Charming. Accomplished. Visionary. And, if you believe the highly credible accusations, one more thing: abusive.
The first three qualities of CBS chief executive Les Moonves seemed as though they would allow him to stay at the peak of Hollywood power — or at least exit gracefully, parachuting from the heights with more than $100 million in severance pay.
But the women, 12 of them, who claim that he abused his power by harassing or even attacking them, would not be denied.
They kept coming forward. With names attached. With detailed incidents over decades.
“These women are coming out now,” reporter Ronan Farrow said Sunday on CNN, because “they have been extraordinarily frustrated by what they perceive to be inaction on the part of CBS and its board.”
Farrow told me Monday by text message that speaking out, even now, “often requires a huge leap from them, putting their careers on the line to confront a powerful person.”
With new reporting in hand, Farrow built on his July investigation in the New Yorker with a devastating follow-up Sunday.
A mere eight hours after it was published, CBS announced that Moonves was out.
And not only was he out, but — at least for now — without the obscene payout that, according to his contract, would have accompanied his being fired. Instead, his departure comes with a $20 million donation to organizations that fight sexual harassment and promote workplace equality. And the foot-dragging CBS board would be radically reshaped.
What made the difference?
The cumulative power of the stories that women told Farrow, with their names attached, and with specifics nailed down tight. You couldn’t read the latest piece without knowing that Moonves was done.
As legendary reporter and author Bob Woodward said Sunday, in another context: “Specific incidents are the building blocks of journalism.”
Phyllis Golden-Gottlieb, a now-retired TV executive, told Farrow that she filed a criminal complaint late last year with the Los Angeles Police Department, accusing Moonves of “physically restraining her and forcing her to perform oral sex on him, and of exposing himself to her and violently throwing her against a wall in later incidents.” They worked together in the 1980s.
Jessica Pallingston, a writer, charged that Moonves “coerced her into performing oral sex on him when she worked as his temporary assistant, in the nineties, and that, after she repelled subsequent sexual advances, he became hostile, at one point calling her a ‘c---.’ ”
Moonves has denied wrongdoing, saying only that he had had consensual relationships with three of the six women in the most recent article.
We’ve seen it all before. Over the two years since Gretchen Carlson filed suit against Fox boss Roger Ailes — a legal action that kicked off a world-changing movement and brought down another seemingly inviolable media figure — some things have become clear.
Corporations even now are inclined to disbelieve women and to fiercely protect their own rainmakers. They may start an internal investigation, and make pleasant noises about workplace safety, but they would very much like to look the other way. And they do.
Until they are forced to turn their heads and see reality.
What forces them?
The combination of meticulous journalism and courageous accusers willing to take a risk.
This is what powered Harvey Weinstein’s demise, too, with Farrow’s reporting and that of the New York Times.
It happens in politics, too, as shown by The Washington Post’s investigation of Roy Moore, the former Alabama judge with an alleged predeliction for teenage girls. Women were willing to be named and to describe details of their encounters. And even in this red state, voters decided Moore was no one they wanted in the U.S. Senate; he was defeated by that unsavory alternative: a Democrat.
Against the fierce resistance of a paternalistic, self-protective and often sexist culture, anonymous accusers and vague charges accomplish nothing. And journalistic errors or overstatements will be attacked as proof of bad faith.
Kim Masters, a veteran Hollywood journalist, reported that her CBS sources told her that Moonves was convinced that he could retire untainted, on his own terms: “Apparently he really imagined a world in which this would not happen.”
She chalked it up to hubris and denial.
Given a stacked board of directors whose ruling motivation was to continue to have the corporation mint money, it easily could have gone that way. (Never forget it was Moonves who, during the 2016 campaign, crowed about the advertising dollars Donald Trump’s candidacy was indirectly bringing in, offering a succinct summation of an entire value system: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”)
Farrow thinks that may be changing. The drastic revamping of the CBS board, he told me, is “a real sign that Wall Street is realizing a failure to confront these hard truths isn’t just bad for society, it’s bad for shareholders.”
I hope he’s right. What we know, for sure, is that chapter didn’t end in the way Moonves hoped.
Named women, specific incidents, and careful and relentless reporting took it in the opposite direction.
And on Sunday, against the odds, something resembling justice prevailed.
For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan.