Give Tavis Smiley this much: He isn’t slinking away. Unlike other prominent men who’ve been publicly accused of sexual harassment, Smiley is doing what he’s always done — talking. Almost incessantly, in fact.
Since his talk show was dropped by PBS amid accusations of workplace misconduct, Smiley has given multiple interviews professing his innocence. He claims he was railroaded and “publicly shamed,” a victim of a post-Harvey Weinstein rush to judgment.
And this week, he began a five-city road show to talk about . . . workplace harassment.
His panel discussion, “Women and Men in the Workplace,” moderated by Smiley and featuring a slate of female experts on the topic, pulled into Washington on Wednesday with a stop at George Washington University. It’s either a public service, a redemption tour or a supreme act of chutzpah by Smiley, whose talk career has spanned BET, NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Tom Joyner radio program.
A PBS investigation in December uncovered “multiple, credible allegations” of misconduct, according to a spokeswoman. He was one of several public-broadcasting figures who’ve gotten the heave-ho over harassment — among them, Charlie Rose, Michael Oreskes and Garrison Keillor.
Smiley says he’s still perplexed about his ouster. “I don’t know anything more than I did eight weeks ago,” he told The Washington Post. “I don’t know who the accusers are. I don’t know what the specific allegations are. I don’t know dates, places, times.”
For the record, Smiley was booted for a pattern of sexual relationships with those who worked for his production company. Variety reported that PBS found that he had had affairs with “multiple subordinates” and that some staffers believed “their employment status was linked to the status of a sexual relationship with Smiley.” The publication also reported findings of “a verbally abusive and threatening environment.”
Which kind of makes him an odd figure to lead a multicity discussion about harassment, no?
No, Smiley says.
“For people who suggest that I’m not the appropriate person [to discuss this], I have to somewhat disagree, respectfully and with humility,” he says. “When you’ve been dragged through a situation like this, I obviously have a personal connection, but I also feel this issue more acutely. I’ve got more questions now than I’ve ever had about workplace protocol.”
Feels it acutely? You bet. Smiley says the allegations cost him his job and those of the 20 people employed by his production company. A sponsor, Walmart, dropped him. The producers of a stage adaptation of a book he wrote about Martin Luther King, “Death of a King,” scrapped the production just as it was about to begin a 40-city tour.
“Either we believe in the presumption of innocence or we don’t,” he says. “So if your argument is that I shouldn’t be doing this because I’ve been accused of something — something that I have denied — then what side are you really on when it comes to this notion of presumption of innocence? That’s been troubling for me. So anybody accused of something, whether proven or not, should go run and hide?”
He adds: “I happen to be a Christian. I’m glad Jesus didn’t go run and hide when they accused him of wrongdoing.”
The Smiley-led discussion was wide-ranging and generally high-minded, though the audience was sparse. About 35 people dotted the large auditorium as Smiley chatted up Harvard Law School lecturer Stephanie Robinson, economist Julianne Malveaux and management consultant Julie Kantor.
The conversation touched on gender, race, discrimination, millennials, capitalism, Hollywood and the media. Once in a while, it seemed to stray in the direction of Smiley’s own circumstances, albeit without actually mentioning Smiley.
“You can’t say that women are right and truthful and men are liars,” said Robinson at one point. “And I think that is what is happening in the court of public opinion. It’s problematic that we allow people to come out and say whatever they want to say publicly about someone, destroy someone’s life and family and they don’t have to put more out on the table to speak to the credibility and veracity” of their allegations.
Malveaux jumped in, citing the ambiguous accusations against Aziz Ansari, the actor-comedian. “This man has had his name dragged through the mud,” she said. “I think that’s just blatantly unfair.”
Malveaux elicited some uneasy laughs when she wound up a monologue about the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill harassment case with a gratuitous crack about the physical appearance of Thomas’s wife, Virginia.
After opening in Los Angeles and New Orleans, the road show continued to Chicago on Thursday and was scheduled to end in Indianapolis on Friday.
Smiley thinks he’ll be among the few whose career survives the scarlet letter of a harassment controversy. He says he’s come back once before, in 2001, after he was fired by BET over a business matter.
His next project is an online and cable talk show called “The Upside With Tavis Smiley,” which will be carried by the Word Network, a religious broadcaster. It’s an interview show “about people who have overcome adversity,” he says. And he doesn’t mean himself.