#MeToo and the B-list: "Nobody cares because their assailants were not famous"

UPDATED: Warner Bros. confirms an internal investigation of suspended "Extra" host A.J. Calloway is still underway

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published May 10, 2019 9:07AM (EDT)

 A.J. Calloway, 2017.   (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
A.J. Calloway, 2017. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

UPDATED: Warner Bros. replied to Salon's request for comment with the following statement on Friday at 10:45 a.m. ET: "The investigation is nearing completion and we expect it to conclude by the end of the month."

Billy Bush is returning to TV, after a two-and-a-half year benching, as the host of a spin-off of the syndicated entertainment newsmagazine show “Extra.”

His new series, called “Extra Extra,” will be Bush’s first post-“Access Hollywood” gig after co-starring in the infamous “grab ‘em by the pussy” recording that went public in the waning days of the 2016 presidential election. Bush’s crime was laughing along with Donald Trump as the “Apprentice” star bragged about groping and kissing women without their consent. At the time, that was enough to cast a well-known TV personality like Bush into a state of disgrace.

But this isn’t a story about Billy Bush. This is about an “Extra” co-host who, unlike Bush, is not a household name: A.J. Calloway.

The bulk of Calloway’s fandom remembers him from “106 & Park,” BET’s live hip-hop and R&B music video countdown show, which Calloway hosted from 2000-05 as one of the originating personalities. As Calloway himself admits, more people recognize him from his work on that show than from “Extra,” the Warner Bros. Television-produced entertainment news show where he has served as New York co-host since 2006.

In January and February of this year, Calloway became the subject of multiple reports — some of which stemmed from formal criminal charges — on allegations that include sexual misconduct and rape, brought against him by several women, starting with writer and domestic violence awareness activist Sil Lai Abrams, who alleges that Calloway sexually assaulted her in 2006.

Abrams, who is also currently pursuing a sociology degree as a McBride Scholar at Bryn Mawr College, first attempted to go public with her account in 2017 in a televised interview with NBC host Joy Reid, who submitted a 6,500-word article about Abrams’ story to New York Magazine in November 2017 that was never published. NBC recorded an interview with Abrams in January 2018. It never aired.

Months later, on June 28, 2018, the Hollywood Reporter published a painstakingly reported feature recounting Reid’s reporting efforts and NBC’s decision to pull the story, as well as a full account of Abrams’ allegations. THR also published a first-person column by Abrams about the unique challenges black women face in coming forward with abuse and assault allegations.

The next development came in January 2019, when The Daily Beast published a report featuring the accounts of two more accusers. The Hollywood Reporter then spoke with a total of five women for a story that ran on February 13. Jeannie Delgado, who had previously spoken to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity, allowed THR to use her name.

Calloway, a public figure with a much lower profile in the industry than that of Bush, was still working in front of the camera on “Extra” until February 9, when Warner Bros. announced his suspension from “Extra,” reportedly with pay. At press time, no resolution to his suspension — either termination or reinstatement — had been made public, despite the extensive reporting on these allegations.

[UPDATE: After publication, Warner Bros. replied to Salon's request for comment with the following statement: "The investigation is nearing completion and we expect it to conclude by the end of the month."]

In the meantime, a renewed obsession with R. Kelly’s multiple accusations of sexual abuse and assault of underage girls, along with allegations of Michael Jackson’s secret history of child molestation — as brought to light in the docu-series “Leaving Neverland” and “Surviving R. Kelly” — have dominated the news cycle. Allegations swirling around producer and singer-songwriter Ryan Adams also gained more attention than Calloway’s suspension.

Abrams told Salon that neither she nor Delgado had been contacted by Warner Bros’ representatives in the months since they came forward. That is, until hours after Salon reached out to Warner Bros on Thursday to ask if they had plans to do so.

At 9:37 p.m. ET on Thursday, Abrams received a message through her website from Daphne Bishop, senior counsel at the California-based law firm Carothers DiSante & Freudenberger LLP, informing her that the company has retained her to conduct a “neutral investigation” of Abrams' complaint.

“I am offended and find it laughable that at the 11th hour I am receiving a note through my website from an attorney asking to speak to me,” she told Salon on Thursday evening.

Waiting for nearly a year for any indication from Warner Bros. about how this matter would be addressed has negatively impacted Abrams’ health. “It's been incredibly stressful. It's been painful. It’s been isolating,” she told Salon in a recent phone interview. “It has been a distraction from the parts of my life that need attention."

“I feel like I'm in a war and I wouldn't wish this on anybody,” she added. “Yet at the same time, I realize the incredible privilege it is to be able to tell my story, and the fact that anyone is listening. Even if they do have a stranglehold on me, there are so many other survivors and victims. But nobody cares because their assailants were not famous.”

