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This new Les Moonves story is a case study in how the system works to protect powerful men

A New York Times story says ousted CBS CEO Les Moonves tried to trade TV parts for silence.

Les Moonves at an event at Lincoln Center in February 2017.
Les Moonves at Lincoln Center’s American Songbook Gala in February 2017.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

On Wednesday, the New York Times published a new exposé about ousted CBS chair and CEO Les Moonves, who stepped down from his post in September after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct. (Moonves maintains that any sexual relationships he had were consensual.) The new Times report adds detail to an accusation that was already on the record — while also serving as an illustration of exactly how powerful predatory men are able to use their power to cover their tracks.

The report, by James B. Stewart, Rachel Abrams, and Ellen Gabler, dives deeply into Moonves’s relationship with Hollywood talent manager Marv Dauer.

Dauer has few major clients and little industry cachet, but nevertheless, Moonves — who was arguably the most powerful man in television as the CEO of America’s most-watched network — attended Dauer’s 75th birthday party earlier this year. And according to multiple sources who spoke to the New York Times — including Dauer himself — and text messages between Dauer and Moonves obtained by the Times, Moonves went out of his way to consider Dauer’s clients for major roles at CBS. (Moonves denies trying to get work for one of Dauer’s clients, and allows that seeking work for another was “inappropriate.”)

Why the disproportionate interest in the client list of a fading manager? The Times makes a compelling case that it’s because there was someone on Dauer’s client list who Moonves believed could put his career in jeopardy: actress Bobbie Phillips.

Phillips tells the New York Times that during a business meeting in 1995, Moonves forced oral sex on her. (The encounter was previously reported by the Times as an incident of harassment rather than assault, following Moonves’s statement to a CBS lawyer that he had “exposed himself” to an unnamed actress, presumably Phillips.) Phillips was so traumatized by the incident that she left acting for decades, and only cautiously reentered the business in 2017, just as the #MeToo movement began to rock Hollywood. According to the Times, Phillips told Dauer that she believed in forgiveness and had no desire to bring down Moonves, but Dauer told the paper that Moonves was shaken by the timing, repeatedly saying, “If Bobbie talks, I’m finished.”

Dauer maintains that he never attempted to blackmail Moonves (“I wouldn’t even know how to blackmail someone,” he said), but text messages between the two show Dauer repeatedly reminding Moonves that Dauer was in a position to ruin him, with the pressure increasing as reporters began to chase the long-whispered rumors about Moonves: “NY Times just called again,” he texted. “Obviously I did not answer the phone.”

“Let’s set your guys up” with casting directors, Moonves wrote to Dauer. “You need to make some money.”

What’s most striking about the Times report is that while Dauer and Moonves aggressively worked for each other’s mutual gain, Phillips — the ostensible victim here — seems to have had no idea what was happening. After months of Dauer’s prodding, CBS offered Phillips a bit role that she wasn’t interested in, she told the Times, “yet top CBS brass suddenly are eager for me to accept it. … It all seemed so baffling to me.”

Phillips says she decided to come forward with her story only after reading other women’s accounts that Moonves harassed them. “I realized I had been manipulated beyond words and that his outreach to me was phony, an attempt to silence me,” she said.

The story is a striking reminder that the problems that led to the #MeToo movement aren’t about individual bad actors: They are systemic. The system is set up to allow men to take on positions of enormous power, and then to use that system to profit from the bodies of women around them — either as gatekeepers like Moonves, who can use their power to prey on women’s bodies, or as managers like Dauer, who can use their knowledge of that predation to leverage more power for themselves. And while those men reap the benefits of the system, its burdens — the trauma of sexual harassment and assault, the humiliation of making their details public — remain squarely on the shoulders of women.

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