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CBS’ failings show how deep misogynist rot runs in entertainment

Critics say ‘Me Too’ is too much, too fast. But CBS’ failings show real change is slow to arrive.

To hear certain quarters tell it, the Me Too movement is a dangerous, rapid-fire vengeance gun which, left unchecked, will swiftly ruin the lives of all men. Even men who have daughters!

From this perspective, Me Too is taking out men left and right, destroying their lives (by briefly suspending them from their dream jobs), toppling the patriarchy like a stack of Jenga blocks, and it’s moving too fast and it’s going too far and it’s all so out of control. Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence, and why can’t everybody just agree that my dad gave me a calendar, and this is a WITCH HUNT, and why can’t things go back to when they were awesome, like on Mad Men, everybody loved Mad Men, especially the women who worked there, and so on.

To reveal this perception for the farce that it is, one needs to look only as far as CBS and the case of Brad Kern who, until recently, was the showrunner of NCIS: New Orleans.

Entertainment reporter Maureen Ryan first published a story on Kern last December. In Variety, she reported that Kern had been the subject of two separate HR investigations back in 2016. Many at CBS called Kern a “gender bully.” One source told Ryan, “He discriminates against women, against working mothers, against anyone he can’t control — especially women.”

Kern makes sexualized remarks about women, has given them massages without asking, and mocked a nursing mother in front of her colleagues. At one point, Kern launched into a “tirade” toward a woman who worked for him, telling her that she was “failing as a wife and mother.” Also, according to multiple sources, at times he spoke in an offensive voice meant to imitate African-American vernacular speech.

Several sources also told Ryan that Kern humiliated a woman who left the writers’ room to pump breast milk, questioning her upon return about why she couldn’t pump in front of her coworkers, since “cows in the field” are milked in public.

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And, myth-busting another persistent falsehood about the Me Too movement — that it is all about women plotting against men — it was a male employee, Zach Strauss, a former writer on NCIS: New Orleans, who filed a formal complaint with CBS over the way his female colleagues were treated by Kern. 

Ryan’s first story is deeply sourced, thorough, and damning. She detailed allegations that dated back decades, to Kern’s years as the showrunner of Charmed on The WB. (Insert the “witch hunt” joke of your choosing here.)

CBS conducted two internal investigations and Kern stayed on, perpetuating what one source said was a hostile work environment “every second every day,” leading to a “staff exodus” under Kern’s tenure at NCIS: NOLA. “Around 11 writers or editors left or were fired in less than two years,” Ryan wrote. “Nine of them were women.”

In May, Kern was demoted from showrunner but stayed on as a “consultant,” which meant that he still made daily appearances in the workplace he’d poisoned. As Melanie McFarland wrote in Salon, “Kern provides a case study in the limitations of Time’s Up and #MeToo” in his ability to emerge from the reports of his misconduct basically unscathed and still employed by CBS.”

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Ryan’s next story on Kern came out in June of this year. She reported that, despite the multitude of credible allegations against Kern, despite the vaunted efficacy of the Me Too movement — which had by then seen to the removal of CBS stalwart Charlie Rose — and despite the fact that CBS was having the allegations of harassment and misconduct against Kern investigated by outside counsel, the network nevertheless signed Kern to a new two-year deal.

As the investigation was underway, Kern continued to work from the NCIS: New Orleans offices. As one person who worked under Kern at NCIS and asked for anonymity for fear of retribution told Ryan, “By doing a new deal with Brad, CBS sent a clear message to all of their employees that emotional, mental, and psychological abuse isn’t a fireable offense.”

One woman who worked for NCIS after both internal investigations were completed to CBS’s satisfaction, said “it was a dreadful, misogynist culture led and created by Brad. He bullied women and he discriminated against them. It didn’t matter who you were and how nice he was the day before — your turn always came.”

Then, in September, Ryan published a third story on Kern, this time in Vulture and in connection with the forced ouster of CBS CEO Les Moonves. (Moonves was the subject of a Ronan Farrow investigation, so… you know what that means.) Ryan reported that, contrary to what she’d learned earlier that year, CBS had suspended Kern on June 18 and would keep him off the job until the conclusion of investigation number three — the only one, to date, conducted by outside counsel.

Considering the allegations against Kern alongside the reports on Rose and 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager, who was fired for the threatening text he sent a female CBS News reporter who was covering the sexual harassment allegations against him — not a great look! — Ryan wrote, “It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the house Moonves built is actually a petri dish that has allowed toxic men to flourish.”

And when was Kern actually, finally fired? October.

As Ryan wrote on Twitter: “I’ve talked to 50+ sources about Kern, CBS & that situation. Let me be clear: It SHOULD NOT take multiple major stories in the press to remove a toxic exec, showrunner or anyone else with power in TV. That’s not the system working: That’s a sign the system has failed its workers.”

 


 

The day after news broke of Kern’s firing, CNN reported that another CBS executive was being placed on leave following allegations of sexual and homophobic language in the workplace. Vincent “Vinnie” Favale, senior vice president of talent for CBS Television Studios, was placed on administrative leave on Wednesday.

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The details of Favale’s alleged behavior — including his graphic description of the number of erections he got watching a female performer’s rehearsal — are unsettling enough. But the most chilling part of the story might just be his CV:

In his current role, Favale develops programing around talent and advises on comedy bookings for the network. He started his career with CBS in 1996 and served as a senior programming executive for The Late Show with David Letterman and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert through 2017. He appeared on the program in comedic bits several times during Letterman’s tenure.

