FILE - In this July 29, 2013, file photo, Les Moonves arrives at the CBS, CW and Showtime TCA party at The Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, Calif. Moonves was the second highest paid CEO in 2014, according to a study carried out by executive compensation data firm Equilar and The Associated Press. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File) (Jordan Strauss/invision/ap)

Les Moonves resigns from CBS, but is it a true #MeToo victory if he reaps a payout?

As one of media's most powerful men is ousted, he may walk away with $100 million for his service. Is this justice?


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Melanie McFarland
September 11, 2018 12:36AM (UTC)

As the #MeToo movement approaches its one-year anniversary, some may find it fitting that a crusade sparked by the undoing of one entertainment industry titan has led to the downfall of another, even more powerful abuser.

On Sunday, CBS Corporation chairman and CEO Les Moonves resigned from his position following the publication of a second investigative report by Ronan Farrow in the New Yorker, in which six additional women detail their accounts of being sexually abused by Moonves — and in several cases, having their careers destroyed in retaliation for rebuffing his advances.

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Among them is a frightening account by former television executive Phyllis Golden-Gottlieb, who filed a criminal complaint late last year with the Los Angeles Police Department. In it, Golden-Gottlieb accuses Moonves of forcing her to perform oral sex on him when they worked together at Lorimar-Telepictures in the 1980s, alleging that he also exposed himself to her and violently threw her against a wall.

In a statement to the New Yorker, Moonves acknowledged three of the newly described encounters, but said they were consensual.

But during her interview with ABC News’ anchor George Stephanopoulos on Monday morning, Golden-Gottlieb described the ramifications of rejecting subsequent advances from Moonves quite bluntly. Responding to Moonves’ insistence that he never used his position to “hinder the advancement or careers of women,” she laughed bitterly.

“That’s a joke, it’s so bad. Of course he did. I mean, he took my whole career,” she said.

News of Moonves severing ties with CBS comes nearly a year after the New York Times broke its first story detailing years of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct — including a number of allegations of rape and assault covered up by the industry, the media and law enforcement.

But as Farrow indicates in a separate interview, the Moonves departure stands to have greater weight. When Stephanopoulos calls Moonves’ resignation one of the most significant moments in the #MeToo era, Farrow elaborates, “It is the first example of a Fortune 500 CEO, someone who is really thought to be immune to criticism because he is so indispensable to billions of dollars of transactions, has stepped down” [sic].

As I’ve previously reported, Moonves is a very wealthy and powerful man. According to the executive data firm Equilar, he was the fourth highest paid CEO of a major public company in 2017, clearing $68.4 million.

This alone makes Moonves’ forced departure significant indeed. At the same time, it’s yet another example of how far the industry hasn’t come in terms of holding perpetrators accountable for their actions.

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As was true of Weinstein, rumors of Moonves’ sexual misconduct have circulated for decades. His consensual affairs were an open secret in Hollywood, and as his power grew, so did his ability to squelch accusations of abuse and misconduct.

Moonves’ resignation could take down his underlings who also stand accused of sexual misconduct, such as “NCIS: New Orleans” showrunner Brad Kern.

Kern survived two human resources investigations launched in response to claims of sexual harassment within the space of one year, after which he allegedly fired or drove away a number of employees connected to those complaints.

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And yet, even though Variety released a report about these failures to enact justice at CBS in December 2017, Kern was not demoted from his position until May 2018. And CBS signed a two-year overall deal with Kern despite this, even though a month later it hired an outside investigator to look into all past harassment and misconduct allegations brought against him.

Kern is just one bad manager who worked at CBS until recently. Another is CBS News’ Jeff Fager, the executive producer of “60 Minutes.” In Farrow’s first story, some of  Fager’s former subordinates shared that Fager, “while inebriated at company parties, would touch employees in ways that made them uncomfortable.” Kern was suspended in June. Page Six reports that Fager did not show up to work on Monday.

They, too, may go down as part of CBS’ outward display of cleaning house. But once again we have to ask if amends can be made to the women and men negatively impacted by decades of Moonves’ stewardship and alleged enabling of unsafe and predatory behavior in his workplace.

Although Moonves was remarkably less vulnerable than Weinstein was at the time the first #MeToo stories broke in early October 2017, his departure from CBS came while he was in litigation with Shari Redstone, Sumner Redstone’s heir, over the network’s future.

Shari Redstone, the majority shareholder in both companies through National Amusements Inc., a trust controlled by the Redstone family, wants to merge CBS and Viacom. Moonves had sued to keep the entities separate.

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Moonves’ departure coincides with a cease in litigation between CBS and National Amusements Inc. over control of the company.

While building CBS into the most successful broadcast network on television, Moonves also created a network of loyalists around him. This is the reason that a number of people came out in support of Moonves when the first round of allegations became public.

