CBS’s board of directors met Monday to discuss the fate of Leslie Moonves, announcing it will select outside lawyers to investigate sexual misconduct allegations against the company’s chief executive but opting not to take further action.
Moonves, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by six women., has faced calls from Me Too activists to step aside. But the board on Monday said it won’t act immediately.
“CBS Corporation announced today that its Board of Directors is in the process of selecting outside counsel to conduct an independent investigation," the board said in a statement. "No other action was taken on this matter at today’s board meeting.”
The board has several options in disciplining the executive, including suspension and firing. Moonves could also decide to step aside voluntarily during the investigation. But Monday’s news ensures he will stay in place at least in the coming days. No timetable has been given for the selection of the law firm.
In an article published Friday in the New Yorker, a group of actors, writers and producers accused the top CBS executive of behavior that included forcible touching and physical intimidation, as well as threats of reprisal. The activity happened over a period of three decades beginning in the 1980′s, the alleged victims said.
In a statement Friday, Moonves said, “there were times decades ago when I may have made some women uncomfortable by making advances,” but he denied misusing his position to hurt anyone’s career.
Moonves has helped turn CBS into a ratings juggernaut during his 23-year run at the company, which ranks among one of the media’s industry most financially stable. He is widely liked by Wall Street.
The board’s decision on Moonves is a measure of corporate media’s willingness to discipline its own when it comes to the #MeToo movement, which arose out of a series of workplace sexual-harassment scandals in Hollywood and other industries last year.
Until now, top executives in the entertainment business have been largely the ones handing out the punishment as talent such as Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose have been accused of misconduct; the executives have been criticized for complicity but not accused of direct offenses. Moonves marks the first instance of an executive at the top of a major media conglomerate to face personal charges.
Also hovering is a battle over the fate of CBS that pits Moonves against Shari Redstone, who via her National Amusements umbrella company owns the majority of shares in both CBS and Viacom, its one-time corporate sibling. Redstone and Moonves are fighting in court over control of CBS, particularly regarding a plan from Redstone to recombine it with Viacom, which Moonves opposes unless he is given control of the united company.
The CBS board, which counts three women and at least ten men among its ranks, has been largely loyal to Moonves in his fight with Redstone, and she has attempted in recent months to add new members to negate that loyalty. Among the several board members with Redstone ties are her personal lawyer Robert Klieger and David Andelman, another attorney, who also serves as a director at National Amusements.
The CBS board’s independent directors said Friday they would investigate the New Yorker claims thoroughly. “All allegations of personal misconduct are to be taken seriously,” they said in a statement. “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.”
Among the independent directors are former Verizon executive Bruce Gordon and former Clinton defense secretary William Cohen.
The independent directors' statement also noted that “the timing of this report comes in the midst of the company’s very public legal dispute,” with Redstone.
A Redstone spokeswoman responded by labeling the comment a “malicious insinuation that Ms. Redstone is somehow behind the allegations of inappropriate personal behavior by Mr. Moonves” and called that idea “false and self-serving.”
The decision Monday not to take additional action could further inflame the split between Redstone and Moonves. Redstone did not comment publicly in the aftermath of Monday’s decision, but that could change if the majority of the board continues to vote against taking any disciplinary action.
CBS’s share price saw a small spike at the board announcement about Moonves, which came just before the market closed. The stock finished the day down 5 percent.
CBS also announced Monday that the annual shareholder meeting scheduled for Aug. 10 has been indefinitely postponed. The company is also slated to talk to analysts Thursday for a quarterly earnings call and meet with the media Sunday as part of a regularly scheduled gathering to promote upcoming shows and discuss the state of the network.