From 1998 to 2001, Favale also oversaw the CBS syndicated Howard Stern Radio Show. He gained recognition among followers of Stern in numerous appearances on his TV shows between 2004 and 2012. He is also credited as one of the founders of the Comedy Central television network.

Think about the scope of that, for a moment. The rampant sexual harassment at The Late Show with David Letterman has been well-documented, most famously by former Late Show writer Nell Scovell, though Letterman still seems to have evaded the post-Me Too reevaluation it seems obvious he’s due to receive. But in that trio of male-led programs — Letterman, Colbert, and Howard Stern — you get a sense of just how vast this one man’s influence was and is.

Consider this alongside the following: Kern and his outpost of the sprawling NCIS empire, Rose and his influence over much of the CBS News enterprise — and then think of all these men, and men like them, looking up to the top of their organization and seeing Les “Come on, you’re not some nubile virgin” Moonves, lording over them all.

It really does not matter what time of day a person tunes into CBS, or which show that person elects to watch. The network throughout is not just tainted by “problematic” men — it has in fact been wholly under the control of misogynistic, predatory men. 

 


 

Which brings us back to Louis C.K., who, like a balding Whac-a-Mole, refuses to stay out of public view. For the second time since he admitted that, as multiple women told the New York Times, he forced women with whom he worked to watch him masturbate, C.K. “dropped in” at the Comedy Cellar to surprise the audience with a standup set.

In an interview with THR, late night host Jimmy Kimmel was asked about C.K.’s return to the stage. “I think people tend to focus on the one or two people who walk out of a situation like that,” he said. “Ultimately, the audience decides whether someone is welcomed back.” The interview went on:

Sure, but you talk about curating your lineup — will you give thought to that curation with regard to having more female comics, for instance?  

Comedy is very democratic. The people who are great, rise to the top; the people who are good, rise to the middle; and the people who aren’t good, don’t make it. We want to get a lot of very funny people, and we want to give new comics an opportunity to work. I don’t focus on their gender or their skin color. I’d never want a woman to think that the reason she’s booked to be onstage at a club is because she’s a woman. The reason she’ll be booked to be onstage is because she’s funny.

Really, is comedy very democratic? Is the reason that there are (checks TV guide listings) zero female late-night hosts and zero late-night hosts of color because cis, straight, white men are all funnier than literally any other person on Earth? Is comedy some pure, sacred meritocracy, where only the best enjoy a frictionless rise to the top and are never thwarted from achieving greatness by, I don’t know, having their boss jerk off in front of them while they’re trying to do their job? 

And is that right — the audience decides? If the Me Too movement, as it pertains to Hollywood, has revealed nothing else, it should be inescapably clear that the audience only ever gets the chance to see the talent that the Brad Kerns and Vinnie Favales and Les Moonveses and Harvey Weinsteins of the world deem worthy. These men don’t just bring rot to the workplace; their workplaces affect all of us, and the ramifications of their actions beam out of every screen.


It is depressing enough to think about what we do see on TV, all the shows filtered through the narrow, sexist, homophobic tastes of a battery of hateful, powerful men. But it’s even more demoralizing to consider what we don’t see.

As Zach Strauss told Ryan at Variety, worthy and capable women were essentially forced out of the workplace by Kern. “What affected me was that talented writers felt the need to resign or step away from a job that they were good at,” Strauss said. “This was their living and they were willing to walk away from a high-paying, hard-to-get job because they couldn’t stand working in such a toxic environment.”

Another telling quote comes from an anonymous woman who had worked with Kern previously in Ryan’s THR story. “I’d love to take my work to CBS, but the outcome of this investigation — and how seriously the network and studio take these issues going forward — will deeply influence whether I want to pitch my projects there.”

Krista Vernoff, now the executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy, was a junior writer on the series, and several of her coworkers recall Kern saying “I bet you’re good in bed” to her in front of the entire staff. When confirming that event, Vernoff told Ryan (emphasis added):

As a young writer, I felt recognized and mentored by Brad Kern. As a female and a feminist, I felt conflicted and often uncomfortable. People are never just one thing. They’re never just good or just bad. At the end of my contract, Brad offered me a promotion and a significant raise, but I think it’s worth noting that I turned it down in favor of the uncertainty of staffing season.”

And all of these accounts are of a kind with the searing, brilliant indictment of CBS’s institutionalized misogyny that Linda Bloodworth Thomason wrote in THR. Thomason, creator of Designing Women, was one of the network’s highest-valued talents. As she wrote, in 1992, she “was given the largest writing and producing contract in the history of CBS. It was for $50 million, involving five new series with hefty penalties for each pilot not picked up.”

Then Moonves became the president of the network. The alternate-reality timeline where Thomason stayed at CBS and flourished — where she was able to make the vibrant, funny, female-centric shows she describes in her piece — is one we’ll never get to visit. Because Moonves methodically dismantled and destroyed Thomason’s career. He turned down every pilot she wrote and refused to give her scripts to any actors CBS had under contract. “People asked me for years, ‘Where have you been? What happened to you?’ Les Moonves happened to me.”

Thomason describes walking down the halls of the original CBS building, where portraits of the iconic women who’d filled earlier CBS lineups — Mary Tyler Moore, Lucille Ball, the stars of Murphy Brown — once graced the walls. “Many of these female characters paved the way for women to be single, to pursue careers and equal pay and to lead rich, romantic lives with reproductive rights,” she wrote.

But she realized, under Moonves’ tenure, those images had disappeared. “I don’t know why and I didn’t ask,” she wrote. “I just know that the likes of them have rarely been seen on that network again.”