clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

CBS gave Les Moonves a graceful exit he didn’t deserve

Twelve women accused Moonves of sexual misconduct. CBS cast his ouster as a business decision.

Les Moonves other CBS personalities and producers at an event for James Corden’s carpool karaoke in August 2017.
Les Moonves and other CBS personalities and producers at an event for James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke in August 2017.
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Apple
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

In the end, it might have been CBS’s business considerations — not the credible allegations of sexual misconduct from at least 12 women — that cost Les Moonves his job as the chair, president, and CEO of CBS.

Moonves, 68, exited the company on Sunday after spending more than two decades at the network. The announcement of his departure came hours after Ronan Farrow at the New Yorker published a story outlining new allegations of sexual misconduct against Moonves. Six women described scenarios in which the executive forced them to perform oral sex, exposed himself, and threatened professional retaliation if they rebuffed his advances.

But if Moonves’s departure is the direct result of Farrow’s reporting, CBS isn’t saying so. Instead, the network has cast it as one part of a wide-ranging corporate settlement intended to resolve litigation between CBS and Shari Redstone, the controlling shareholder of both CBS and Viacom. Redstone has been engaged in a highly publicized back-and-forth with Moonves over the future of the company for months.

The network’s announcement was all about these broader business considerations. It promises a donation to the #MeToo movement and alludes to an ongoing investigation, but it doesn’t mention the allegations against Moonves or the women who made them. The company’s announcement of his departure even contains a thank-you.

What the network hasn’t done is send an outright message that Moonves’s alleged disturbing and harassing behavior is unacceptable and has no place at CBS, or apologize to the women who have accused him. Nor has the board explained how it plans to address a corporate culture in which the network’s president and one of its biggest stars, Charlie Rose, were both allegedly harassing women for decades.

(A CBS representative declined to comment, but in a statement on Sunday after Farrow’s story, the company said it “takes these allegations very seriously” and was conducting a “thorough investigation” of the matters, which is ongoing.)

“I’ve been somewhat hesitant in heralding the reasons behind this decision too much,” Angelo Carusone, president of the nonprofit media watchdog Media Matters for America, told me. “I think it is for them more about addressing a business decision than it is about addressing some issues about sexual misconduct and harassment.”

Porter Bibb, a longtime media banker based in New York, agreed: “The reason they made this settlement is that they would like this whole matter now to go away.”

The Moonves exit is part business, part #MeToo

CBS’s Sunday announcement is just as much about a bitter, public battle over the direction of the company as it is about the Moonves allegations. Redstone, a media executive at the helm of the media company National Amusements and a vice chair of CBS and Viacom, has for months been engaged in a public battle with CBS and Moonves.

The daughter of Sumner Redstone, the former CBS and Viacom chair who stepped down in 2016, Shari Redstone had pushed for CBS and Viacom to merge, which Moonves resisted. In May, CBS sued the Redstone family, which is the company’s controlling shareholder, for independence. Its board, stacked with Moonves allies, voted to dilute Redstone’s voting power and thus reduce her ability to influence the company’s decisions.

As part of the deal announced Sunday, six members of CBS’s board of directors (all men) stepped down, and six new members (three men and three women) were appointed. National Amusements pledged not to propose a merger for at least two years.

The CBS statement makes no mention of why the directors were ousted, or whether it was tied to their potential inaction surrounding Moonves or corporate culture issues within CBS. Farrow’s Sunday reporting indicates that at least some of CBS’s board members had been alerted to a criminal complaint filed by one of Moonves’s accusers late last year.

All of the directors but one who stepped down had voted to dilute Redstone’s CBS voting power and were presumably Moonves allies.

It’s not clear if the directors who stepped down knew about the complaint. The CBS board has been slow to act on accusations of sexual harassment within the company.

The company is the subject of multiple class-action lawsuits from shareholders over the board’s inaction on its corporate culture issues, Bibb told me, including one filed in August relating directly to Moonves’s alleged sexual harassment.

CBS likely is reforming its board in part because of how it’s treated the allegations. But the company didn’t say so — nor did it expand on any steps it might take to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

When Rose was fired in November 2017, CBS moved much more quickly than it did with Moonves. The day after the Washington Post published the allegations, Rose was fired, and CBS reporters reached out to one of the accusers to confirm her story.

CBS News president David Rhodes said in a statement that despite the journalist’s contributions, “there is absolutely nothing more important ... than ensuring a safe, professional workplace” at CBS. It was more of a public address of the matter than what CBS said in its overhaul announcement on Sunday.

