Brow Beat

CBS’s Toxic Culture Isn’t Just Behind the Scenes. It’s in the Stories It Tells.

A man in a grey suit links arms with a brunette women in a red and black short-sleeve dress as they walk down a hallway.
Eliza Dushku and Michael Weatherly
David M. Russell/CBS

On Thursday evening, the New York Times published the latest in what can only be described as a months-long avalanche of stories about the toxic workplace at CBS. In this most recent story, the Times reports that Eliza Dushku, who joined the popular CBS procedural drama Bull in 2017, was repeatedly harassed by the show’s lead actor Michael Weatherly. But when Dushku told Weatherly how much his behavior upset her—she says he commented on her appearance, made a rape joke during filming, and suggested that they have a threesome with another cast member—her hoped-for role as a series regular evaporated, and her character was written off the show.

The details of Dushku’s experience are horrifying and unsurprising, one of many accusations of terrible behavior at CBS that extends from Les Moonves all the way down, through its news division with 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager, through CBS Entertainment with NCIS: New Orleans showrunner Brad Kernthe showrunners of Star Trek: Discoverycomedy exec Vinnie FavaleCriminal Minds director of photography Greg St. Johns, and through on-air talent like Charlie RoseJeremy Piven, and most recently, Weatherly. But the problem with CBS’s toxic culture is not just the damage it’s done to the people—mostly women—who’ve been harmed behind the scenes. The problem also carries through to the stories it tells, which are watched by millions.

Bull is a show about a smart, charismatic guy named Jason Bull, who failed the bar exam twice and instead became a trial consultant. His job is to analyze juries, learning as much as he can about the individuals who’ve been empaneled, and to counsel litigators about the best way to present their cases so juries will be receptive to their arguments. Bull is about a guy you can hire if you have massive amounts of money, and he’ll make sure you don’t get convicted. Setting aside the curdled stench of a show about a heroic protagonist whose job is to tilt the justice system toward those who can pay him, Jason Bull as portrayed by Michael Weatherly is also an immediately recognizable type: He plays by his own rules, but he doesn’t dismantle the system; he massages it in just the right spot. He has principles, sure, but his principles are mostly that he loves attractive women and he wants to win cases for his clients.

Jason Bull is the kind of seemingly innocuous, boys-will-be-boys male protagonist who has filled CBS’s airwaves for years. He’s not even the first one that Weatherly has played on CBS—prior to Bull, he had a popular role on NCIS for 13 years. On both that show and Criminal Minds, two of CBS’s longest-running procedurals, male bosses lay down the law from their paternal seats on high, meting out justice and breaking the rules only when it is clearly in everyone’s best interest, as decided by them. On The Mentalist, Patrick Jane (played by Simon Baker) was a behavior analyst who perpetually dodged and swerved around his rules-obsessed partner (a woman, of course, played by Robin Tunney), whose job was mostly to try to keep his impulses in check.

These characters are not all identical. Gil Grissom, the character played by William Petersen for years on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, was a by-the-books type who often acted with no regard for the “social conventions” that might impact his behavior toward his employees. He snapped at them. He was misanthropic. This, of course, was seen as a positive. His counterpart on CSI: NY, played by Gary Sinise, was a little looser with the law. There have been exceptions on CBS’s schedule—shows like The Good Wife and Madam Secretary are about prominent women in positions of power—but the common feature of so many of CBS’s most successful dramas, the ones that have spun off multi-city franchises and run for dozens of years and are watched by millions of people each week, is pretty basic: A man has power, and he wields it for his own ends.

It’s hard not to make a connection between this rule of thumb for so many of CBS’s dramas, and who decides what shows get on the air every TV season. This idea is echoed by Designing Women creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who in September wrote about her experience of Moonves’s tenure: When Moonves took over as CBS Entertainment president in 1995, it didn’t matter how successful her work was, because as long as she continued to write stories about feminist ideals and powerful women, he would not greenlight them. (“I was at the pinnacle of my career,” she wrote. “I would not work again for seven years.”) The stories CBS puts out into the world are the ones that reflect the interests of the people who make them, and what results is a self-perpetuating cycle. When we as CBS viewers watch stories that valorize male ego and male judgment, we’re bathed in a TV landscape that teaches us that men who have power are the default. So when men like Les Moonves, Brad Kern, and Michael Weatherly harass and abuse the women around them, their entitlement to hold positions of power appears normal in the context of the shows they make. They are entitled to that power, and that entitlement is confirmed and echoed by what we watch on TV, night after night. Occasionally, as often happens on Bull, what we’re seeing is borderline harassment that’s excused as romance, as Bull’s professional relationships with women regularly trip over into sexual conquest. But more pervasively, what we watch on long-running CBS franchises is the repeated reiteration of who matters: Men in power are protagonists, and women are disposable.

