Tavis Smiley and the Debate on Sexual Harassment, Subordinates and Power

Tavis Smiley and the Debate on Sexual Harassment, Subordinates and Power


It Started with Weinstein. It started with former Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein. After a wave of sexual harassment allegations hit the Hollywood community and spread to other high profile industries, a debate over sexual harassment in the workplace and the details of what is appropriate has continued for the last three months.  

Before October of this year, Weinstein was primarily known as a Hollywood mogel who co-founded Miramax studios.  He and his brother produced hugely successful films such as Pulp Fiction (1994) and Shakespeare in Love (1998), a film Weinstein would win an Oscar for. 

In October 2017, The New York Times and The New Yorker reported that over 10 women alleged that Weinstein had sexually harassed them. The harassment ranged from  leveraging sex for roles to an accusation of rape.

The allegations triggered the #MeToo social media campaign as well as a wave of sexual harassment allegations that in many cases would lead to the almost immediate firing of the accused — particularly if the number of accusers was high. It also caused a fast moving train of allegations against other alleged offenders without much detail. That has had many worried about fairness and due process.

The details regarding why former Congressman Harold Ford was suddenly fired by Morgan Stanley and removed from MSNBC are not yet known. The details around why New York Magazine journalist and CNN commentator Ryan Lizza was fired aren’t either. At the Detroit Free Press, Pulitzer Prize winning writer Stephen Henderson was fired for alleged sexual misconduct in a case that is likely to end up in court.

The power dynamics are obvious: Typically men control the workplace and decisions regarding who is hired and promoted and how much money they will earn. But as more allegations move forward into the court of public opinion, many are starting to ask whether it is fair for people to lose their livelihoods after relatively fast internal investigations. This particular point of analysis occurred after PBS took Tavis Smiley’s show off the air. 

PBS suspended the distribution of Smiley’s talk show in early December 2017 citing “multiple, credible allegations,” against him regarding sexual harassment. Smiley defended himself after his show was taken off the air by saying that he was engaged in consensual intimate relations with subordinate colleagues. Many argued that the nature of the boss/subordinate relationship alone is a platform for harassment. Others argue that many people engage in consensual relationships with co-workers and have in many cases later married. Famous examples include Mika Brezinski and Joe Scarborough, Bill and Melinda Gates and Barack and Michelle Obama. 

On “Good Morning America” on December 18, the 53 year old talk show host said, “I’ve never groped, I’ve never coerced” female staffers into sexual relations “in 30 years over six different networks. I celebrate and applaud these women who had the courage to come out… but people end up being guilty simply by accusations.”

There has been discussions regarding overcorrection, lack of due process and whether accusers should be believed without evidence and fact-checking. Some have wondered if the accusation is all that is needed to be punished even though no proof is presented.

Mr. Smiley, or course, follows film mogul Harvey Weinstein, comedian Louis C.K., morning show anchors Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose, and a host of other famous men who have lost their high profile jobs this year, swept up in the so-called “MeToo” movement.

“Tavis FYI sexual harassment is NOT just about physical assault, groping, it is also about intimidation and abuse of POWER! You used your POWER to push women in loser positions at PBS for SEX! The issue is POWER dynamics buddy!,” wrote writer Orville Lloyd Douglas on twitter.

“Sounds like Tavis Smiley doesn’t understand what sexual harassment means. It is NOT just about physical assault or groping someone for sex. It also means using HIS POWER and INFLUENCE to intimidate someone else especially a coworker with LESS POWER at PBS than Smiley,” Douglass added.

“I agree with many of the issues Tavis Smiley is bringing up. We are losing due process and ruining innocent people. It is a fact of life that people fall in love in the workplace. Those relationships are not sexual harassment based. We can’t sterilize falling in love,” wrote attorney Cathy Lindberg on twitter.

After false politically motivated accusations were reported by the office of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), many pointed out that sexually harassment could easily be weaponized for political purposes.  Without due process and knowing the details of each case that is a point well taken.

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Lauren Victoria Burke
Lauren Victoria Burke is a writer, comms strategist and political analyst. She created Crewof42, a blog focused on African American members of Congress, in 2009. Ms. Burke also writes for NBC BLK, The Root, NNPA and is the Managing Editor of Politic365. As part of a diverse career in politics and media, she has served as a congressional staffer for the U.S. Senate Democratic Policy Committee, Communications Director for U.S. Rep. Andre Carson (D-IN) and Director of Communications for Justin Fairfax for Lt. Governor of Virginia. From 2014 to 2017, Ms. Burke appeared each Monday on NewsOneNow with Roland Martin on TVOne. Ms. Burke holds a B.A. in History from The American University. She was born and raised in New York. Email: LBurke007@gmail.com. Twitter: @LVBurke. IG: @laurenvburke. Periscope: @LVBurke