Just a few months after CBS ousted its CEO, Les Moonves, following accusations of sexual harassment, the network is facing a new sexual harassment scandal. The New York Times reports that this January, CBS paid out a major sexual harassment settlement to actress Eliza Dushku — and what the details of the case suggest about CBS’s culture are damning.
Dushku was reportedly harassed on the set of the CBS legal procedural Bull. She guest-starred in three episodes, and according to documents obtained by the Times, there were plans to make her a series regular. But then, the Times says, star Michael Weatherly made a series of off-color comments about her: commenting on her legs, making jokes about a threesome, remarking in front of the crew that he was going to spank her, inviting her into his “rape van.” (In a statement to the Times, Weatherly says he was ad-libbing jokes about his lines in the script and is “mortified” to have offended Dushku.) After Dushku complained about Weatherly’s comments, plans to make her a regular on the show evaporated.
CBS eventually paid Dushku a $9.5 million settlement, a sum the network says is roughly what she would have earned over the course of four seasons of Bull, had she become a series regular on the show. In a statement to the Times, CBS affirmed its commitment to “a culture defined by a safe, inclusive and respectful workplace,” but allowed that Dushku’s experience demonstrates that “our work is far from done.”
Apparently to that end, CBS asked a team of outside lawyers to investigate “cultural issues at all levels of CBS.” But the Times obtained a draft of their findings — and what it reports about the details of Dushku’s case suggest that a culture of sexual harassment is baked into CBS, on all levels. Here are the major takeaways.
When someone at the top makes it clear that sexual harassment is okay by him, those below him follow suit
According to Dushku, Weatherly’s behavior toward her seemed to give Bull crew members tacit permission to harass her. She says that after Weatherly suggested in front of the crew that Dushku have a threesome with him and another cast member, a crew member came up to her, laughing, and said, “I’m with Bull.” Then he suggested that he would also not mind having a threesome with Dushku.
This is the kind of pattern that can enable a culture of corporate harassment, in miniature. The person at the top of a company determines what the workplace culture will look like.
In Dushku’s case, on the set of Bull, Weatherly — who has worked at CBS for 15 years and is well-liked — was extremely powerful. When he demonstrated that it was fine with him to harass one of his co-stars, everyone around him heard the message loud and clear. (Weatherly maintains that when he suggested a threesome, he was ad-libbing a joke in character.)
It is worth recalling that the most powerful person at CBS at the time was Les Moonves, whom multiple women have accused of sexual harassment, dating back decades. If the culture at a company is set by the person at the top, Moonves certainly would have been in a position to make sexual harassment seem both normal and accepted.
When there is no clear mechanism for reporting harassment, it will continue to flourish
Dushku told CBS’s lawyers that she didn’t feel there was a “safe person you could go to” with sexual harassment complaints at the network. She eventually talked to one of Bull’s producers about her concerns, and on his advice, she went to Weatherly and tried to flatter him into backing off. Weatherly, in turn, immediately set a meeting with the president of CBS to talk about Duskhu’s “sense of humor,” per text messages obtained by the Times. Not long after, Dushku was written off the show. (Weatherly told the Times that he didn’t push for Dushku to be fired, and Bull’s showrunner maintains that Dushku’s removal from the show was not “punitive.”)
Because there wasn’t a “safe person” with whom Dushku could file a harassment complaint, she had to go through shadowy back channels and handle everything herself. And that left her open to what those involved say was not retaliation but what sure does look a lot like retaliation. She appears to have been fired for not “having a sense of humor” about being harassed by her co-workers — a retaliatory move made possible because CBS didn’t have an appropriate harassment reporting architecture in place that might have protected her.
When sexual harassment is endemic to a workplace culture, it becomes invisible
Perhaps the most damning detail in the Times’s report concerns Dushku’s mediation with CBS after she was written off Bull. As part of its defense, CBS provided mediators with outtakes from the set of Bull that it believed would damage Dushku’s credibility because they showed her cursing on set. But the outtakes also showed Weatherly harassing Dushku, a fact that apparently escaped decision-makers at CBS. The outtakes became a major part of Dushku’s case.
To accidentally send mediators evidence of sexual harassment when you are defending your company in a sexual harassment case, that harassment would have to be essentially invisible to you. It would have to be so normal that it seemed like no big deal, while the idea of a woman violating conservative gender norms by swearing seems comparatively shocking.
The behavior we celebrate in our fictional stories has real effects on the behavior we allow in real life
As the Times report notes, Weatherly’s character on Bull is celebrated for his refusal to play by the rules, for his willingness to step over the line in ways that are presented as sexy and dashing. The ad campaign for the show’s premiere featured Weatherly confidently smirking beneath the words “He’ll get you off”; the trailer for the pilot flashes the words “no rules, no apologies, all Bull.”
“The low-level sexual implication of his alpha status was not a side story, it was THE POINT,” notes Vulture writer Kathryn VanArendonk on Twitter. What is fundamental to the appeal of Weatherly’s character is the idea that he can game the system so that rules don’t apply to him; that he is entitled to whatever he wants and that he can get it; and that what he wants and what he is entitled to and what he games the system to get includes sex with women. We’re supposed to admire him for that. It’s what makes him cool.
That doesn’t mean that Bull is an endorsement of rape or sexual harassment, or that we are meant to read Weatherly’s character on the show as a sexual harasser. What it means is that the traits we are supposed to admire in Weatherly’s character on a fictional TV show are traits that in real life can contribute to a culture where sexual harassment is normal and accepted. Bull is a show that wants the viewer to laugh and say, “I’m with Bull,” exactly the way the crew member who reportedly harassed Dushku did.
It makes sense, then, that a show that celebrates such traits is a product of CBS, a TV network whose corporate culture has apparently normalized sexual harassment to the point that it has become invisible. Both Bull itself and Dushku’s alleged experience working on it illustrate how these damaging norms end up reinforcing themselves.
You can read the New York Times’s full report on Eliza Dushku’s harassment case here.