For many CBS procedurals, the women who act as love interests tend to come and go, while the male characters are treated as fundamental parts of the show. On CSI: NY, the four leads were men who appeared in every episode. There were two women on the main cast who appeared less frequently, and then a group of seven women who appeared in about a dozen episodes. When CSI’s William Petersen left after 13 years on the series it was considered the end of an era; when his love interest, played by Jorja Fox, left, there was little similar fanfare. On Criminal Minds, the socially awkward lead male protagonist (Spencer Reid, played by Matthew Gray Gubler) has a recurring love interest named Maeve (Beth Riesgraf). She dies after five episodes. (Interestingly, the lead female investigator on Criminal Minds has a boyfriend; he’s been on for 22 episodes to date.)

When she’s introduced on Bull, Dushku’s character J.P. Nunnelly is a foil and love interest for Jason Bull; she’s someone we’re supposed to see as a not-quite equal—because they never are—but at least close-ish. The Timess reporting suggests that Dushku was being prepped for a multi-season role, that her character would be someone who’d stick around for a while, and that she would eventually have “intimacy” with Bull, although according to the showrunner Glenn Gordon Caron, not until the show’s fifth season. The plot of the episodes where Dushku appears support that plan. “Stick with me,” she tells Bull in the first season finale, when he voices concern about her client. “Stick with me, and we’ll make it 30 more cases. [Or] no more cases. One hundred more cases. Just—stick with me.” Bull is intensely attracted to her, and in J.P.’s cringe-inducing introduction, he immediately hits on her. Later, in that “stick with me” scene, Bull is persuaded by her argument, but then he says, “This would be a whole lot easier if you didn’t carry that face around with you every time we do business.”

Dushku’s character, in other words, was being primed to go the distance as a long-term romantic object for Bull, and the other part of that equation is that J.P. Nunnelly stands up to Bull—she’s designed as a meaningful foil for him. In Dushku’s second episode on the series, Nunnelly and Bull get into a huge argument about the right to privacy. (Nunnelly wants to represent a tech company that refuses to hand over information about a terrorist attack to the government; Bull believes the company shouldn’t prioritize customer privacy over public safety. They end up representing the client, but Bull gets the information from their server anyhow.) Her character’s purpose is to provide some small measure of pushback to the show’s Great Man. She’s never going to be allowed to get the absolute upper hand, but she does argue with him.

And then, the character was erased: Days after Dushku spoke to Weatherly about his behavior, according to the Times report, Bull producer Glenn Gordon Caron told her that he “didn’t know how to write” her into the show anymore. The cost of Weatherly’s harassment is not just the $9.5 million settlement CBS reportedly paid to Dushku. The ramifications are not simply that Dushku was humiliated, and likely lost work, and was potentially even branded as a woman who is “hard to work with,” thereby blackballing her from other projects. (According to the Times, when Dushku confronted Weatherly about his behavior, he then texted the president of CBS Television Studios, David Stapf, that he wanted to talk about her sense of humor.) Nor are the ramifications just that Weatherly went unchecked and may well have continued to behave that way to other women. The result of Weatherly’s behavior, and his bosses’ support for his actions, is also that a female character was written off of Bull. The smart, snappy lawyer with a great apartment, the woman who was confident enough to stand up to Jason Bull, just disappeared. A show that 8 million people watched every week had a flawed but visible female foil for three episodes, someone the infallible macho protagonist could spar with. But because Weatherly made gruesome jokes about threesomes and rape vans, and Dushku had the temerity to complain, that character evaporated.

Sure, Dushku’s character was then replaced. Other women have stepped into the role of Bull’s potential love match. Jill Flint’s turn as Diana Lindsay this season fills that position, and based solely on a sizzle reel for her character posted on cbs.com, where Bull actor Freddy Rodriguez says that she’s like “having another dude there, ya know?” one wonders if Flint has figured out how she needs to behave in order to keep her job. But the implication of Dushku’s replacement is just as troubling as her initial erasure. The love interests and female foils for Bull are replaceable; Bull is not. This is the message that’s being communicated to CBS employees and CBS viewers: A powerful man’s behavior is unassailable and power is his right. Women, behind the scenes and in front of the camera, are replaceable.

See also: Brad Kern and the House That Moonves Built at CBS