As Abrams explained to THR reporter Kim Masters, she had written about Calloway in her 2007 book, “No More Drama,” as one of two alleged sexual assaults she experienced. At the time, she didn’t name either of her alleged attackers, calling them by pseudonyms instead.

But the dam-breaking effect of #MeToo moved Abrams to reveal both. The man she alleges raped her in 1994 — identified in her book as “Ronald,” who was  known for “his hard-partying lifestyle funded by his very successful record label" — she now says is Russell Simmons.

Abrams alleges that Calloway, originally identified as "well-spoken B-list celebrity Ray," is the perpetrator of the second assault described in the book, which she says took place in 2006.

In an excerpt from “No More Drama,” Abrams says she first got to know Calloway — again, identified in her book as “Ray” — after she recruited him to be a celebrity participant in a fundraising event. Following the event she says they established what she understood to be a professional relationship, with him offering to help her with her work to create a non-profit dedicated to mentoring young women.

She says in their phone conversations he would test the boundaries of their relationship by trying to turn the topic to sex, although she would rebuff him. Then the day after Christmas in 2006, she says they met for drinks. When the hour grew late — in the book, Abrams marked the time as around 11:30 p.m. — she says he offered to drive her home. She alleges that during this drive, Calloway exposed himself to her.

“’Do you see what you do to me?’ he asked. Turning my head in his direction I froze in shock at the sight of Ray brandishing his manhood before me,’” she writes of the incident. She goes on to describe rebuffing him, first by rolling her eyes and telling him, “’…I have no interest in seeing that. Why don’t you do us both a favor and put that away?’”

She then says Calloway grabbed her hand and placed it on her lap. She says she refused more forcefully, and when they pulled up to her home, he “forcibly shoved his tongue into my mouth.” She goes on to describe him groping her and attempting to push her head down into his lap, until he finally forced her hand on his penis and stimulated himself until he climaxed. “Our struggle had been going on for close to six minutes and I figured he would leave me alone if I just let him do what I wanted,” she wrote.

Abrams said Calloway called her to apologize afterward, but she filed a criminal complaint at the 78th precinct in Brooklyn approximately two weeks after the assault, in January 2007. Calloway was arrested. He was charged under the sections of New York law related to forcible touching and attempted sexual misconduct offenses, according to copies of four orders of protection still in Abrams’ possession, which Salon has obtained and reviewed.

Abrams says the prosecutor was ready to take the case to court. But it was dismissed on a technicality having nothing to do with evidence approximately 8 to 9 months later.

According to Abrams, Calloway’s lawyer argued that the assistant district attorney handling the case requested too many continuances, violating Calloway’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair and speedy trial.

Because of this, Abrams says, she cannot bring additional criminal charges against him and the case file is sealed.

By the time of THR story’s publication, more than a dozen women in addition to Abrams had already come forward to accuse Simmons of rape and assault. Simmons had already stepped down from the helm of his businesses after screenwriter Jenny Lumet went public with her allegations, published in THR in November 2017 — before Abrams named him — which Lumet did to support model Keri Claussen Khalighi’s account in the L.A. Times.

After Abrams named Simmons and Calloway in 2018, separately each denied her allegations to THR and other outlets reporting on the story.

Abrams doesn’t know if Warner Bros. is aware of Calloway’s arrest; Salon has reached out to them with that question. (Warner Bros. replied to Salon's questions with this statement: "The investigation is nearing completion and we expect it to conclude by the end of the month.") However, she points out that at the time she says Calloway assaulted her, he was an employee of “Extra.”

Abrams told all of this to Masters in the story THR published in June 2018, but that story wasn’t what spurred Warner Bros. to suspend Calloway. Nor did The Daily Beast’s subsequent story in which two more accusers, Delgado and a woman who asked to be identified as “Talia” out of fear of retaliation, also came forward with claims that Calloway assaulted them.

Calloway was benched only after Masters followed up with Warner Bros. to give them a chance to respond to new developments: Delgado — who filed a police complaint on December 24, 2018 for an aggravated sexual assault in 2009 in West Orange, New Jersey, and named Calloway as the perpetrator — went on the record with THR.  (Delgado declined to be interviewed for this story due to the ongoing police investigation into her allegations.)

Another woman who wishes to remain anonymous also went to the police in California, and according to The Hollywood Reporter her case was open and active as of mid-February 2019.

Only then did Warner Bros. act, after months of declining to reply to requests for comment from those outlets and from Abrams herself, deferring to public statements Calloway has made through his lawyer, Lisa E. Davis.

