Advertisement
  1. Nation & World

From Matt Damon to Tavis Smiley, media face challenges with 'spectrum' of sexual misconduct

Tavis Smiley appears at the 33rd annual ASCAP Pop Music Awards in Los Angeles in April 2016. PBS says it has suspended distribution of Smiley's talk show after an independent investigation uncovered "multiple, credible allegations" of misconduct by its host. [Rich Fury | Invision/AP]
Published Dec. 26, 2017

NEW YORK — Talk-show host Tavis Smiley isn't just angry at PBS for firing him on sexual misconduct charges. He's angry about his depiction in the media.

Smiley believes that if he hadn't talked publicly about romantic relationships with subordinates at his company, the behavior that led to his downfall, the public would make little distinction between him and those who have been accused of sexual assault or rape.

Conflation of different forms of misbehavior — the idea itself is controversial — is one of the issues facing media organizations covering the fast-moving story of sexual misconduct that went into overdrive with investigations into Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein's behavior.

"The media is painting with too broad a brush," Smiley said. "We have lost all sense of nuance and proportionality in how we cover these stories."

Actor Matt Damon was torched for broaching the topic recently. He told ABC News that all accused men shouldn't be lumped together because there's a spectrum of behavior. There's a difference between a pat on the rear and child molestation, he said.

"Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn't be conflated, right?" he said.

Actress Minnie Driver called Damon tone-deaf. Actress Alyssa Milano, who began a cultural movement by urging other women who have been harassed to proclaim #MeToo on social media, tweeted in reply that victims are hurt by all forms of misconduct. All are evidence of misogyny.

Still, as the rush of stories about misbehavior slows down — if it slows down — the point Damon raises will loom larger. Debate over the consequences of Sen. Al Franken's groping continues despite his resignation. The New York Times noted the difficulties in deciding whether to fire reporter Glenn Thrush following documentation of his unwanted drunken advances on women. Thrush was suspended and stripped of his White House beat.

The New York Daily News groups many of its stories about misconduct allegations under the tag "Perv Nation." The newspaper makes clear that not all allegations are the same, said Daily News executive Rebecca Baker, also president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

However, she said, "I don't think the media can tell people what to think or stop people from conflating things."

Society is in the midst of a debate over changing norms of behavior that's very intense and not very organized, said Nicholas Lemann, former dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Distinctions can fall by the wayside with the temperature so high, he said.

"It's a good way for society to change its values," Lemann said. "It's a bad way to protect individual rights."

In Smiley's case, PBS agreed that his history of dating subordinates was the central issue in his firing. But a PBS statement also spoke mysteriously of "other conduct," giving no other details in order to protect the privacy of people who complained about him.

An unwillingness, or inability, to specify behavior that results in discipline can contribute to conflation. In firing reporter Ryan Lizza, the New Yorker magazine cited "improper sexual behavior." Lizza said his bosses mischaracterized "a respectful relationship with a woman I dated." Her lawyer disputed this, saying the relationship wasn't respectful, but wouldn't say why.

A television news producer recently dismissed because of his behavior is concerned that he will be lumped in with bad-behaving media men like Matt Lauer or Charlie Rose, and had his lawyer issue a statement saying his client was never "accused of any physical contact, language of a sexual nature or any sort of lewd conduct."

But how he's judged is ultimately out of his control, since neither employer nor employee will publicly say what the person actually did that cost him his job.

Early stories on misconduct cases — think the Times and New Yorker on Weinstein, The Washington Post on Rose and Roy Moore — were meticulously reported and have proven airtight. The challenge for news organizations is maintaining that rigor with more women coming forward to tell their stories and the pressure for scoops ratchets up.

"If you don't have one of these things really nailed down, it's a very bad thing for you," Lemann said. "Whoever gets one of these things wrong, it's going to be very embarrassing."

