Ousted PBS host Tavis Smiley takes the issue of sexual misconduct on the road
It’s been close to two months since PBS host Tavis Smiley was suspended and his namesake nightly talk show yanked off the air following allegations of sexual misconduct with several subordinates.
With the exception of a defiant Facebook post and an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” in which he vehemently declared his innocence, and in a statement accused PBS of “a biased and sloppy investigation,” Smiley has maintained a relatively low public profile. But he is now emerging to demonstrate that he has no intention of going quietly into the late night.
First he announced a deal this month for a new inspirational series called “The Upside With Tavis Smiley” to air in April on the Word Network, a religious broadcaster with cable and digital platforms aimed largely at an African American audience. And on Monday night, the veteran host and author kicked off a five-city tour of town halls titled “The Conversation: Women, Men and the Workplace,” in which he and a panel of experts and scholars address the #MeToo movement and what he termed the confusing and conflicting dynamics in the workplace between male and female employees.
Despite Smiley’s place on the constantly growing list of celebrities and public figures who have been sidelined due to charges of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior, he said that he is not using the gatherings as his public relations vehicle.
“Let me say up front, this conversation is not about me, this is about ‘we,’ ” Smiley said to an audience of around 200 people at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, stressing that he would not talk about his situation during the 90-minute forum.“There needs to be a national conversation about these issues.”
I haven’t run from this, I’m not hiding. I’ve answered every single question that’s been asked of me. But my principal responsibility is to get back to work.
Dressed in a black jacket and vest and wearing a white shirt, Smiley added, “There are companies that are trying to figure out how to navigate the space. There are companies that are forbidding you to hug.”
The audience, almost equally divided between men and women, listened politely as Smiley stood at a podium and engaged the four-member panel, which included Melina Abdullah, professor and chair of Pan-African Studies at Cal State Los Angeles, and psychologist Carole Lieberman. Instead of allowing audience members to ask spontaneous questions, Smiley read inquiries from the audience written on cards. None of the questions that he read mentioned his situation.
Before the event, Smiley indicated to reporters that the irony of him hosting a town hall on sexual misconduct in the workplace was not lost on him. But when asked if he would be coordinating the event if he were not personally impacted, Smiley maintained that his main goal was to initiate more communication and understanding on the fiery topic.
“First of all, I’ve been discussing this issue for years,” he said. “It’s not new for me. Second, there’s no doubt that this situation has made my situation even more acute for me.”
He added, “I haven’t run from this, I’m not hiding. I’ve answered every single question that’s been asked of me. But my principal responsibility is to get back to work.”
From Los Angeles the town halls will move on this week to libraries, churches and universities in New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Indianapolis.
As for his status with PBS, Smiley said during the Monday interview that he still has little information about the suspension. “Eight weeks later, I still don’t know who the accusers are, what the allegations were. But even though I don’t have a lot of answers, I still have a lot of questions.”
Last month on his “Good Morning America” appearance, he didn’t deny that he had consensual sexual relationships with subordinates at the company he owns. But he said that in his 30-year career he had never “groped, coerced or exposed myself inappropriately.”
A PBS spokesperson said the investigation of Smiley by an independent law firm is still ongoing and that distribution of the show remains suspended indefinitely.
In a statement provided after Smiley’s “Good Morning America” appearance, PBS was critical of the TV personality’s reaction to its investigation and reluctance to name the accusers. “Mr. Smiley claims he applauds women who have come forward, yet his company requires former and current employees to sign nondisclosure agreements,” the statement read. “Witnesses who have bravely come forward to speak with the independent investigators retained by PBS report a fear of retribution for speaking out. PBS stands by its decision to respect the anonymity of those who are afraid to come forward publicly.”
In Southern California, Smiley’s 11 p.m. time slot has been given to “Amanpour on PBS,” hosted by Christiane Amanpour, who has stepped in on an interim basis after talk-show host Charlie Rose was accused of multiple cases of sexual misconduct.
Unlike many others accused of sexual misconduct — including Rose, who with the exception of sightings in restaurants, has largely stayed out of the public eye — Smiley seems determined to forge a public path following the accusations.
“This town hall tour is something we need to have in a democratic space to give us an opportunity to talk about it with each other,” he said during the Monday interview.
Later onstage he framed part of the issue as a disconnect between men and women. “If that Mars-Venus thing is real,” he said, “if men and women are speaking different languages, how then in this moment do we learn to better communicate?”
Following the town hall series, he will work on his new television show, which “will focus on people who have overcome all kinds of obstacles,” he said. “It’s about resilience.”
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