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Report: how Les Moonves avoided consequences for sexual misconduct allegations for so long

One woman shared her sexual harassment allegations against the former CBS CEO years ago, a new report says. Nothing happened.

Les Moonves, then the CEO of CBS, attends the annual Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference on July 11, 2018 in Sun Valley, Idaho
Les Moonves, then the CEO of CBS, attends the annual Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference on July 11, 2018, in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Les Moonves was forced to step down as CEO of CBS this September, after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct.

Now, independent investigators commissioned by CBS say that Moonves “engaged in multiple acts of serious nonconsensual sexual misconduct in and outside of the workplace, both before and after he came to CBS in 1995,” according to a report reviewed by Rachel Abrams and Edmund Lee of the New York Times.

The report also says that Moonves lied to investigators, and that CBS has grounds to deny him the $120 million severance package he was to receive as part of his ouster. A lawyer for Moonves told the Times that his client “denies having any nonconsensual sexual relation” and “cooperated extensively and fully with investigators.”

According to the Times, the investigation report paints a picture of a powerful man who had “transactional” oral sex with a number of subordinates, and who was, at least for a time, protected from public censure by other powerful men around him. Amid all of this, though, one detail stands out: Anne Peters, a doctor who has accused Moonves of sexual harassment, told her story to Arnold Kopelson, a producer of such movies as The Fugitive and Se7en, before he joined the CBS board in 2007. According to the report, his reaction to hearing Peters’s claim about Moonves’ behavior was to say, essentially, “We all did that.”

There’s no evidence that Kopelson, who has since died, told other board members about the accusations, according to the report. And Moonves didn’t face consequences until this year, 11 years after Kopelson joined the board. This detail is a chilling reminder of just how normalized sexual assault and harassment were in Hollywood, the media, and America at large before the recent prominence of the #MeToo movement — and how far the country has to go to fix the problem.

One of the most illuminating details in the report involves a CBS board member

After Moonves left CBS in September, Abrams and Lee report, the network hired lawyers from the firms Debevoise & Plimpton and Covington & Burling to conduct an independent investigation of his conduct. The results of the investigation could allow the network to deny Moonves his multimillion-dollar severance package, which has been controversial, for violating the terms of his employment. The copy of the report reviewed by the Times was not final, and is slated to be presented to the CBS board next week. It’s not clear when a decision on Moonves’s severance will be made.

“No findings have been reported to the board,” a spokesperson for the investigators told the Times. “The board has reached no conclusions on this matter. The investigators and the board are committed to a thorough and fair process.”

According to Abrams and Lee, part of the investigation concerned the case of Anne Peters, a doctor who told investigators that when she saw Moonves for a medical consultation in 1999, he tried to kiss her and masturbated in front of her. Peters had written about her experience in May in Annals of Internal Medicine but had not named Moonves; in September, a Vanity Fair reporter wrote that the unnamed patient was likely the former CBS CEO.

Peters, who happened to be friends with Kopelson, according to the CBS investigation report, told him about her experience with Moonves to try to convince him not to join the CBS board in 2007.

“She recalls Kopelson responding that the incident had happened a long time ago and was trivial, and said, in effect, ‘We all did that,’” the report states, according to the Times.

Peters also brought up the incident with Kopelson several more times after that, and pushed him to act on the information after the #MeToo movement gained attention, the investigators said.

But there’s no evidence that Kopelson ever talked to fellow board members, Moonves, or anyone else about Peters’s account, according to the report. Kopelson died in October and investigators were unable to interview him.

In fact, according to the Times, Kopelson became a key supporter of Moonves on the board.

“I don’t care if 30 more women come forward and allege this kind of stuff,” Kopelson said in a board meeting over the summer. “Les is our leader and it wouldn’t change my opinion of him.”

The “casting couch” tradition continues to be pervasive in Hollywood and media

The report’s account of Kopelson’s behavior encapsulates an attitude that, it’s increasingly clear, permeated Hollywood before the rise of the #MeToo movement: the idea that sexual assault and harassment are simply a normal part of doing business.

In addition to Peters’s allegations, the investigators examined accusations by actress Bobbie Phillips, who says that Moonves forced her to perform oral sex during a meeting in 1995. According to the report, Moonves tried to use his influence to find Phillips acting jobs to keep her from going public with her allegations. Investigators also said that Moonves “received oral sex from at least 4 CBS employees under circumstances that sound transactional and improper to the extent that there was no hint of any relationship, romance, or reciprocity.”

As Thelma Adams reported at Variety last year, the tradition of the “casting couch,” in which powerful male directors and producers expected sex in exchange for roles, long predated the allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein. “The perils for women in Hollywood are embedded, like land mines, from an actress’s debut to her swan song,” film critic and historian Carrie Rickey told Adams, “where moguls like Harry Cohn reputedly wouldn’t cast starlets like Marilyn Monroe and Kim Novak unless they auditioned in bed.”

Writer, producer, and actress Brit Marling wrote at the Atlantic last year about how men gatekeepers like Weinstein exerted power over actresses by controlling their access to roles and thereby their ability to make a living.

“The things that happen in hotel rooms and board rooms all over the world (and in every industry) between women seeking employment or trying to keep employment and men holding the power to grant it or take it away exist in a gray zone where words like ‘consent’ cannot fully capture the complexity of the encounter,” Marling wrote.

The #MeToo movement has begun to counteract the normalization of sexual misconduct in Hollywood and elsewhere, by shining a light on the problem. But, according to the CBS report, Peters was urging Kopelson to come forward when #MeToo was in full swing, and he did nothing. And the #MeToo movement had been a topic of intense public conversation for many months as of this summer, when Kopelson reportedly told the CBS board that it didn’t matter how many women came forward about “this kind of stuff,” that “Les is our leader.”

The CBS report includes a number of illuminating details. But especially revealing is the explanation it offers for the fact that Moonves remained at CBS, and avoided public scrutiny, despite the many allegations against him. At least for one influential man, it appears that accounts of sexual misconduct — whether they numbered one or 30 — were simply business as usual.

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