally they were sent to the hospital and then to foster care for almost six months, Smiley wrote. The incident would prove damaging to his relationship with his parents for years.

Later, he was accepted to Indiana University in Bloomington, paying his way through loans and jobs. He left before graduating, and wouldn’t earn his bachelor’s degree until 2003. During the late 1980s, he served as an aide to Tom Bradley, then-mayor of Los Angeles.

And in the early 1990s, he began his career as a radio commentator. BET gave him his own show in 1996, “BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley.” Among his early interviews was a conversation with then-President Bill Clinton. He gave Smiley his first one-on-one interview following the explosion of the scandal involving Monica Lewinsky.

In 2002, Smiley hosted a show on NPR. During these years, he learned — the hard way — that he needed to control his temper, he later wrote in his book “Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure.”

He recalled one instance in which he was captured on a hot mic cursing, screaming and yelling at his producer at the time, the now-deceased Sheryl Flowers.

“We were off-air, the studio doors were closed, and I was at my extreme — cursing, flailing my arms, slapping the wall, and pounding the desk,” Smiley wrote. “I mean it was not my finest moment.”

“My point here is really Sheryl’s point long ago: We must be equally cautious about our personal, professional, workplace and shared spaces as citizens,” he wrote. “Intimidating, disruptive, and inappropriate behavior is all uncivil behavior.”

In 2004, when his PBS program premiered, Smiley’s first guest was Bill Cosby. Many years later, in the midst of the sexual assault trial against the once beloved comedian, Smiley wrote about the scandal in a commentary in USA Today.

“I have learned that ‘he said, she said’ dramas tend to be the most tantalizing, but that they are also the most tricky,” Smiley continued. “Especially in a case like this, because over time, there is so much truth decay.”

He said he does believe that actions have consequences. “But I also believe that some of us is not the sum of us; we are not our worst acts,” he added.

Privilege “can be poisonous,” he said. “In our arrogance, we can get caught up doing what’s expedient for us, taking advantage of and exploiting others.

The topic of sexual misconduct came up more recently, too, in an interview on his PBS show with former “Fox and Friends” host Gretchen Carlson, who received a $20 million settlement after suing the network’s late founder Roger Ailes of sexual harassment. She spoke to Smiley about recent sexual misconduct allegations emerging nationwide.

At one point, Smiley asked her about women who delay speaking out about sexual harassment allegations in the workplace.

“I’m sensitive to it and I totally get that,” he said. But, “you chose your career over being a whistleblower, and I’m just not sure that is the definition of courage and bravery … Is it courage and is it bravery if you come out after the fact rather than making a choice that my principles, my life, my womanhood, my dignity is more important than my career?”

Later, he asked Carlson: “What’s our assignment for all the men around the world, around this country?”

“Stop being enablers,” Carlson responded, “because that normalizes the culture.”

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