Too Big to Jail

Why we almost believed Les Moonves would get away with it.

Les Moonves.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

The resignation of Les Moonves, CBS’ chairman and chief executive, took many of us by surprise. In the weeks since sexual misconduct allegations against him first broke, we had begun to think Les Moonves wouldn’t go. And that—our pessimistic assumption that big men still get to do as they like—is worth interrogating. Why wouldn’t Moonves go? The accusations against him were credible and well-sourced. In reporting that Moonves allegedly assaulted actress Illeana Douglas, Ronan Farrow confirmed that she’d told others what had happened at the time. Somehow, this wasn’t enough. Neither were five other women who said Moonves harassed them when they were trying to do their jobs. Farrow spoke to 30 people who testified to a culture of permissiveness at CBS that started with Moonves and leached down to underlings like Jeff Fager, currently executive producer of 60 Minutes. (Six CBS employees have testified to Fager’s tendency to grope his subordinates when drunk.) That wasn’t enough. To those of us watching, it seemed that the organization simply didn’t want these things to matter. Moonves’ allies and dependents (there is likely overlap here) rallied: Sharon Osbourne—who co-hosts The Talk on Moonves’ network with Julie Chen, Moonves’ wife—put out a statement supporting him (she has deleted it). Wonder Woman herself, Lynda Carter, defended him. So did CBS Sports publicist LeslieAnne Wade. The upshot? Fager kept his job. So, for a time, did Moonves. Rumors swirled of exit negotiations involving large settlements, but it would take another entire set of accusers with even more disturbing stories to finally get Moonves to leave.

This is madness. It shouldn’t take an additional half-dozen accusations or allegations of forced oral sex to get a man heading up a hostile workplace to step down. We should accept no calculus that says six accusations aren’t enough but 12 are. The pragmatic politics here are as straightforward as they are irrational and nasty: The P.R. mills that grind people into capital determined that Moonves could weather one scandal enough to eat dinner in public and fight for his standing, but not two.

This irrational result reveals something many of us have long suspected: namely, that the usual excuses for why sexual misconduct flourishes in certain workplaces—“we didn’t know” being the most usual alibi for those who should have acted and didn’t—are largely exculpatory fictions. All too often, the relevant parties can know everything there is to know and refuse to act anyway. The biggest obstacle to bringing sexual predators to justice isn’t ignorance. It isn’t even “himpathy”—philosopher Kate Manne’s word for the outsize and asymmetrical sympathy we conjure for powerful men but not their victims (Michael Ian Black and Michael Che neatly illustrated this in their fumbled responses to Louis C.K.’s recent “comeback”). No, the simple fact is that it is deeply ingrained in us to think some men get to mistreat women. Some men are too big to jail.

Men like Moonves do all they can to encourage this assessment of their value, of course. They present themselves as essential to the success of the enterprise, knit their fate to the company’s. Moonves is more than diplomatic in interviews, but he makes clear that Warner Bros. was No. 1 when he left it, that CBS is now the No. 1 network under him, and that his biggest question when he arrived at CBS was whether he would be able to fix its problems: “Am I ever going to get this right? How am I going to be able to figure out how to rebuild this place?” Men like this characterize accusations as conspiracies to bring them down because of their prominence (“a concerted effort by others to destroy my name, my reputation, and my career,” read Moonves’ statement to Farrow). The boards they install and executives they hire only serve to bolster the illusion that without these big men, the system will not hold. Those in more junior ranks who know of or encounter allegations are faced with the entire scaffolding of the institution arrayed against them.

(Here’s what’s weird, though: This particular strain of corporate self-centering actually reveals the men in question to be abysmal stewards of their companies. Anyone whose organization is solely reliant on him has failed; the very claim that they’re irreplaceable speaks to fragility, not robustness.)

More importantly, the idea that some men are simply above the law because the price of delivering justice is too high is unbelievably corrosive. That it has a dampening effect on victims who would otherwise speak up is obvious. Farrow’s report published on Sunday shows exactly this: One producer told him that people who’d spoken to him feared reprisals since neither his article for the New Yorker in July nor another in the Washington Post had succeeded in ousting Fager. “Until the networks change the power structure at the top, I won’t feel safe speaking out,” another producer said. If you throw everything you have at a corrupt leader and he survives, that organization is already in pretty dire straits. As Omar put it in The Wire, “You come at the king, you best not miss.”

But here’s the silver lining to the story of Moonves’ downfall: Men like this tend to catalyze additional revelations, even if they come in fits and starts. Janet Jones, a writer who told Farrow she had to forcibly push him off her for his first story on Moonves, reported feeling unnerved when she learned that Moonves had joined Hollywood’s Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace: “I thought, Oh, for God’s sake, he has no shame.” That remarkable act of hubris—the total confidence that he could get away with pretending he was on the right side of #MeToo—may have contributed to her decision to come forward. This tendency to provoke his former victims by saying unwise and untrue things seems to have been something of a pattern. In his statement for Farrow’s first story, Moonves said that he “always understood and respected—and abided by the principle—that ‘no’ means ‘no.’ ” This incensed Deborah Morris, whom Moonves allegedly harassed repeatedly when she was a junior executive at Lorimar. She had told the man no repeatedly and it hadn’t worked. “His statement was incredible. Absolutely incredible. It made me sick,” she said to Farrow in his second story. “He’s cunning. He’s calculating. And he’s a predator.”

This is how a case builds, even when it shouldn’t have to. These women risked a great deal to speak up; they have seen others speak up without measurable effect. They were ironically helped by Moonves himself: Men who think they’re indispensable have a way of getting high on their own supply. Moonves thought he could cover up his misdeeds and be immune to consequences because he’d built the castle around him. He believed he was invulnerable and that his alleged victims would assume the same. With some justification: For decades, he was.

It only took a dozen violated women and ruined careers, and a national accountability movement, to get him to step down from an immensely profitable and powerful job. His punishment is that he had to retire rich a little before he planned to. He has yet to face any legal danger.

We must get over our surprise at his ouster. A functional society shouldn’t have two justice systems (even if they clearly exist in practice)—one set of rules for regular people and none at all for executives and celebrities. If we do not demand or expect anything better than the rotten status quo, we are capitulating to it.

But the bigger lesson here is that these men weren’t actually holding the world up on their shoulders. In fact, the institutions over which they presided seem to have mostly survived. Movies are still doing just fine without Harvey Weinstein or his company. Amazon Studios is muddling along without Roy Price. We’ll see how CBS does after Moonves. These guys spent a long time convincing us they were too important to face consequences. They’re not.