In an official statement released after the news of Calloway’s suspension went public, Davis said, “These allegations are completely false. Mr. Calloway has never sexually assaulted anyone and is devastated that he is being falsely accused of such terrible conduct. Throughout his career, Mr. Calloway has been a tireless advocate for community empowerment and equality and justice for all people regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation or gender expression.”

Salon has reached out to Davis for comment and will update this report accordingly.

Along with Delgado and the woman identified as “Talia” in The Daily Beast’s story, Abrams says she has heard from 12 women who allege that Calloway assaulted them or engaged in sexual misconduct against them, in incidents dating back approximately 15 years. (Abrams stressed to Salon that the women in question shared extremely private information with her, and she has pledged to never reveal their stories or stories unless expressly given permission to do so.)

Calloway has mostly been silent on social media during his suspension, retweeting a few news items on Twitter and promoting a scholarship gala sponsored by his fraternity. But the reports of the allegations surrounding his suspension have led to his fans trolling the women who came forward, posting videos speaking out against them or skewed in support of him, with YouTube commenters branding Calloway as “a victim” of #MeToo.

In much of the reporting surrounding sexual harassment and misconduct, rarely is adequate emphasis placed on how little victims have to gain by going public with their accusations. The risk for women of color is even greater. Only one in 15 black women who are raped reports her assault to authorities. Those who do muster the courage to go to the police are less likely to have their claims of assault believed or adequately investigated.

On top of those damning statistics, when the alleged perpetrator also happens to be a minority, women of color who report often are pilloried by people in their own community — men and women — for betraying their own and giving the justice system ammunition to take down another man of color. This is a frequent refrain in those aforementioned YouTube comments.

But a counter-refrain can also be seen in the comments: support and sympathy for Calloway’s accusers, including from people who say they know other women who claim they were also assaulted by him. Some of those comments appear to have been scrubbed from the stories upon which they originally appeared, although Salon has obtained and reviewed screenshots.

Cleaning up unsubstantiated claims in comments is one thing. But Calloway’s Wikipedia entry was edited by a user on March 28, 2019 to omit the news of his suspension, which raises the question Salon has asked Warner Bros.: Does A.J. Calloway still work at “Extra”?

From an outsider’s perspective, the way Warner Bros. has handled this situation appears to exemplify corporate disregard for women of color who come forward with major accusations against a celebrity. Even more sobering is how the Calloway case shows how the entertainment industry waits for a story like this to wash down the news stream, hoping it will fade from memory if they wait it out.

“Extra” is a syndicated series that is as ubiquitous as it is ephemeral. Mario Lopez, its host, is one of the premiere faces of non-controversial celebrity coverage and the Hollywood-handsome guy who lists the latest pay-per-view options when travelers fire up their televisions in their hotel rooms. Like most syndicated daytime and evening series, its ratings have decreased lately, leading NBC to decline to renew its deal to air the show on its owned and operated stations, where the series has made its home since its 1994 debut.

However, in what is being termed a “rebranding,” the series will now air on Fox Television Stations O&Os, granting it exposure on one of the nation's largest network owned-and-operated broadcast groups.  This includes stations in top markets such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Houston.

This means “Extra”  now has a chance of getting in front of many more eyeballs. While the big news is Bush coming onboard as the host of the brand’s spinoff, the main “Extra” syndicated program hosted by Lopez, according to reports, will continue running throughout the season.

With all that in play, it does raise the question of whether the brand wants to have two personalities associated with sexual misconduct, directly or indirectly,  in front of its cameras.

Of course, there are many differences between Bush and Calloway. As mentioned at the top of this story, Bush was much more well-known — aside from his TV career, he’s the nephew of former President George H.W. Bush and the cousin of former President George W. Bush — before the infamous tape leak, and he was fired because he giggled and abetted Trump’s misogynistic statements about women, including his female co-workers. No criminal charges can be filed against him for that.

Whereas Calloway now has three alleged incidents of sexual violence reported to police by three different women associated with him.  To review: in addition to Abrams’ 2007 criminal complaint filed in New York, and Delgado’s complaint for aggravated sexual assault filed in New Jersey in December 2018, a woman who wishes to remain anonymous woman went to police in California, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

In many respects, fame insulates powerful men. The higher his profile, the harder it is to get the institutions and corporations that benefit from his work to take women’s claims seriously. This was true for years, as the groundbreaking #MeToo reporting by the New York Times and the New Yorker laid bare. Now, though, the opposite seems to be happening.

Here’s an interesting note about Calloway’s suspension: it went into effect before the sex scandal leading to the recent ouster of former Warner Bros. chairman and CEO Kevin Tsujihara, involving Tsujihara’s inappropriate relationship with actor Charlotte Kirk.

