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Tavis Smiley Accuses PBS of Racial Bias in Contract Lawsuit

Tavis Smiley filed a lawsuit Tuesday accusing PBS of using a sham investigation into sexual misconduct complaints as a pretext to suspend his long-running talk show.

In the complaint, Smiley states that his relationship with the public broadcaster had been rocky for years, and that he was not viewed as a “team player.” He also accuses PBS of racial bias in its oversight of his program, saying that the network criticized his controversial black guests but not the controversial white ones.

Smiley also accused PBS of conducting audits of his books, while not auditing the books of shows that are managed by white people.

“PBS’s audits are based on the insulting stereotypical premise that an African American owned business will have shoddy accounting records,” the suit alleges.

PBS announced that it had suspended Smiley’s program, “The Tavis Smiley Show,” on Dec. 13, following complaints that Smiley had engaged in numerous sexual relationships with subordinates. Some employees also claimed that Smiley could be verbally abusive, and some feared that employment decisions were affected by Smiley’s relationships.

In a statement on Tuesday, a PBS spokesperson said, “Today’s meritless lawsuit is yet another example of Tavis Smiley’s attempts 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. 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 network said.

In the suit, Smiley alleges that PBS only funded 20% of his show’s budget, forcing him to seek underwriting for the remainder. He also says that he refused to participate in PBS promotional campaigns, which angered PBS executives. The PBS execs who first agreed to distribute his show in 2002 have since left the network, leaving Smiley without a genuine relationship with management, the suit states.

Smiley chafed at PBS’ oversight of his program, saying the network’s bosses were “hostile” to his editorial content.

“Mr. Smiley has focused his show on a variety of issues, but, in particular, on issues that matter to persons of color and the need for dialog and conversation about such values,” the suit states. “PBS, however, has presented complaints and hassled Mr. Smiley when he had African American guests who espoused controversial positions, and effectively tried to stop any such guests from appearing.”

Smiley alleges that PBS used the atmosphere around the #MeToo movement as a way to get rid of him. In an interview with PBS’s investigator, Smiley admitted to consensual relationships with employees, but said that such relationships were not barred by the policies of his production company, TS Media. He also said that he did not have the power to hire and fire the women with whom he had relationships.

TS Media laid off 20 people following the suspension.

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