Tavis Smiley: “The Fight of His Life”
(Smiley Contends That The #MeToo Movement Has Gone Too Far and He Is Not Alone)
On December 13, with a statement that it had hired a law firm to conduct an investigation, PBS said that it had indefinitely suspended Tavis Smiley “after learning of troubling allegations”.
According to the network, the suspension stemmed from what was characterized as multiple, credible allegations of conduct inconsistent with their values and standards. The move followed its decision a few weeks earlier to end its partnership with talk show host Charlie Rose after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct.
Smiley, who says he was as shocked as anyone else by PBS’ announcement, learned of the move on the eve of the 15th season and 3,000th episode of his nightly talk show and immediately issued a statement of his own.
“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.”
Smiley, who has not had the hint of impropriety in his three-decade long career in TV, is just the latest celebrity rocked by sexual assault allegations in the wake of the “#MeToo movement on social media that was ignited by the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
Created by black activist Tarana Burke in 2007, the post went viral in October after actress Alyssa Milano encouraged followers—via Twitter—to post ‘me too’ as a reply to her tweet if they had experienced sexual assault or harassment.
According to Twitter, the hashtag was tweeted nearly a million times in 48 hours. Facebook reported more than 12 million posts, comments, and reactions in less than 24 hours by 4.7 million users around the world, noting that 45 percent of U.S. users had friends who’d posted ‘me too.’ It has since appeared millions of times and spread to 85 countries and morphed into one of the biggest news stories of 2017.
The fallout from the subsequent revelations of alleged sexual impropriety led to the high-profile firings of Today Show anchor Matt Lauer, actor Kevin Spacey and Charlie Rose while prompting those like Congressman John Conyers, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson to step down. In total, over 90 public figures have either stepped down or been forced out #MeToo hashtag went viral.
But as the movement continues to mushroom and allegations spread from Hollywood and the media to the U.S. Congress and more recently, the sports world, so too have concerns that the movement is being politicized and weaponized.
After catching flak, MC Lyte, deleted her post criticizing the #MeToo movement. Lyte had called out women who flirt and then claim harassment when they don’t like the alleged harasser. Actress Rose McGowan was accused of using the campaign to enforce her own personal vendettas when she attacked Meryl Streep suggesting—despite the Oscar winner’s denials—that she knew of Weinstein’s sexual misconduct, to which another columnist countered, “if we are supposed to be women, why don’t we believe Streep.”
And in a recent op-ed published by The Washington Post, a writer encouraged fellow conservatives to push U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to resign over the near three decades old sexual harassment allegations lodged by former EEOC co-worker Anita Hill that were publicly mitigated in an infamous 1991 Senate confirmation hearing.
But the biggest concerns are being voiced by those who question whether or not what is being defined as sexual harassment and or assault might perhaps be classified as a simple case of inappropriate behavior or misinterpreted actions.
One caller into a radio station noted, “I used to compliment my female coworkers and tried to notice when they changed their hair or had a nice dress on. I no longer do so out of fear of a harassment accusation.”
“We are officially #offtherails,” read one post.
Actor Matt Damon ignited a social media storm when he noted: “I do believe that there’s a spectrum of behavior. And we’re going to have to figure—you know, there’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right?”
Damon is not alone as many feel the lines are blurred.
Conservative columnist Christine Flowers called the #MeToo movement “unwieldy and unforgiving, mixing all sorts of conduct together and retroactively stigmatizing acts that — until the social media age — were considered boorish and brutish but not capital offenses.”
“There needs to be some type of line, some type of rule, some type of standard that we go by,” wrote Huffington Post contributor Philip Rotner. “It’s almost as though people are guilty until proven innocent. And there is concern.”
“The media is painting with too broad a brush,” Smiley told the Associated Press. “We have lost all sense of nuance and proportionality in how we cover these stories.”
Smiley acknowledged that he had engaged in consensual sexual relationships with coworkers and could prove they were indeed consensual with letters, cards, gifts and, photos, but staunchly denied any misconduct.
Guilty or not, Smiley not only lost his show, but his upcoming national tour, "Death of a King: A Live Theatrical Experience," has been scrapped with both its lead sponsor Walmart, and production company, Mills Entertainment, backing out.
In a series of public appearances from CNN to Good Morning America, Smiley denied the claims against him and warned that he would fight them in court, stating “If this can’t be resolved some other way, and if this does, in fact, end up in court, millions of taxpayer dollars are going to be spent by PBS defending themselves.”
PBS, however, has maintained its stance, even writing in a statement following his Good Morning America appearance, "Tavis Smiley needs to get his story straight."
"Today on 'Good Morning America,' Mr. Smiley acknowledged he has had multiple sexual encounters with his employees, then struggled to recall the number of current employees with whom he has had sex,” read the statement. “This contradicts his Facebook post from last week, where he cited only one previous relationship with an employee.
