Democracy Dies in Darkness

Business

With Leslie Moonves scandal, Hollywood adjusts to a new sound: Silence

July 31, 2018 at 9:37 PM

Watch more!
CBS announced on Sept. 9 that CEO Leslie Moonves will step down after accusations of sexual misconduct. (Nicki DeMarco /The Washington Post)

The sexual-misconduct scandals that have enveloped entertainment executives over the past 10 months have all arrived with one common denominator: a broad industry rebuke.

Harvey Weinstein, former Pixar chief John Lasseter, ex-Amazon executive Roy Price and others quickly became the subject of harsh criticism from entertainment-industry colleagues after their alleged misdeeds came to light.

Then there’s Leslie Moonves.

The CBS chief executive has been accused by six women of sexual misconduct, including harassment, assault and threatening retribution. But the allegations, made against Moonves in the New Yorker magazine last Friday, have elicited a different reaction than previous scandals. Few in Hollywood have spoken out on the subject, and among those who have, many either pledged their support or urged for an investigation to be complete before rendering judgment.

“I haven’t seen this from the industry since the Me Too era began: radio silence,” said a top figure at one of Hollywood’s talent agencies, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the topic’s sensitivity. “Are people outraged-out? Or is it because it’s Les Moonves?”

Interviews with 11 veterans of the entertainment business — including managers, agents, publicists, marketers, producers and even CBS employees — reveal a striking reluctance to condemn Moonves, even after many in the industry previously spoke out strongly against those accused of lesser offenses.

For example, when Price, the Amazon executive, was accused of sexually harassing a producer on an Amazon series, Jill Solloway, who created the service’s “Transparent,” responded firmly. (Amazon’s chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)

“We live in a country and world where the systems of power have operated in favor of men, and this is especially true in Hollywood. The egregious and heinous behavior of those who perform, perpetuate, or passively condone acts of harassment or assault is one of the worst manifestations of this patriarchal system,” she said. (Price, who did not comment on the allegations at the time, was forced to step down from the studio.)

By contrast, there was mostly quiet when CBS’s board decided Monday to let Moonves stay in charge of the entertainment giant as it hired an outside law firm to probe the allegations. Moonves has admitted making unwanted advances but denied assault or retribution.

On Tuesday, NBC News reported that the Los Angeles Police Department last December had been made aware by an alleged Moonves victim of accusations that included battery, indecent exposure and forced oral copulation but opted not to prosecute because the alleged incident had occurred in the 1980s and the statute of limitations prevented his prosecution. CBS would not comment for this article. An LAPD spokesman would also not comment.

Entertainment insiders were sharply divided on why has been such silence on the Moonves allegations. Was the executive, who is well-liked by many in the business, simply reaping the fruits of some hard-earned goodwill? Or was he the beneficiary of his vast power?

Some with ties to Moonves say it is simply an instinct for human sympathy behind their reticence — a desire to hear more before publicly overturning their favorable impression.

“As a fan of The New Yorker it is difficult to reconcile the portrait put forth in that piece with the man who I know today as honorable, compassionate, and a big booster of women inside CBS,” Terry Press, the head of CBS Films, wrote on Facebook. “I do not believe that it is my place to question the accounts put forth by the women but I do find myself asking that if we are examining the industry as it existed decades before through the lens of 2018 should we also discuss a path to learning, reconciliation, and forgiveness?”

She continued: “Outrage is a valuable commodity. But its usefulness can be diminished by overuse.”

But experts on sexual assault and Hollywood say it’s not conscience but complicity causing the silence.

“I don’t think it’s any mystery why you’re seeing so little criticism: There’s a categorical difference between Harvey’s power and Les Moonves’ power.” Amy Ziering, the documentary filmmaker behind sexual-misconduct examinations “The Hunting Ground” and “The Invisible War,” said in an interview; she and partner Kirby Dick, who have just released a Netflix exposé of the medical-device industry called “The Bleeding Edge,” are shooting a documentary about sexual harassment and misconduct in Hollywood. “I mean, Les Moonves is one of the most powerful people currently in the industry.”

Moonves presides over a company with a $22 billion market capitalization and remains one of the most important people in entertainment, with the power to help green-light or nix projects on CBS and Showtime as well as at film and streaming divisions.

One manager said he believed a practical calculation was governing many responses.

"If a client were to call me and say they wanted to criticize Les Moonves, I would tell them they should say nothing, and continue to say nothing and always say nothing,” said the manager. “Because if you defend him and he gets fired, you’re on the wrong side of history. And if you criticize him and he stays, then you’re out there on your own, and is that an island you really want to be on?” He said he believed other managers were advising clients to do the same.

None of the 11 Hollywood figures interviewed would speak on the record. Some say they did not feel it was fair to offer a quote on a matter that was still uncertain, while others did not want to be identified because it was against their interest.

Even those who have criticized Moonves have chosen their words carefully.

The longtime television personality Meredith Vieira, who worked for CBS’s news division from 1982 to 1993, was circumspect when asked by reporters about the Moonves allegations at the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills on Tuesday.

"I don't know exactly what's in the article,” she said as she promoted her new PBS series. “I know roughly it's about Les. But in terms of Les, I didn't have any real relationship with Les Moonves, and I never personally heard anything, but that means nothing. Somebody can be one way with you and very different with another person. "

Stephen Colbert, the CBS late-night host who has been outspoken amid many political and other scandals over the past year, was also somewhat measured in his response.

Moonves “hired me to sit in this chair,” Colbert said on his show Monday night. “I like working for him, but accountability is meaningless unless it’s for everybody. Whether it’s for the leader of a network or the leader of the free world. ”

Colbert added, “Everybody believes in accountability until it’s their guy. And, make no mistake, Les Moonves is my guy. ”

Even so, Colbert remains one of the few Hollywood figures with a large platform to raise the topic.

Two of the Hollywood insiders said they saw the desire by people to hold back as progress, a way of embracing due process instead of succumbing to the temptation of an immediate reaction.

“There has to be something that comes between a news report, no matter how well-vetted, and career death,” said one of the veterans, a marketer.

But activists said that waiting was a mistake.

“This is a vulnerable moment — a moment when Les Moonves is still in power and the CBS board is keeping him in power,” Shaunna Thomas, executive director of women’s organization UltraViolet, told The Post. “This is when everyone who can speak out should speak out.”

Thomas said she remains unconvinced that the operating dynamic on Moonves was simple of an industry wary of passing premature judgment.

“There’s something to the theory that he’s just more powerful than the other guys,” she said.


Steven Zeitchik covers the business of entertainment for The Washington Post, examining the industry's trends, challenges, issues and ideas. Before joining The Post, he covered entertainment for the Los Angeles Times for eight years. He also did reporting tours for The Times in places including Ukraine, Egypt, Germany and the Bill Cosby trial.

Post Recommends
Outbrain

We're glad you're enjoying The Washington Post.

Get access to this story, and every story, on the web and in our apps with our Basic Digital subscription.

Welcome to The Washington Post

Thank you for subscribing
Keep reading for $10 $1
Show me more offers