Does CBS care about #MeToo? The saga of "NCIS: New Orleans" producer Brad Kern continues

A demoted producer continues to work closely with the writers victimized by his abusive behavior. That's showbiz!

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published June 16, 2018 3:30PM (EDT)

Brad Kern (Getty Images/Photo montage by Salon)
Brad Kern (Getty Images/Photo montage by Salon)

Show business, it’s called.  The business of show.

The chief products of America’s film and television industry are image and story. Putting its best face forward, creating trends, that is Hollywood in a nutshell. Its most successful properties capture the defining spirit of a moment in our culture, reflecting it back to us in a way that inspires, fascinates and often tricks us into making us feel better, to obsess over conflicts and quandaries that don’t actually exist to take our minds off of the ones that do.

Hollywood supports 2.1 million jobs and 400,000 local businesses across this country, according to a recent data analysis of a 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics report made by the Motion Picture Association of America. In that same analysis, the MPAA indicates that the industry provides a revenue stream worth $49 billion flowing to local businesses across the country. How does that famous ex-president’s quote go? Ah yes . . . “the chief business of the American people is business.

Business, and show business in particular, also wields a tremendous amount of social and political power centralized within a system held in place by a few people, most of them men. In case the events of the past few weeks have not made this point clear enough, the only way that meaningful progress in the work made by the #MeToo and Time's Up movements can be made in the fight to halt workplace abuses, harassment, discrimination and denial of opportunity is if that progress is meaningfully and forcefully supported by those figures.

Top executives at networks, studios and production companies, this means you. You are the people charged with ensuring your workplaces are effective, productive and safe. Some of you also happen to be people who, for baffling reasons, find ways to keep abusers employed.

This brings us to CBS and Brad Kern, the former showrunner of “NCIS: New Orleans” (otherwise referred to as "NCIS: NOLA"). Kern's racist, misogynistic behavior and verbal abuse behind the scenes resulted in two human resources inquiries within a single year, 2016, submitted by his employees and corroborated by multiple witnesses.

In mid-May Salon followed up on a tip that Kern was to be demoted from showrunner to consulting producer, a nebulous term that can describe a number of duties. However a production wants to define that title, what matters is that he would continue to collect a paycheck while his second-in-command, Chris Silber — characterized as enabling Kern's behavior, according to new reporting by the Hollywood Reporter — took over as showrunner.

At the time a number of sources presumed Kern would be shuffled off to other duties far away from the writers’ room. Quietly, though, others who spoke to Salon on the condition of anonymity expressed doubts that Kern would go away so quietly.

A Hollywood Reporter story released Friday morning confirms those concerns: Sources say Kern has been in the “NCIS: NOLA” writers room every day since they began breaking story for the new season on May 29. In response, CBS Television Studios informed the Hollywood Reporter that it is hiring an outside investigator to look into all past harassment and misconduct allegations that were brought against Kern.

According to THR report, written by critic Maureen Ryan, who broke the original story in Variety in December 2017, the investigation is expected to review the original inquiries as well as potentially exploring new complaints against Kern.

CBS reiterates via an official statement that its human resources departments received no additional complaints following those initial complaints.

What’s not in that official statement, but reported in Ryan’s story, is the detail that at least a dozen female writers and editors, and a few men as well, have left the show since Kern came on board owing to the poisonous atmosphere he created. This includes the female employee who inspired the second H.R. complaint, a nursing mother subjected to horrendously inappropriate comments about her anatomy.

Additionally, sources who agreed to speak with Salon on the condition of anonymity say that some of the people who departed have since been effectively blackballed at CBS by Kern. And though a number left of their own volition, as the THR piece indicates, he characterized their departures as firings.

Given those bleak object lessons, is it at all shocking that none of Kern’s other subordinates made their own reports to CBS’s human resources department following the findings of the previous two?

After a point such developments become evidence of not merely a localized infection, but a systemic one, indicative of what’s wrong not only at CBS but within the industry as a whole. CBS is far from the only network protecting abusive people or rewarding bad behavior. To be fair, when eight women came forward accusing journalist and former "60 Minutes" contributor Charlie Rose of harassment, CBS responded by terminating its relationship with him, as did Rose's other employer, PBS. Rose is a public figure, a face and personality long associated with trust and integrity. Once those traits were irrevocably tainted, there was no way he could have continued to represent CBS News. It would have been bad for business.

The same holds true for NBC, which ousted Matt Lauer in November 2017 after multiple damning reports of misconduct surfaced. And a couple of weeks ago, ABC fired Roseanne Barr for making a racist tweet, despite the fact that she toplined the most successful series revival in recent history, not to mention the first ABC scripted series to occupy the No. 1 ratings slot in 18 years. The industry heaped praise on ABC's network head Channing Dungey for showing that a broadcaster was willing to make the right call regardless of the high financial cost.

All of those people are famous. Kern, meanwhile, is a relatively unknown producer tasked with placing prose in the mouth of “NCIS: NOLA” star Scott Bakula. And one would think that would make CBS’s task simpler and clearer. His contract was scheduled to end of the 2017-18 season, the series’ fourth. Easy enough to send him on his way.