The story has already led to some unorthodox decisions. Vox.com assigned a woman who alleged harassment by Thrush, who said the incident still made her angry, to report and write on accusations by her and others. Having someone with a clear personal stake report such a sensitive story would make many news organizations squeamish, although no substantive questions have been raised about her work.

Conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt wrote in The Washington Post about rough justice being dispensed by the media, "much of it deserved." Even the worst offenders deserve due process, he said. It isn't easy or quick — but other victims are watching, wondering whether it is safe to speak out.

"Rarely does media have such a complicated job with stakes as high as these," he wrote.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. President Donald Trump boards Air Force One at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, in San Diego, Calif. EVAN VUCCI  |  AP
    The lawsuit opens a new legal front in Trump’s long-running fight to prevent his tax returns from becoming public.
  2. Khaseen Morris was stabbed in the chest during a large brawl among teens at a strip mall Monday afternoon in Oceanside, N.Y. Facebook/Nassau Police Department
    Khaseen Morris, 16, was killed during a brawl at a strip mall Monday in Oceanside, N.Y.
  3. In this April 24, 2019, photo, American Airlines aircraft are shown parked at their gates at Miami International Airport in Miami. A bail hearing is scheduled for a mechanic charged with sabotaging an American Airlines jetliner as part of a labor dispute. Prosecutors are seeking pretrial detention for 60-year-old Abdul-Majeed Marouf Ahmed Alani at a hearing Wednesday. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File) WILFREDO LEE  |  AP
    His arraignment on a sabotage-related charge is scheduled for Friday; if convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.
  4. President Donald Trump tours a section of the southern border wall, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, in Otay Mesa, Calif., with the Commanding General of the Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite third from left, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan, third from right and acting Homeland Secretary Kevin McAleenan, second from right. EVAN VUCCI  |  AP
    “It was like a sheet metal, and people would just knock it over like just routinely,” Trump said, referring to the initial layer that was replaced.
  5. Canadian Prime Minister and Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau reacts as he makes a statement in regards to a photo coming to light of himself from 2001, wearing "brownface," during a scrum on his campaign plane in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. SEAN KILPATRICK  |  AP
    “I’m pissed off at myself, I’m disappointed in myself,” Trudeau told reporters traveling with him on his campaign plane.
  6. FILE - In this Aug. 29, 2019 file photo, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a forum titled "Common Security in the Islamic World" in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In an interview published by CNN Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019, Zarif warned that any U.S. or Saudi military strike on Iran will result in "all-out war." It comes after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called an attack on Saudi oil installations an "act of war." VINCENT THIAN  |  AP
    Zarif’s comments also appeared to be in response to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who a day earlier while traveling to Saudi Arabia referred to the attack as an “act of war.”
  7. Adelaida Borges reads fortunes for tourists visiting Old Havana. She misses American customers, who came more frequently before the Trump administration restricted travel to the island. TRACEY EATON  |  Special to the Times
    Both countries continue battle of wills and words over island’s future.
  8. This Feb. 14, 2019, photo released by Caltrans District 3 shows a 7-mile back up on the South bound Interstate 5, as it reopens to traffic in Maxwell in Colusa County, Calif. The Trump administration is poised revoke California’s authority to set auto mileage standards, asserting that only the federal government has the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and fuel economy. AP
    In a tweet, Trump said his move would result in less expensive and safer cars.
  9. In this July 22, 2008, photo, traffic passes in front of the New York Times building in New York. MARK LENNIHAN  |  AP
    The allegation stems from their reporting on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
  10. FILE - In this July 30, 2019, file photo, Robert O'Brien, U.S. Special Envoy Ambassador, arrives at the district court where U.S. rapper A$AP Rocky is to appear on charges of assault, in Stockholm, Sweden. President Donald Trump says he plans to name O'Brien to be his new national security adviser. ERIK SIMANDER  |  AP
    The announcement of O’Brien’s selection comes a week after Trump ousted John Bolton from the post, citing policy disagreements
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement