“I recognize that there were times decades ago when I may have made some women uncomfortable by making advances,” the network chief admitted.
Leslie Moonves, CBS’ longtime CEO and one of Hollywood’s most powerful executives, is accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women over the course of several decades in a bombshell new investigation published by Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker on Friday.
On-the-record accusers in the story include actress Illeana Douglas, writer Janet Jones, producer Christine Peters and writer Dinah Kirgo. Others also spoke out about the corporate culture at CBS and CBS News.
“Six women who had professional dealings with him told me that, between the nineteen-eighties and the late aughts, Moonves sexually harassed them,” journalist Farrow writes in the story. “Four described forcible touching or kissing during business meetings, in what they said appeared to be a practiced routine. Two told me that Moonves physically intimidated them or threatened to derail their careers. All said that he became cold or hostile after they rejected his advances and that they believed their careers suffered as a result.”
Douglas describes an incident in which Moonves allegedly tried to kiss her and grab her. “What it feels like to have someone hold you down — you can’t breathe, you can’t move,” Douglas told Farrow, recalling an incident in the late 1990s. “The physicality of it was horrendous.” Among others, the actress told Martin Scorsese about the incident, and the director told the magazine that he had heard about the story.
“Real change will occur when victims of sexual assaults are not stigmatized as whistle blowers, or people with some kind of agenda for coming forward. Real change will occur when opportunities to work at companies where assaults have occurred are no longer condoned,” Douglas said in a statement to Hollywood Insight following the publication of Farrow’s story. “Speaking for myself, real change will occur when I can walk through the front doors of CBS and resume the creative and working relationship that was so tragically cut short in 1997.”
Writer Janet Jones recalls to Farrow an incident in 1985 where she alleges that Moonves “came around the corner of the table and threw himself on top of me. It was very fast.” Jones says she remembers the exec saying, “‘Well, I was hitting on you. I wanted a kiss.'”
Producer Christine Peters recalled a business meeting in 2006 where, she claims, “He said, ‘This is really great,'” she recalled. “Then he just put a hand up my skirt.” Dinah Kirgo, an Emmy winner, claims that in the ’80s she “rebuffed unwanted advances from Moonves in [a] professional setting,” as Farrow writes in his investigation.
In a statement, Moonves said: “Throughout my time at CBS, we have promoted a culture of respect and opportunity for all employees and have consistently found success elevating women to top executive positions across our company. I recognize that there were times decades ago when I may have made some women uncomfortable by making advances. Those were mistakes, and I regret them immensely. But I always understood and respected — and abided by the principle — that ‘no’ means ‘no,’ and I have never misused my position to harm or hinder anyone’s career. This is a time when we all are appropriately focused on how we help improve our society, and we at CBS are committed to being part of the solution.”
On Wall Street, CBS shares dropped 6 percent on Friday’s news while Viacom’s stock jumped 5 percent, suggesting that investors think a CBS purchase of Viacom at a premium to where the stock trades is more of a possibility now that Moonves has been damaged in the court of public opinion.
Moonves, 68, joined his current employer in 1995 as president of CBS Entertainment, was named CEO of CBS Television in 1998 and became chairman and CEO of the parent company five years later. Since then, his network has introduced the world to franchises like CSI, Survivor, NCIS and The Big Bang Theory as well as Homeland at Showtime, which is owned by CBS Corp. Last year, the media conglomerate paid Moonves $69.3 million, and in 2016 the executive received $69.6 million.
Moonves, perhaps until now, also has been a tremendously resilient survivor, skirting sex scandals involving billionaire mogul Sumner Redstone as well as feuds between Redstone and his daughter, Shari, and other clashes that brought down former Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman and other top execs in the Redstone orbit.
CBS says it is investigating claims against its chief. “All allegations of personal misconduct are to be taken seriously,” the network said in a Friday statement following a Hollywood Insight story by Kim Masters saying that Farrow’s exposé contained claims of sexual misconduct. “The Independent Directors of CBS have committed to investigating claims that violate the Company’s clear policies in that regard. Upon the conclusion of that investigation, which involves recently reported allegations that go back several decades, the Board will promptly review the findings and take appropriate action.”
The dramatic allegations against Moonves come as CBS engages in a fight with Sumner and Shari Redstone. The pair control both CBS and Viacom, the parent of MTV, VH1, Comedy Central and Paramount Pictures, through voting shares owned by National Amusements.
Moonves is seeking to dilute those shares because he worries that the Redstones might try to merge Viacom with CBS, and National Amusements and CBS are suing each other over the matter. CBS even suggested that Shari might have been behind the leaks of sexual misconduct allegations against Moonves, though a representative of Shari’s denied the insinuations.
“The timing of this report comes in the midst of the company’s very public legal dispute. While that litigation process continues, the CBS management team has the full support of the independent board members,” CBS said.
“The malicious insinuation that Ms. Redstone is somehow behind the allegations of inappropriate personal behavior by Mr. Moonves or today’s reports is false and self-serving,” Shari’s representative responded. Shari, her rep said, “hopes that the investigation of these allegations is thorough, open and transparent.”
Since Harvey Weinstein’s career was torn asunder by allegations of harassment and sexual assault, several other industry leaders have faced consequences for sexual misconduct accusations. Among those whose careers are in shambles are former head of Amazon Studios Roy Price; comedian and former U.S. Sen. Al Franken; former host of NBC’s Today show Matt Lauer; comedian Louis C.K.; and actor Kevin Spacey — not to mention comic legend Bill Cosby, who was accused before the Weinstein revelations.
Moonves is likely facing his biggest challenge. The accusations come just three months after a group that he was part of created the Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, chaired by Anita Hill.
Following the publication of Farrow’s story, Moonves’ wife, Julie Chen, said on Twitter, “I have known my husband Leslie Moonves since the late ’90s, and I’ve been married to him for 14 years. Leslie is a good man and a loving father, devoted husband and inspiring corporate leader. He has always been a kind, decent and moral human being. I fully support my husband and stand behind him and his statement.”
Later on Friday, CBS president and chief advertising revenue officer Jo Ann Ross also defended Moonves, writing on Twitter, “I fully support Leslie Moonves and the statement he made. My experience with him on a professional and personal basis has never shown any hint of the behavior this story refers to.” (Read the full statement here.)
CBS, in a statement after the New Yorker story went live Friday afternoon, said that Farrow’s report was not indicative of larger corporate culture issues.
“CBS is very mindful of all workplace issues and takes each report of misconduct very seriously. We do not believe, however, that the picture of our Company created in The New Yorker represents a larger organization that does its best to treat its tens of thousands of employees with dignity and respect,” it stated. “We are seeing vigorous discourse in our country about equality, inclusion and safety in the workplace, and CBS is committed to being part of the solution to those important issues.”