"In contrast, PBS has been consistent: PBS stands by the integrity of its investigation, which has been conducted by an outside firm with expertise in such matters. Mr. Smiley's own words today, coupled with the information discovered during the investigation, confirms PBS' decision to indefinitely suspend the distribution of 'Tavis Smiley.'"
“There’s a lot more behind this,” Smiley suggested to Fox News Commentator Tucker Carlson.
“It’s strange when you finally get a three-hour meeting, within an hour and a half after that meeting ends, they pull the plug on the show. Clearly, when we went into that three-hour meeting, PBS already had made up its mind.
“So, about 90 minutes after this meeting ended, we got the letter that they were…indefinitely suspending my program. And 12 minutes after that, this exclusive story broke in Variety. So, I ask: How does an exclusive story break 12 minutes after we were informed that the plug is being pulled?”
To be sure, workplace relationships tend to muddy the waters as both women and men entertain flirtations that in many cases has led to lasting relationships. An informal 2015 survey of 2,373 individuals from Mic.com, found that 17.9 percent of men and women under 35 had met their significant others through work.
A point made by Smiley as well.
"Henry Kissinger met his wife in the workplace,” said Smiley. “Bill Gates met his wife in the workplace. We all know Barack Obama met Michelle Obama in the workplace."
One very real fear is that men stop hiring, meeting or socializing with female co-workers out of fear that their words or actions might be taken out of context. Many are adopting the “Pence Rule”, named after Vice-President Mike Pence, who said he doesn't ever meet alone or have dinner alone with female colleagues in order to avoid any perception of impropriety.
Well before the Pence rule, mega pastors like Apostle Frederick K.C. Price (Crenshaw Christian Center) and Bishop Kenneth Ulmer (Faithful Central Bible Church) adhered to similar policies to avoid the hint of scandal.
Of course, the biggest backlash risk for the movement are false accusation made for personal, vindictive reasons or for political, financial strategic reasons, thus undermining the stories of those who have been genuinely impacted.
According to a 2015 Cosmopolitan survey of more than 2,000, a third of women between 18 and 34 reported being sexually harassed at work with the harassment even more prevalent for the two thirds of women who are low wage earners —more vulnerable and less likely to report out of fear they will lose their jobs.
The worst-case scenario, reported Detroit Free Press Columnist Rochelle Riley, is that corporations and companies across the board begin to use fear of being accused to hire men rather than women.
Already there are reports by some women feeling left out of conversations and or meetings they would normally have been included in.
“Let’s make sure it does not have the unintended consequence of holding women back Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg observed in a post.
“Too many workplaces lack clear policies about how to handle accusations of sexual harassment,” Sandberg continued. “Some investigations come down to one person’s word against another’s. There are consensual workplace relationships that make others uncomfortable or turn ugly, or harassment that doesn’t involve sex but does involve sexism.
“Every workplace should start with clear principles, then institute policies to support them. First, develop workplace training that sets the standard for respectful behavior at work, so people understand right from the start what’s expected of them. Second, treat all claims – and the people who voice them – with seriousness, urgency, and respect. Third, create an investigation process that protects employees from stigma or retaliation. Fourth, follow a process that is fairly and consistently applied in every case, both for victims and those accused. Fifth, take swift and decisive action when wrongdoing has occurred. And sixth, make it clear that all employees have a role to play in keeping workplaces safe – and that enablers and failed gatekeepers are complicit when they stay silent or look the other way.”
To that end, Hollywood executives united to form and Commission on Sexual and named as their chair, Anita Hill, while the Congressional Black Caucus announced plans to hold sexual harassment training for members.
“For too long, too many people have believed that there’s no point in reporting harassment – that nothing will happen, or worse, that it will negatively impact their career,” Sandberg noted. “On the other side, some people are scared that their reputations will be ruined unfairly. Having a consistent and fair process that applies to everyone helps protect against both scenarios and restores a degree of faith in the system.”
Said Smiley, “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.”
It was Tarana Burke, an African-American activist, who began to use the phrase "Me Too" more than a decade ago, as a way to give "empowerment through empathy" to survivors of sexual abuse, assault and harassment, especially those in marginalized communities.
Burke, who was recently named as one of the "The Silence Breakers," Time's Person of the Year, is the founder and director of Just Be Inc., a nonprofit "focused on the health, well-being and wholeness of young women of color," has also created an online support network for sexual assault survivors.
In a recent interview with the Houston Chronicle, Burke says of the movement she started: “I didn't envision it unrolling this way, but I did envision a world where we could use something like "me too" as a way for people to communicate not necessarily to disclose about what happened to them, not just to disclose about what happened to them but where people could communicate our solidarity around the fight against sexual violence, and I'm seeing that happen.
“There are so many people who need support that the agencies and organizations that are set up to help them are going to be overwhelmed and are going to need lots more resources. And so, we have to make sure that this groundswell of support translates into resources for those organizations doing that work.”