Yet Kern survived that searing Variety report published in December 2017 claiming that despite the network’s insistence that it conducted thorough investigations and Kern's issues had been resolved, his employees were still subject to inappropriate comments.

The legal probe the network has launched is an interesting development, but not necessarily a beacon of hope for “NCIS: NOLA” employees. Only recently NBC publicized the results of its own internal investigation into Lauer’s misconduct, implemented in November 2017 by NBC News chairman Andrew Lack. The objective was to determine which managers were aware of Lauer’s behavior, a pattern said to have extended over many years, and how much they knew.

That investigation was led by NBC general counsel Kim Harris, assisted by two outside law firms, and perhaps unsurprisingly found that none of the network's executives knew a thing. (That’s showbiz!)

CBS’s probe is being led by Kate Gold, a senior partner with the labor and employment group of the law firm Drinker Biddle, according to THR’s story. But it is still being paid for by CBS.

Outwardly, retaining Gold indicates a desire to prove the network is taking steps to do the right thing, or some thing, to show the public that it really does take the safety and wellbeing of its employees seriously. Given every detail leading up to this development, a person still may wonder what the network's true intent is in opening this new investigation — if, as those gauzy public service interstitials assure us, CBS really does care.

Maybe it does, depending on who the wrongdoer happens to be. This latest wrinkle in Kern’s case surfaced the morning after an exclusive THR report was posted indicating that “Star Trek: Discovery” showrunners Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts had been ousted due to “leadership and operational issues.” In the same THR story, CBS Television Studios also announced that executive producer Alex Kurtzman will now run the writers room of the popular CBS All Access series during its sophomore season.

And what, exactly, are “leadership and operational issues”? In addition to blowing its budget over the first season — the “operational” part of the equation:

Insiders also stress that Berg and Harberts became increasingly abusive to the “Discovery” writing staff, with Harberts said to have leaned across the writers room table while shouting an expletive at a member of the show's staff. Multiple writers are said to have been uncomfortable working on the series and had threatened to file a complaint with human resources or quit the series altogether before informing Kurtzman of the issues surrounding Berg and Harberts. After hearing rumors of HR complaints, Harberts is said to have threatened the staff to keep concerns with the production an internal matter.

Misconduct is misconduct, and regardless of the race, gender or orientation of who dishes it out, it deserves to be met with severe consequences that assure the victimized and victimizers alike that such behavior will not be tolerated.

However, note that CBS fired Berg, a woman, and Harberts, a gay man, after staffers went to Kurtzman and threatened to go to human resources with legitimate complaints over verbal abuse.

Kern, meanwhile, subjected a nursing mother to demeaning comments, including likening her to a cow in the field. Again, in that H.R. case, and the one that came before, CBS concluded there was no evidence of retaliation, harassment, discrimination or gender bias, and assured staffers that Kern had received sensitivity training. Later, that employee was fired.

As I pointed out previously, Kern has never created a series. Regardless of his years of industry experience and the hundreds of hours of TV  he's written and produced — a stat dutifully touted in subsequent industry trade reports — he is not viewed as an innovator. He’s the guy who keeps the trains running on time.

So, to review: CBS dismissed a woman and a gay man who were verbally abusive to a staffer and continues to employ Kern, who has since secured a crisis management publicist, Howard Bragman. You may know Bragman (or maybe not) as the PR representative who continues to ensure we will be blessed with Anthony Scaramucci's entrepreneurial spirit and wisdom.

And the THR report confirms that even after those two inquiries, after journalists continued to chase the story and the detail surfaced that his contracted run on “NCIS: New Orleans” was supposed to end at the close of the most recent season, CBS Television Studios inked a new two-year overall deal with Kern.

Such decisions come directly from the top, and call me naive, but that’s beyond baffling. From the perspective of public perception, what is to be gained by rewarding abusive behavior? At what point do the people in power say enough is enough, if not for the sake of employees but for the reputation of the business itself?

Only when the system becomes unsustainable. So far, its supports are holding.  When veteran producer William Schmidt describes to THR the progress made by #MeToo as “tenuous at best” and “made of gossamer,” few can refute him.

On Thursday, while accepting a Mirror Award from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University for her reporting on #MeToo, Washington Post reporter Irin Carmon, the writer who broke the story that led to Rose’s dethroning, dropped a truth bomb met with cheers and rumblings from fellow attendees at the luncheon. (Some of them were Rose’s former co-workers at “60 Minutes.”)

“There’s a temptation to think the last few months have been about individual men, that it was about a handful of bad apples and if we get rid of them it will end the cycle of harassment and abuse. But it’s not true,” Carmon said. She continued:

“The stories that we have been doing are about a system. The system has lawyers and a good reputation. It has publicists. It has a perfectly reasonable explanation about what happened. It has powerful friends that will ask if it’s really worth ruining the career of a good man based on what one woman says, what four women say, what 35 women say. Indeed, the system is sitting in this room. Some more than others. The system is still powerful men getting stories killed that I believe will one day see the light of day.”

The show will go on until people get tired of it, until the public decides it wants better and smarter programming, and the people at the top of the system decide that doing the right thing is better for business than protecting harassers. Until that happens, networks and studio are not definitively demonstrating that they desire safer and more respectful workplaces for their employees, especially women and people of color.  But they’ll happily play those roles on TV.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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