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CBS Claims Commitment to Ending Harassment. Its Actions Say Otherwise (Column)

At this point, a new breaking sexual harassment case at CBS isn’t exactly a surprise. Over and over again, powerful CBS company men from producers to executives to the ex-CEO himself have made headlines for propagating decades of harassment and abuse, with dozens of witnesses affirming that the pattern was business as usual.

But as a new report confirms, yet again, that pattern isn’t some bygone relic. It’s a rotten virus infecting the entire company to this day. The New York Times revealed yesterday that CBS settled a harassment suit with actor Eliza Dushku in January (of this year!) after she raised concerns about how “Bull” star Michael Weatherly treated her on set. In response to allegations including lewd jokes and suggestive behavior that in turn encouraged the crew to follow his lead, Weatherly insisted he was “mortified,” but that he was just “ad-libbing.”

The most damning part of the whole debacle, however, is the fact that Mark Engstrom, CBS’ chief compliance officer, gave investigators tapes of “Bull” outtakes in order to clear Weatherly’s name — but instead, they demonstrated that the harassment was real and prevalent. All CBS proved was that the guy who’s literally in charge of making sure that the company is adhering to its own professed ideals of zero harassment tolerance has no idea what harassment even looks like.

Perhaps to Engstrom, Weatherly, and his producers, these pointedly sexual digs felt so much like harmless jokes that they were sure an investigator seeing them on tape would prove that Dushku was overreacting when she said his treatment left her feeling “disgusting and violated.” But according to CBS’ own business conduct guide (circa 2016), the company in part defines unacceptable sexual harassment as “a hostile work environment caused by a pattern of unwanted sexual advances or unwanted visual, verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” By Weatherly’s own admission, he created just such an environment. He just didn’t think it would matter — and CBS validated that belief right up until the New York Times hit publish.

Now is the part where I’m supposed to point out that CBS has acknowledged it’s not perfect, and that, as it said in a statement to the New York Times, it “remain[s] committed to a culture defined by a safe, inclusive and respectful workplace.” But having having written and read about countless instances of unchecked sexual harassment and abuse in the past year, this is also now the part where I’d like to point out just how many times we’ve heard that exact same line in response.

November 2017, in response to harassment allegations against Charlie Rose: “There is absolutely nothing more important, in this or any organization, than ensuring a safe, professional workplace-a supportive environment where people feel they can do their best work…If all of us commit to the best behavior and the best work – that is what we can be known for.”

July 2018, in response to harassment and assault allegations against Leslie MoonvesWe are seeing vigorous discourse in our country about equality, inclusion, and safety in the workplace, and CBS is committed to being part of the solution to those important issues.”

September 2018, in response to harassment allegations against “60 Minutes” producer Jeff Fager: “…he violated company policy and it is our commitment to uphold those policies at every level.”

Today, when giving $20 million to various advocacy groups: “CBS’ support of these endeavors ties into the Company’s ongoing commitment to strengthening its own workplace culture.”

All of these, of course, tie back to a familiar line seen in most any corporate handbook like that CBS Business Conduct guide: “We are committed to maintaining the highest standards in everything we do, be it creating programming or how we operate in business. Guiding our Company is a strong and established ethical code.”

And where did those firm lines about maintaining ethical conduct come from? Why, from none other than Leslie Moonves, the harasser-in-chief himself. If you don’t believe me, here it is, with his signature and all.

There are no doubt many at CBS who are shocked and appalled by these reports, and genuinely want to make things better. But with every new report comes the renewed knowledge that they are fighting an uphill battle against milquetoast corporate promises and a widespread inability to recognize abusive behavior when it happens. If the people in charge can’t — or won’t — understand the very basics of what harassment even is, how can they expect us to believe they’re “committed” to ending it?

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