Joe Ianniello, a former chief operating officer of CBS who will take over for Moonves as interim CEO, used similar language in a memo to employees obtained by Deadline. He said the “core of any company is its culture” and that the company wants to make it “abundantly clear that CBS has a steadfast commitment to diversity, inclusion, and a safe and positive work environment.”

The memo does not make any direct mention of Moonves, except for to say that his departure comes at a time “when we are operating from a position of great strategic strength.”

CBS’s board was slow to take action on Moonves

This isn’t the first time Moonves has faced allegations of misconduct: Six weeks ago, in late July, Farrow published his first story about Moonves and outlined accusations from six women. But days after the report was published, Moonves was on CBS’s earnings conference call, doing business as usual.

At the time, CBS’s board said they’d investigate the allegations but kept Moonves on while the investigation continued. (According to the announcement Sunday, it is still ongoing.)

Moonves still hasn’t apologized, nor has he really denied what happened. After Farrow’s first story, Moonves said he “regrets” his advances decades ago that made women “uncomfortable” but said he always accepted if they said no. After the second story, he said three of the encounters were consensual and the rest were part of a “concerted effort” to destroy his name, reputation, and career. In a statement on Sunday, Moonves said he was “deeply saddened” to leave CBS and said it was the result of “untrue allegations from decades ago.”

But the problem is bigger than just Moonves. As Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff recently pointed out, CBS has had multiple problems with harassment and abuse over the years. Charlie Rose stepped down in November of last year after eight women accused him of sexual harassment.

On top of the Moonves allegations, Farrow’s July story also detailed a widespread culture of abuse and harassment at CBS that trickled from the top down. Men accused of sexual misconduct were reportedly promoted even when the company paid settlements to women who issued complaints. One such example, according to Farrow, was 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager, who allowed harassment in his division. (Fager denied the claims.)

CBS still hasn’t completed its investigation of Rose, instead lumping it into the Moonves and network culture probe. The Rose probe was supposed to wrap up in August, and now it’s not clear what the timeline is. For comparison, NBC completed its Matt Lauer investigation in May, less than six months after the news anchor was fired.

“This whole situation has been festering for months,” Bibb said. “It started with the Charlie Rose episode, and there’s no real way that the board could not have done anything sooner. It was shocking when Ronan’s piece came out and the board accepted that they didn’t make Les Moonves take a leave of absence or step aside.”

As recently as last week, CBS’s board was reportedly considering giving Moonves, who made hundreds of millions of dollars at CBS over the years, a $100 million “golden parachute.” According to Sunday’s announcement, his severance benefits will depend on what CBS’s investigation finds about the sexual misconduct allegations against him.

He might have gotten that payout already, had it not been for the outcry over reports indicating the $100 million payout was on the way. Time’s Up warned CBS in a statement that “the world is watching.” Rachel Bloom, the star of The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, tweeted on Sunday that Moonves “should be fired without getting a fucking dollar.”

There are no guarantees that Moonves won’t get the severance money. In fact, Bibb told me he believes he ultimately will. (As part of the agreement, Moonves and CBS will donate $20 million to a yet-to-be-identified organization that supports the #MeToo movement and equality for women at work, deducted from Moonves’s severance.)

It shouldn’t have taken 12 women and two stories to take down Les Moonves

Twelve women made credible and disturbing accusations against Moonves, and it appears as though that alone wasn’t enough to push him out the door at CBS.

Or if it was, CBS didn’t want to come out and say it. CBS still hasn’t said how it plans to deal with its internal culture to make sure situations like Moonves and Rose don’t occur again. Its board also hasn’t reckoned with its role in the situation and anything it might change.

Moonves is the first Fortune 500 CEO to lose his job over #MeToo allegations — and much of the conversation has centered on the impact on CBS’s business.

Just last week, media analyst Michael Nathanson put out a note to clients trying to answer the question of whether CBS’s stock was still “investible.” On the one hand, Nathanson wrote, per Deadline, Moonves leaving would mean the “current uncertainty is lifted” about the company’s potential merger and the Redstone dispute. On the other hand, he continued, Moonves is “an essential part of CBS,” and it was “impossible to detect” the downside of his absence.

CBS will likely be fine without him — just as Today moved on without Matt Lauer, comedy has survived without Louis C.K., and movies are still being made without Harvey Weinstein.

But less than a year after the Weinstein allegations were made public, we’re still grappling with how to deal with the fallout of the #MeToo movement and what it means for the women affected, the men accused, and an American culture in which sexual harassment and abuse is so prevalent.

The conversation around #MeToo has moved on, to a degree, to whether men taken down by the movement can ever come back, as C.K. appears in comedy clubs and Lauer tells fans he’ll be back soon. The Moonves situation highlights the fact that we still haven’t really figured out how to deal with accusations in the first place.