Since news broke on Friday of sexual harassment claims against both CBS CEO Les Moonves and longtime 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager, the broadcast network has been in damage control. While CBS News provided full coverage of scandal, reporter Anna Werner made sure to tout the company line that the accusations may just be a case of “corporate hardball” as CBS fights off an attempt to re-merge with its former parent company Viacom.
On Friday’s CBS Evening News, Werner told viewers that the accusations against Moonves “come in the middle of a battle over the future of CBS.” She explained: “It pits Moonves against Shari Redstone, who controls a majority of the voting shares in both CBS and Viacom, through her National Amusements corporation. Redstone wants to re-merge CBS and Viacom. Moonves does not.”
Citing comments from an anonymous “high-ranking CBS executive,” the correspondent declared that he “told us The New Yorker story is part of that battle, calling it ‘corporate hardball.’ He said, ‘The gloves come off when people are trying to gain control of the corporation and resort to character assassination.’”
Werner then noted Redstone’s response:
Miss Redstone’s spokesperson put out a statement denying the allegations have anything to do with the battle in the board room. It said, “The malicious insinuation that Miss Redstone is somehow behind the allegations is false and self-serving.” She said Redstone hopes the investigation by CBS’s board is “thorough, open, and transparent.”
On Monday’s CBS This Morning, the reporter repeated the conspiracy theory:
The allegations come in the middle of a pitched battle over the future of CBS. It pits Moonves against Shari Redstone, who controls a majority of the voting shares in both CBS and Viacom through her company. Redstone wants to merge CBS and Viacom, Moonves does not. Redstone denies being behind any accusations. Her representatives said in a statement that she “hopes the investigation of these allegations is thorough, open, and transparent.”
Ironically, during that same report, Werner quoted Fager denying charges that he helped cover up other harassment claims at CBS and that he himself “would get drunk at company parties and touch employees in ways that made them uncomfortable.” As part of his statement, the 60 Minutes executive producer ranted that the allegations were “false, anonymous, and do not hold up to editorial scrutiny.” He further complained: “It’s wrong that our culture can be falsely defined by a few people with an axe to grind.” And yet, Werner had no trouble citing an anonymous CBS executive dismissing the accusers.
CBS’s desperate attempt to deflect attention away from the scandal was noticed by ABC’s Good Morning America on Monday, as correspondent Eva Pilgrim reported:
Sharon Osbourne, who co-hosts The Talk with Moonves’s wife, Julie Chen, also tweeting, “Interesting timing, seems like an attempt to discredit Leslie before major court case.”
Now, CBS is in the middle of a heated legal battle with Viacom, some alleging these claims may stem from that corporate dispute. One unnamed CBS exec calling it “corporate hardball.” A representative for the head of Viacom responding, saying, “Any claim she is behind these allegations is false and self-serving.”
Minutes later, fill-in co-host Amy Robach asked The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow, who broke the story, about the network’s claims: “And I wanted to get your thoughts, quickly, on what CBS – or at least some at CBS – are saying that this has something to do with a larger Viacom legal battle. And they question the timing of this report.”
Farrow, who also broke the Harvey Weinstein scandal in the fall of 2017, shot down the corporate conspiracy theory:
Yeah, we addressed that up front in this story and give that context. The reality is, these are women who started coming forward and reluctantly beginning to grapple with whether they had an ethical obligation to speak after the advent and popularization of the #MeToo movement. These are, in some cases, sources who called after the Harvey Weinstein story broke. And in other cases, who took months and months of persuasion. This was a really tough thing for them to do. And we asked each one of them if this was connected to anything in that corporate battle, and they said no.
On Sunday, CNN Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter asked Farrow a similar question: “Right now, Moonves is locked in this epic battle with Shari Redstone, who’s one of the controlling shareholders of CBS....There’s been some insinuation that maybe Shari Redstone’s camp is partly behind your story. How do you react when you hear that kind of insinuation?”
Farrow stood by his reporting:
Well, we address it in the story, Brian. You know, these women that began coming to me immediately after the Harvey Weinstein story. Illeana Douglas, one of the actresses who’s in this piece, called me, in fact, the day after that first Harvey Weinstein story that I wrote and told me her story, and we’ve been carefully investigating since.
Now, look, there are plenty of stories that are completely true and also fueled by opposition research at some time. We have vetted and re-vetted these sources and my honest impression is that these stories are not only true but also not fueled by any kind of opposition research. You know, these women came in a heartfelt moment where there was an outpouring of these kinds of stories.
On Monday, NBC’s Today show also provided full coverage of the Moonves allegations, however, correspondent Morgan Radford only briefly noted the CBS/Viacom legal battle: “Well, these allegations come just as CBS is locked in a legal battle over whether to merge with its former parent company Viacom.” She never explained CBS’s claim that the contentious business deal was the cause of the accusations.
Radford also failed to remind viewers of NBC’s own brush with the #MeToo movement when it was forced to fire former Today show anchor Matt Lauer in November of 2017, after sexual harassment allegations surfaced against him.