Leslie Moonves’ Ouster Proves #MeToo Reckoning Is Far From Finished

Les Moonves Stepping Down CBS Lead
Illustration: Cheyne Gateley/Variety; Photo: Shutterstock / Robyn Mackenzie

Leslie Moonves is gone from CBS. But left in his wake are vital questions about culpability at the media company he ran for many years — and for the industry at large.

Moonves, the longtime CBS chairman and CEO, is the latest, as well as the most prominent and powerful, entertainment titan to be brought down by shocking allegations of sexual assault and abusive behavior. He joins a growing list of alpha males — Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, CBS News’ Charlie Rose, Fox News’ Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly among them — who scaled the heights professionally only to see their final legacies undone by accusations from women too numerous to ignore. The detailed accounts of 12 women in investigative reports by Ronan Farrow for the New Yorker paint a damning picture of Moonves that is markedly different from that of the leader who for years commanded respect and admiration across the industry.

And the company he ran has been left reeling. CBS shareholders have taken a direct hit, with the stock plunging 7% since the scandal first erupted on July 27 with Farrow’s initial damaging report on Moonves.

As the CEO of a public company, his actions — and the culture that enabled him — demand answers on behalf of shareholders from the CBS board of directors tasked with overseeing the company. The incarnation of the CBS board prior to the Sept. 9 shake-up, which just saw six new members appointed, has come under fire for accusations that it failed to act on troubling information about Moonves that began to surface nearly a year ago.

Farrow’s reporting now includes allegations from a dozen women — of forced oral sex; forced kissing, including one instance of violently holding actress Illeana Douglas down on a couch; repeated come-ons despite rejections; and efforts to retaliate and exact revenge against those who rebuffed him. Former Lorimar Television executive Phyllis Golden-Gottlieb alleged he threw her against a wall. Moonves has denied some of the claims in Farrow’s story as “untrue allegations from decades ago … that are not consistent with who I am,” although he has not cited specifics.

Despite these allegations, Moonves is in line for a severance package of $100 million or more — although payment is contingent on the results of CBS’ investigation into the claims that began after the first Farrow story was published. But the Sept. 10 disclosure that part of CBS’ settlement with Moonves calls for the company to not release the results of its internal investigation into his behavior has raised immediate protests from #MeToo activists and others. Such non-disclosure and non-disparagement clauses in employment contracts have been another tool for keeping a lid on bad behavior.

“This is proof that CBS never took the investigation seriously and never meant for it to be a transparent evaluation of both Moonves’ actions and the toxic culture that he created at CBS,” says Shaunna Thomas, co-founder of the anti-sexism advocacy group UltraViolet. “This should be deeply concerning to CBS employees, shareholders and advertisers who now know that they cannot trust CBS to take these issues seriously and keep their employees safe. CBS must do better.”

The culture of the entertainment industry has come under fire amid the nearly yearlong reckoning over sexual misconduct. It typically requires outsize personalities and a healthy ego to pursue stardom or to be a leader of a large and dynamic enterprise such as a network or studio, and Moonves has long been known for his drive and hard-charging zeal to win at all costs. There’s a long history in Hollywood of tolerating, and at times even encouraging, objectionable behavior from those who attain the industry’s most precious commodity: success. In too many cases, the bigger the box office, or the ratings, or the earnings delivered, the more egomaniacal and narcissistic behavior is tolerated.

For many abusers, the activity is fueled less by sexual desire than by a need to project power over others, harassment experts say. In the case of Moonves, the allegations to date come from women who were subordinate to him in some way, whether assistants or aspiring actors and writers or those over whom he had great sway in terms of continued employment and opportunities. A repeated pattern of abuse of underlings is a common thread among abusers — so much so that corporations need to find ways to recognize warning signs as they evaluate executives for promotion.

“There’s a pattern for people that engage in this kind of behavior over decades,” says Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a watchdog group that has closely been following the harassment scandals at CBS and CBS News. “This is not a one-off instance of inappropriate conduct. All of the men we’ve seen be brought down had incidents that spanned extended periods of time. These were people who preyed on others who were less powerful.”

Carusone echoes the call from UltraViolet and others for CBS to be transparent about the results of its Moonves investigation. He notes that at the time CBS launched its Moonves probe it was still conducting an investigation of the news division following the firing of “CBS This Morning” co-anchor Charlie Rose for allegations of misconduct by numerous women.

“This is reflective of a deeper cultural problem at CBS,” Carusone says. “How are they going to project confidence to shareholders and employees that they are going to actually address it at a structural and systemic level,” he says, alluding to the non-disclosure clause. “We’re supposed to believe that this is all going to get wrapped up and they’re not going to be transparent about it?”

Nancy Erika Smith, the civil rights attorney who represented Gretchen Carlson in the sexual harassment lawsuit that led to Ailes’ ouster from Fox News in 2016, says the issue of why few women came forward early on in Moonves’ career comes down to the climate of fear that exists for women who are victims of harassment and worse. Women historically have faced extreme skepticism when bringing claims against powerful men. The dread of losing employment, harming future career prospects and being branded a troublemaker has been enough to keep many silent in the face of even criminal activity.

The outpouring sparked in October 2017 by the first wave of revelatory allegations about heinous acts by former film mogul Weinstein has helped embolden victims to speak out, Smith says. But the harsh reality is, the legal landscape for pressing sexual misconduct claims has largely remained unchanged in the past year.

“Many women have very few remedies,” says Smith, a partner at Smith Mullin in Montclair, N.J. “There are many states where there are no state laws [on workplace harassment] and the federal law is so weak.”

A big problem Smith cites is the restrictive nature of the statute of limitations on harassment-related offenses. At the federal level, victims must file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 300 days of the incident.

“This is probably the shortest statute of limitations on any cause of action anywhere in the country,” Smith says. “If you trip on the sidewalk, you still have two years to file a claim.”

There are hopeful signs on the horizon. New York recently passed legislation making it much tougher to use non-disclosure agreements as a matter of course in employment contracts. A similar bill is awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature in California.

Smith sees the shift in public attitudes toward women who stand up for their rights and the public shaming of men called out as abusers as a bellwether of more substantive legal changes to come. “There is a sisterhood in speaking out,” she says. The attorney believes the spike in the number of women running for elected office at the local, state and federal level is connected to the rise of #MeToo — and the fact that President Donald Trump himself has been widely accused of sexual misconduct.

“Women are deciding we need to have our voices heard,” Smith says. “If we take back our government from the GOP, we will see movement on these issues in Congress.”

Long-term, experts say the focus has to be put on heightening the liability of corporations and the directors who oversee them to root out, and hopefully prevent, abuses of power at all levels of an organization. It’s surely no accident that the overhaul of the CBS board has brought it to near 50-50 gender parity, with women holding six of the 13 director seats.

“We’re in a moment of a cultural shift where we’ve gone [away] from a place where the standard response to women who complained was to malign them and smear them,” Carusone says. “We need to get to a place where it’s not seen as an HR function but as central to good business practices to have in place strong mechanisms for reporting and addressing sexual harassment.”

In this effort, Carusone suggests there’s a role for some of the recently disgraced figures to play in helping to set new workplace standards. In other words: It takes a thief to catch a thief.

“You shouldn’t give these people power again, but I do think some of them could be part of the solution as part of the road to redemption,” Carusone says. “I think there will be roles for men like [Moonves] in the future.”