To be clear, CBS Corporation employs many good and highly talented people. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other abusers waiting to be rooted out.

Hence, what this event says about #MeToo’s potency is still unfurling.

Several elements of this story are worth monitoring in the coming months.

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First, as Farrow reminds ABC and its viewers, Moonves set the tone for an entire culture of a very large multi-pronged corporation.

Farrow has pointed out a number of times since his first Moonves report broke that CBS has resisted taking action since the beginning of this year. Days after the first New Yorker report, the network’s Board of Directors announced its intent to hire outside counsel to conduct an independent investigation of the allegations linked to Moonves. It subsequently hired Covington & Burling and Debevoise & Plimpton.

But as Farrow told ABC, members of the board knew about the allegations of forced oral sex back in January, and didn’t suspend Moonves then. Nor was he suspended following the first story’s publication in July.  If another high-profile manager or star within the CBS family becomes the subject of harassment or abuse accusations, the network’s immediate response will be interesting to observe.

Then there's the matter of Moonves' potential payout.

CBS announced that Moonves won’t receive any of severance "at this time," according to various reports. However, a required regulatory filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission dated September 9, reveals that CBS plans to put Moonves' settlement — listed at $120 million — in a trust within 30 days, pending the results of the independent investigation.

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The same report also reveals that six members of the board resigned along with Moonves – all men – and were replaced by six new members, including three women.

Should the investigation conclude that Moonves committed no wrongdoing he could receive up to $100 million, although the precise amount of Moonves’ severance package is not clear.

ABC reported on Monday that the amount was closer to $80 million. ABC also shared a statement from an CBS official that the network could take back as much as half that depending on the results of its internal investigation. Already the network has pledged $20 million will go to organizations that support the #MeToo movement and gender workplace equality.

To put these amounts in perspective: When the late Fox News chief Roger Ailes resigned following numerous allegations of sexual harassment, his $40 million payout raised hackles around the industry. Ailes’ former star pundit Bill O’Reilly floated away in similar disgrace on a golden parachute of $25 million.

One wonders how many millions of dollars were denied to the women and men whose careers were frustrated or destroyed by Moonves and the managers his system allegedly protected.

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So what is the likelihood that the investigation will side with Moonves’ accusers? Attorney Gloria Allred, who appeared on ABC alongside Golden-Gottlieb, is pessimistic about that, relating that a number of people who contacted her expressed concerns about whether they should speak to the independent investigators. “After all,” Allred says, “they are being paid by CBS.”

Her skepticism is warranted: In May, NBC announced the results of another such investigation which absolved managers and H.R. representatives of wrongdoing in handling the sexual assault and misconduct cases against Matt Lauer, terminated from the company in November 2017.

Make no mistake, Moonves’ resignation is more significant than Lauer's. It could mark a major, positive culture shift at CBS that could impact everything from casting and which producers and directors the network hires, to the subject matter of its programming.

On the other hand, Moonves also spent three decades shaping hundreds of careers in the industry, setting a tone with his leadership that undoubtedly affected hiring practices and work environments — not only at CBS but on other sets and within studios and networks around Hollywood.

Consider the latest study released by the Directors Guild of America,  lauding the fact that percentages of jobs going to first-time women directors and directors of color “hit record highs for the second year in a row.”

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But there’s a catch. “The ongoing employer practice of ‘gifting’ out directing jobs to... series-connected individuals who do not go on to pursue a career as a director has a damaging effect on new and established directors alike,” the report says, adding that this practice limits first breaks for diverse directors. In other words, powerful friends still tend to hire their favored associates.

Of the 202 first-time directors hired by studios, networks, and executive producers in the 2017-18 season, the report says 117, or 58%, were “series affiliated,” meaning they were already connected with the series for which they were hired as a writer/producer, actor, or crew member. But only 70 of those hires were “career-track directors.”

Moonves did not invent this practice, of course. It’s been an industry-wide problem since Hollywood began. Until Sunday, Moonves happened to be one of the most powerful men in that industry, and was notorious for keeping his hand in employment decisions at a number of levels — in part, as alleged by a story about an unnamed actress related in a recent Vulture article, to satisfy his own personal desires.

Although Golden-Gottlieb took her case her case to Los Angeles law enforcement, she was told that the statute of limitations for filing criminal charges or even a civil lawsuit for her case had run out. But, she tells ABC, she just wanted “to get it off of me and to share it with someone.”

Allred points out that in coming forward, Golden-Gottlieb is taking huge risks for justice. “I think it’s really important that CBS has said that there’s going to be a donation to causes that advance equality,” Allred says. “But what about justice for the persons who can prove that they were victims? There needs to be justice for them as well.”

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As the news broke, CBS released a statement that simply stated, “We thank Les for his 24 years of service.”

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Melanie McFarland

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

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