The allegations are worthy of an investigation by “60 Minutes” – if only they weren’t about the news division that produces the show.
Like its corporate parent, CBS News has been besieged by a set of allegations about sexual harassment and the culture of the company. A blockbuster article in the New Yorker by journalist Ronan Farrow cites interviews with 19 current and former CBS employees who claim Jeff Fager (pictured. above), executive producer of “60 Minutes” and a former chairman of the news division, turned a deaf ear to instances of harassment even as three financial settlements paid to employees of the newsmagazine were related to allegations of discrimination or harassment.
Fager, one of only two executives to have supervised the long running show, has denied the allegations. “It is wrong that our culture can be falsely defined by a few people with an axe to grind who are using an important movement as a weapon to get even, and not by the hundreds of women and men that have thrived, both personally and professionally, at ‘60 Minutes,’”he said in a statement to The New Yorker. Coming at a time when the entire CBS corporation has been roiled by accusations about its top executive, Leslie Moonves, the report puts the veteran producer under a tough spotlight and sparks speculation about his fate.
The claims surface after Charlie Rose was ousted at “CBS This Morning” following a report in The Washington Post that interviewed multiple women alleging the famous newsman had harassed them, and after a second article suggesting CBS News managers were aware of concerns about his behavior. And they suggest that, like Fox News Channel and NBC News before it in an era when women are speaking out about getting redress after tolerating harassment for decades, CBS News is in the midst of a reckoning about its workplace culture.
“The large number of women that have come forward with accusations seems to indicate that there is a definite pattern of behaviors here. This leads us to believe that the culture in the workplace has allowed for this type of behavior to occur, perhaps even encouraged it,” says Teresa Boyer, director of Villanova University’s Anne Welsh McNulty Institute for Women’s Leadership. “This is reinforced by the fact that the top leadership of the organization is being accused.”
CBS has been looking into the charges for several months. In March it retained Betsy Plevan of Proskauer Rose, a specialist in employment and labor litigation, to investigate the accusations about CBS News. That process continues even as CBS’ board of directors has set in motion a separate investigation into allegations of sexual harassment by Moonves, the company’s executive chairman and CEO, that were made in the same New Yorker article. “I recognize that there were times decades ago when I may have made some women uncomfortable by making advances. Those were mistakes, and I regret them immensely. But I always understood and respected—and abided by the principle—that ‘no’ means ‘no,’ and I have never misused my position to harm or hinder anyone’s career,” Moonves said in a statement to the magazine.
The allegations threaten to overwhelm the news division as it works to bolster its business strategy. CBS News has placed more emphasis on live-streaming greater amounts of its journalism and also on gaining recognition for new anchors installed at three of its best-known programs: “CBS This Morning,” “Face the Nation” and “CBS Evening News.” Those programs frequently draw fewer viewers than rival shows at NBC and CBS, and CBS has focused on digging deeper into foreign-news reporting, investigations and stories about tougher news events in an attempt to draw viewers away from the competition.
And there could be potential ramifications for “60 Minutes,” the newsmagazine that drew an average of 11.5 million people last season and that typically spends the bulk of its season among TV’s most-watched programs. The show hit a high note last season, adding Oprah Winfrey to its roster of contributors and running a joint investigation with The Washington Post about Congress undermining efforts to stop flow of opioids to the United. States that resulted in a rebuke of President Trump’s candidate to take the reins of the nation’s anti-drug effort.
At a Monday meeting with executives, CBS News President David Rhodes expressed regret at seeing more allegations about CBS News in the public conversation, according to a person familiar with the conversation. The disclosures, he told people, “test your capacity for disappointment,” this person said, and he expressed hope the division could move forward. CBS News declined to make executives available for comment.
Most companies prefer to get investigations such as these over with quickly, says Mark Spund, an attorney who oversees the employment practice at Davidoff, Hutcher and Citron, a New York law firm. In some cases, however, the probe may take a longer period of time to complete. “If you are talking about an entire culture, not an individual, there are probably more people involved,” he said.
CBS News is the latest media operation to face unsavory depictions of its internal culture. Over the past two years, allegations about harassment have prompted the resignations of everyone from Roger Ailes at Fox News Channel (the executive, who died in May of last year, denied clams about his behavior) to Matt Lauer at NBC (who has acknowledged some behavior but pushed back on specific allegations) as well as Rose.
“Newsrooms are fast-paced, competitive work environments where power dynamics are of particular importance,” says Boyer. “It’s the power differential which makes these workplaces particularly susceptible to harassment by the powerful leader who says, ‘If you don’t do this for me your career will suffer.’”
Corporations eager to change may have to uproot longstanding policies, including ones that give considerable leeway to anchors and producers who pull down big salaries and bring in millions of viewers and advertising dollars each year. “Companies hope for inclusive, supportive cultures but they generally reward results and power,” notes Abbie Shipp, an associate professor of management at Texas Christian University’s Neeley School of Business. “Unfortunately, most organizations seem to take a short-term view to clean up these past issues – hiring a diversity officer, announcing new sexual harassment training, or distributing new ‘no tolerance’ policies. Clearly, these things are important. But for longer-term effects to change culture, the bigger lever could be to change the incentive structure.”
Staffing at “60 Minutes” in July and August is typically light. The show is in repeats during summer weeks and people tend to take vacations during summer months. In the newsmagazine’s offices in a building on Manhattan’s West 57th Street – a structure that also hosts the offices of Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” show – staffers are busy readying stories for the fall season, according to a person familiar with the matter. Rank-and-file employees, this person said, don’t have any more information on CBS News’ harassment investigation than they have seen in articles by other media outlets.