CBS denied Les Moonves his payout. But it isn’t off the hook.
By Jon Allsop
Les Moonves is getting nothing. Yesterday, the board of CBS—where Moonves resigned as chairman and CEO in September after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct—announced it was firing Moonves for cause, and would not be paying him a $120 million severance package. Moonves, the board said, misled lawyers that the company appointed to investigate his conduct: deleting text messages, for example, that showed his attempts to bury a decades-old allegation of sexual assault.
The decision capped—or, more likely, continued—a woeful stretch for CBS. In November 2017, at the height of the #MeToo movement, it fired Charlie Rose after Irin Carmon and Amy Brittain wrote in The Washington Post that eight women had accused him of harassment; the women alleged, among other things, that Rose groped them and got naked in their presence. In May, Carmon and Brittain broke 27 more women’s testimony about Rose, whose conduct, they added, was flagged to managers at least three times over a 30-year period. Over the summer, attention turned to Moonves, who, The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow reported, was the subject of six allegations of sexual misconduct. Moonves resigned in early September after a second Farrow story dug up six further allegations against him. Farrow’s reporting also implicated Jeff Fager, the former executive producer of 60 Minutes, who was accused of inappropriate touching and of overseeing a broader toxic culture in CBS’s news division. A few days after Moonves stepped aside, CBS fired Fager after he sent a threatening text message to Jericka Duncan, a CBS reporter covering the chaos at her company.
Although three high-profile heads already rolled, journalists have continued their efforts to expose Moonves’s past conduct and the ongoing rot at CBS. The New York Times has been particularly aggressive. Most notable among a rash of embarrassing stories in the paper were James B. Stewart, Rachel Abrams, and Ellen Gabler’s report that Moonves worked with a Hollywood talent manager to bury a sexual assault claim from 1995, and Abrams and John Koblin’s story that CBS paid a $9.5 million settlement to Eliza Dushku, who says she was written out of Bull after confronting its star over his behavior on set. Abrams and Koblin also reported that CBS pays an annual stipend to a woman who was allegedly abused by Don Hewitt, Fager’s predecessor at 60 Minutes, who died in 2009.
Taken together, these stories show a network that needs root-and-branch reform when it comes to safeguarding employees’ wellbeing. While the decision to deny Moonves his severance hogged headlines, that picture was importantly backed up yesterday by the lawyers CBS appointed to investigate Moonves, who reported that the network’s “anti-harassment and other personnel policies were not as robust as others they had seen at other companies,” according to the Times. In particular, the lawyers spotlighted one policy—“which explained that employees who complain about discrimination or harassment might experience ‘negative employment action’ that would not be considered retaliation”—as “tone-deaf” and “highly unusual.”
#MeToo is no longer a “moment” for journalism—it’s become a permanent addition to the news cycle. While it’s important that high-profile perpetrators are held accountable for their actions, it’s equally important, if not more so, to train scrutiny on the systems that enabled their behavior. Recent reporting on CBS has done that well, showing that news value can continue to be added to a story even after its main characters have fallen from grace. By exposing the full historical sweep of a problem, journalists increase the odds that it won’t be repeated—however slim they may still be.
Below, more on Les Moonves and CBS:
- The payout that went ahead: As part of its post-Moonves process, CBS pledged to donate $20 million to organizations working to eliminate workplace sexual harassment. Last week, it named 18 beneficiaries.
- The payout that did not go ahead: According to Bloomberg’s Steven Dennis, Moonves’s $120 million severance package would have been more than the combined salary of every president in US history.
- A ratings plunge: Last week, CBS News settled with three women who accused it of not doing enough to protect them from Charlie Rose. Since Rose was fired last year, the ratings for CBS This Morning, which he co-anchored, have plummeted. On Friday, Ryan Kadro, its executive producer, told staff he was stepping down, Variety’s Brian Steinberg reports.
- Corporate drama: CBS’s recent woes have unfolded against a backdrop of boardroom battles, focused, in particular, on principal owner Shari Redstone’s longstanding ambition to recombine CBS and Viacom. Though Moonves, who was opposed to the merger, has stepped aside, dramatic obstacles remain. Vanity Fair’s William D. Cohan has a write-through.
Other notable stories
- As promised, the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday released two reports on malicious Russian activity on social media. According to one of them, Instagram has been a particularly important locus for this activity: Russian propaganda there “saw more success than either Twitter or Facebook combined,” the Tow Center’s Jonathan Albright, who contributed to the report, told CJR’s Sam Thielman yesterday.
- The future of Dragonfly, the censored search engine Google has been developing for use in China, is severely in doubt after an internal dispute forced the tech giant to shutter a key data stream for the project, The Intercept’s Ryan Gallagher reports. Writing for CJR last week, Mia Shuang Li looked at the potential consequences of Dragonfly, including increased Chinese state surveillance of journalists.
- After another cable news interview with Kellyanne Conway sparked another round of soul-searching on whether journalists should give a platform to administration-backed lies, the Post’s Margaret Sullivan writes, “It’s time (actually, well past time) for the mainstream media to enter the No Kellyanne Zone. And that goes far beyond banning her, or any particular adviser, from cable interview shows… When major news organizations publish tweets and news alerts that repeat falsehoods merely because the president uttered them, it’s the same kind of journalistic malpractice as offering a prime interview spot to Kellyanne Conway.”
- Veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg tweeted yesterday that he’ll quit Facebook around the end of the year because “my own values and the policies and actions of Facebook have diverged to the point where I’m no longer comfortable there.” Last year, CJR’s Shelley Hepworth interviewed Mossberg on the future of the tech beat.
- Venezuela’s last big independent newspaper El Nacional is going out of print following years of government restrictions, which have included curbing its access to newsprint. While the paper will continue to publish online, web access in Venezuela is limited. NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly spoke with Jorge Makriniotis, El Nacional’s general manager, about the problems curtailing Venezuela’s free press.
- For CJR, Daniel Hentz analyzed more than 650 articles related to climate change published in the last two months, during which the United Nations and US government released separate, shocking reports on the topic. “Climate change coverage has predictable peaks and valleys, but the volume and consistency of deep dives indicates that explainer journalists are maintaining the climate conversation when hard news begins to teeter,” Hentz writes.
- When The New York Times Book Review asked Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, what books were on her nightstand, one of Walker’s answers was And the Truth Shall Set You Free, by David Icke. “This passed without comment from the Times interviewer, and the publication passed it on to readers without qualification,” Tablet’s Yair Rosenberg writes. “This is rather remarkable because the book is an unhinged anti-Semitic conspiracy tract written by one of Britain’s most notorious anti-Semites.”
- And the Providence Journal’s Kevin G. Andrade has the story of Rishi Gokhale, an 11 year old from Rhode Island who visited Svalbard, a remote archipelago between Norway and the North Pole. While he was there, Gokhale met with Mark Sabbatini, a Colorado native who runs the world’s northernmost English-language newspaper, Ice People. After learning that Sabbatini had financial difficulties, Gokhale and his family raised over $10,000 to help keep Ice People afloat.