Tavis Smiley Hits PBS With Lawsuit

Talk-show host says public broadcaster acted in a “racially hostile manner”

Last Updated: February 20, 2018 @ 5:20 PM

Tavis Smiley, whose PBS series was pulled from the air in December after accusations of misconduct were leveled against the host, has now filed a lawsuit against the broadcaster, according to court papers obtained by TheWrap.

In the suit, filed Tuesday in Washington, D.C., Smiley accuses of PBS of acting in “a racially hostile manner” over the years.

“For example, PBS harassed Mr. Smiley about inviting controversial African American figures on to his show. However, when Mr. Smiley brought equally controversial (if not more so) white figures, PBS remained silent,” the suit reads. “This was not an isolated incident but happened multiple times during the fourteen years PBS and [TS Media] were in business together.”

The suit goes on to say that, after the misconduct allegation arose, PBS launched an investigation that was “poorly executed and incomplete.”

“Based on this incomplete, trumped-up investigation, and in violation of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, PBS decided to use a technical provision in its contract with TSM to stop distributing Tavis Smiley – the only nightly television show featuring a person of color as the host,” the suit reads. “With the relationship already having deteriorated, this allegation gave PBS executives a pretext to finally rid themselves of Mr. Smiley who was not the ‘team player’ type of African American personality PBS preferred to have hosting a nightly national news and public affairs program.”

The suit also says that PBS dragged its feet in interviewing Smiley about the accusation, and has refused to provide the substance of the allegations and the names of the accusers. “In fact, PBS had no intention of providing Mr. Smiley with an opportunity to defend himself because it had already decided that this allegation provided a perfect opportunity to rid itself of its tense relationship with TSM and Mr. Smiley,” the suit reads.

A PBS spokesperson called the lawsuit “meritless” in a statement to TheWrap, adding that Smiley is attempting “to distract the public from his pattern of sexual misconduct in the workplace.”

“As PBS has consistently stated, following receipt of a complaint alleging inappropriate conduct by Mr. Smiley, PBS hired an independent law firm to conduct an investigation,” PBS’ statement continued. “The ongoing investigation, which included a lengthy interview with Mr. Smiley, revealed that he had multiple sexual encounters with subordinates over many years and yielded credible allegations of additional misconduct inconsistent with the values and standards of PBS. That is what led PBS to the decision to indefinitely suspend distribution of Mr. Smiley’s program.”

“The notion that PBS’ decision to suspend distribution of the program was made for any reason aside from Mr. Smiley’s own behavior is ridiculous and false,” the broadcaster’s statement concluded.

In December, PBS announced that it had decided to “indefinitely suspend” Smiley’s eponymous show, which he had hosted since 2004.

“Effective today, PBS has indefinitely suspended distribution of ‘Tavis Smiley,’ produced by TS Media, an independent production company,” a PBS spokesperson told TheWrap. “PBS 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.”

Smiley has denied engaging in misconduct.