There are many differences at play here. The relationship between Tsujihara and Kirk was consensual, but deemed inappropriate; the allegations Calloway faces involve forcible rape and sexual assault. Tsujihura was the head of one of the entertainment industry’s most powerful entities, while Calloway is a red carpet correspondent for a frothy syndicated entertainment series.

While Warner moved to resolve the Tsujihara scandal quickly, Calloway’s biography and headshot remained live on the official website for “Extra” as of this week. Calloway is not on the air right now, but from all appearances he has remained a part of the show’s front-facing brand during his suspension.

In the age of readily-available digital metrics, where media outlets can see in real time how many of their readers are interested in any given story and can assign follow-up reporting accordingly, Calloway’s B-list status — he's more recognizable as the guy on the red carpet asking the questions — effectively shields him from the brightest glare of media scrutiny. Compare how relatively under-the-radar these allegations have flown to the response to stories that surfaced in December 2018 of Neil deGrasse Tyson, accused of inappropriately behavior with two women, including a former assistant on “Cosmos,” in an article published by the website Patheos. The article also cites an earlier accusation of rape dating back to 1984, leveled by a fellow graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, Tchiya Amet El Maat.

Tyson responded to each accusation by going public with his version of events in a Facebook post. “For a variety of reasons, most justified, some unjustified, men accused of sexual impropriety in today’s “me-too” climate are presumed to be guilty by the court of public opinion,” he writes, going on to add, “In any claim, evidence matters. Evidence always matters. But what happens when it’s just one person’s word against another’s, and the stories don’t agree?” According to reports, Fox sent investigators to interview each accuser and in March, announced that it completed its investigation and planned to move forward with his programs “Star Talk” and “Cosmos.”

Following the January and February reporting of allegations of Calloway’s sexual misconduct, there hasn’t been any media follow-up. Warner Bros. hasn’t released any information about Calloway’s suspension or any investigation. [Update: Warner Bros. replied to Salon's questions Friday with this statement: "The investigation is nearing completion and we expect it to conclude by the end of the month."]

Partly this must be the assumption at work that once a lesser-known on-camera or behind-the-scenes personality is officially suspended on suspicion of sexual misconduct, he isn’t coming back to the job.

But as incidents at other companies have shown, that’s not always the case. While admittedly this is not an apples-to-apples comparison, CBS kept a powerful producer on “NCIS: New Orleans” in its employ after a damning story about two sexual harassment HR investigations went public. And even after removing him from his day-to-day managerial duties — which only happened after several reporters followed up — the company still renewed his contract until, at last, firing him when coverage would not let up. Ironically, this foot-dragging may have been less likely had he been a performer on his show instead of the boss, because then the viewing public might demand accountability. His show might be a household name, but his own isn’t.

Calloway does not have the expansive profile of his colleagues Lopez or Bush, which would seem to make it easier for the company to be upfront about any action it may or may not have taken. And yet the opposite seems to be playing out.

Additionally, some elements of the timing vis a vis the company’s boilerplate responses to reporters about its handling of Calloway’s case don’t neatly line up.

Abrams has been contending with the effects of going public with her recollection of Calloway’s alleged assault since she first took the story to Reid and NBC in November of 2017. But Abrams says the network slow-walked its fact-checking process. NBC subsequently explained that Abrams insisted on naming both Simmons and Calloway in her account, and its fact-checkers could not verify certain aspects of allegations made against one of them; it did not specify which.

But following the June 2018 story in THR, Abrams emailed Warner Bros. spokesman Blake Bryant on July 23, 2018, to inquire about whether the company intended to take any action on Calloway. She did not receive a reply.  Warner Bros. maintains Bryant never received the email, which Salon has reviewed, but The Hollywood Reporter previously confirmed that the email was, indeed, sent to him.

“Something is very wrong in the manner in which this entire situation has been handled and with Warner Media’s own words, their various statements, as issued,” Abrams said. “And what they don't say during this whole process, I think, is very damning. They had at least four or five opportunities to say that they were doing an investigation or they had done one. And they never revealed that.”

She continued, “They could have easily said they had done an investigation and found that, say, ‘Ms. Abrams allegations were not credible.’ To me, I’m sitting here like, OK, you as a corporation have a responsibility to take a position that sexual assault is a matter that they are concerned about.’ And they failed.

But does a corporation have such a responsibility?

Mariann Meier Wang, a New York-based trial lawyer who focuses on both civil rights and commercial litigation, said the answer isn’t necessarily black and white. “I don't know that they necessarily have to do anything,” she said.

