Leslie Moonves was brought down by the very people he never thought could do it.
Two months after the first accusations against the former CBS CEO broke, another half-dozen women told their stories to The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow on the record, detailing horrific incidents of sexual coercion and assault spanning decades. Moonves insisted he had “never before heard of such disturbing accusations” — which may well be true. Each woman in the story emphasized her initial fear of speaking out against him to explain why she hadn’t shared her accusations earlier. None of them was ever in a position where she could challenge one of the most powerful people in the entertainment industry without risking everything.
That these are the people who may have brought Moonves’ world crashing down around him is the kind of mind-boggling twist that exists more on-screen than in real life. It’s a huge moment for the #MeToo movement — and yet it’s far too early to call it definitive.
In a perfect world — or hell, just a marginally better one — this story would make bosses across the industry realize that they can’t casually abuse their lower-level employees without repercussions. But the fact remains that none of the women who eventually spoke out against Moonves felt like she could do so while working in or around CBS. Some of them felt comfortable doing so only decades later. That’s how scared they were of the consequences of revealing their boss’ criminal actions.
Serial abuse always starts somewhere, and more often than not, it’s with those people a perpetrator knows are far less likely to say anything about it. This second damning story on Moonves and the toxic CBS culture that let him thrive emphasizes exactly that, highlighting assault victims who worked in the kinds of junior positions that powerful men routinely take for granted. Jessica Pallingston was an assistant trying to break into writing when she says Moonves called her for a meeting and forced her to perform oral sex on him. Deborah Morris was a junior executive when, she says, Moonves made aggressive advances on her despite her protests. Deborah Green was a freelance makeup artist who detailed her shock at Moonves forcibly kissing her after a TV appearance. The spa director of D.C.’s Four Seasons hotel told Farrow that a slew of massage therapists complained about his behavior, insisting they never wanted to be sent to his room again.
Every industry ladder — not just entertainment — has lower rungs filled with positions like these. If you pay your dues, the common wisdom goes, you can climb your way up. Working these jobs means supporting the higher-ups at any cost; the better you make your bosses look, the better you make yourself look. While this makes sense in theory, the problem with this hierarchy comes when those bosses abuse their positions simply because they can, having structured the industry in such a way that junior employees can’t push back lest they get pushed out.
It would therefore be unsurprising if Moonves and the many influential men who came up under him at CBS pushed the limits of their power in the way these women describe. In no world do abusive people at that level believe that their jobs could be threatened by the assistant sitting outside their office, the intern making coffee runs or the massage therapist kneading their hamstrings. After all, they never had any reason to — until, perhaps, now.
Many of the sexual harassment and assault cases that have come to light in the past year feature prominent names (especially Harvey Weinstein’s long and winding list of targets, which include some of the biggest actresses in Hollywood). All of these stories, however, feature victims who worked in these seemingly invisible positions, where abuse can run rampant without ever being taken seriously. Even now, after almost a solid year of shattering revelations, those survivors never get nearly the same attention as their more famous counterparts.
Every victim of abuse deserves equal consideration. Every person who speaks up deserves to be heard like the women who came forward about Moonves, whether they’re a famous actor, struggling writer or anonymous intern. Until the less powerful feel like they can speak out without first having to leave their company or the industry entirely, this movement is still operating at surface level, rather than pulling the corruption out by the roots. If that doesn’t change, not much else ever will.