Wang has no connection Warner Bros. or any direct knowledge of Calloway’s case, but agreed to speak with Salon as a specialist in this area. Currently she’s representing Summer Zervos, a former contestant on “The Apprentice,” in a defamation suit against Trump regarding his public statements that she fabricated claims that he touched her inappropriately.

“The law is a relatively conservative mechanism, and in many ways is not very well built for these types of abuses.  Even when you have workplace abuse, it’s not the best. Even in the context of actual workplace discrimination and assaults, I've represented people over years and years and it's a very tough and hard road, and often a lonely one, to be a plaintiff in those cases,” she said.

And this is where all the celebrated gains of the #MeToo movement fall short. If the legal system fails people who come forward, imagine the frustrations and obstacles one victim, or a few handfuls, crash against when they come up against a corporation or an industry system. When that silence is abetted by a muted public reaction — not because the accused is too big to be taken down, but paradoxically because he is not big enough to generate an undeniable groundswell of indignation — it raises the question of how much of a “reckoning” our culture is truly having with sexual abuse and harassment. If the accused has to be a red carpet regular on the right side of the mic for corporate bosses to feel like they have an obligation to treat complaints against their employees seriously, how much progress has actually been made?

Warner Bros. did not give any comment to The Daily Beast’s Amy Zimmerman for her January 2019 story about Calloway, referring her instead to Calloway’s attorney Davis. Later, however, Warner provided this comment to Deadline, which followed up the original report, via a spokesperson.

“We take allegations made against our employees seriously and investigate appropriately. To date, we have not received a complaint about A.J. Calloway and his work on ‘Extra,’” adding that Warner had no plans at that time to investigate the host.

Oddly, a little more than a month later, Warner Bros. provided this statement to THR: "Upon becoming aware of allegations of sexual misconduct against AJ Calloway, we began an internal review to determine whether there had been any misconduct by Mr. Calloway on Extra and whether any employee of the show had been the victim of any such misconduct. To date, we have found nothing to suggest that Mr. Calloway has ever engaged in workplace misconduct."

The statement continued, "In light of additional allegations brought to our attention, we are expanding our ongoing inquiries, and Mr. Calloway has been suspended pending further review. We take such allegations very seriously and are committed to doing everything we can to ensure a safe and inclusive workplace for all of our employees."

A Vanity Fair chase of that story quotes an unnamed source stating that Warner’s investigation began in June 2018.

It’s important to note in Warner’s statement the language about workplace misconduct — specifically that its inquiry involved the question of whether any employee of the show had been the victim of any such misconduct. So what does this mean for women who aren’t employees of “Extra” or Warner Bros. who are accusing him of sexual misconduct?

“Obviously as a matter of morality, as a matter of perhaps understanding what this person might be doing in the workplace, when, or if he has any power over others, it might impact how you look at the person,” Wang said.  “But as a matter of law, I don't know that they do have an obligation to do anything.”

However, Wang goes on to say “what has been happening, which I'm very thankful for, is that I think there's a wider cultural shift about what's morally acceptable and what is socially acceptable as to whether or not a person should be the face of a company, or whether that person should be representing that company, if he has been credibly accused of other kinds of abuse or assault. And that is what has put pressure on companies to take some action.”

Barring reliance on such good will, Wang explained that the only other factor that might be taken into account is a possible morals clause in an actor’s contract. (Though Salon spoke with multiple industry sources on background, we could not confirm if Calloway has a contract or any stipulations contained within it.)

“That is how you create a legal basis so that a company can impose other standards on an employee that otherwise statutes or common law does not impose,” Wang explained. “. . . a company and an employee can agree that no matter what the law provides, whatever the statutes say, we agree that our relationship is going to be governed by certain reasonable behavior.”

However, she added, “those provisions are very narrowly worded, and sometimes for good reason . . . I mean, I've seen all different types of things. But I've seen sometimes, you know,  that you have to be accused of something particular, like a felony. They will actually have a list of things that are considered to be a violation of that clause.”

All Abrams and the other women who have come forward can do is wait to see what Warner Bros. does with the investigation they have finally contacted Abrams about.

“The fact that they said nothing at all is worse than saying my allegations were not credible,”  Abrams said before Warner Bros.’ attorney reached out to her. “The seven other women I alerted them about in July were not enough, and that is a travesty. How many women have to come forward before they actually do something?”

“On one hand, it’s horrifyingly painful,” she added. “On the other hand, it would be worse to be silent and for nobody to care. And my hope is that by attempting to hold this media corporation accountable, that just maybe some type of change can occur in which the most vulnerable of us are taken seriously.”

By Melanie McFarland

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

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