The new accusations brought a new urgency, it seems, to the laconic pace at which CBS had previously been reckoning with the earlier allegations about its chairman. (The initial allegations came as Moonves was engaged in a legal battle with Shari Redstone, the controlling shareholder of CBS, over control of the network; Moonves’s departure is one element of a global settlement of that dispute.) On Sunday evening, CBS, which had retained Moonves as its leader as the investigation into his behavior was ongoing, announced that he would be stepping down. The CBS Corporation further shared that “Moonves and CBS will donate $20 million to one or more organizations that support the #MeToo movement and equality for women in the workplace.”
Moonves and CBS, you’ll notice. Not only because it is the nature of the American corporation to conflate the brand and the people who exist in its orbit, but also because the donation in question, which “will be made immediately,” CBS says, if to unspecified recipients, has been “deducted from any severance benefits that may be due Moonves following the Board’s ongoing independent investigation led by [the law firms] Covington & Burling and Debevoise & Plimpton.” Moonves, CBS also noted in its statement, painstakingly repeating itself, “will not receive any severance benefits at this time (other than certain fully accrued and vested compensation and benefits); any payments to be made in the future will depend upon the results of the independent investigation and subsequent Board evaluation.”
The Moonves news, in that sense, is at once historic—“a stunning reversal,” The New York Times sums it up, “for an executive who is credited with turning CBS into television’s most-watched network”—and, at the same time, no news at all. It is a story whose ending and whose moral arc are both thoroughly unclear and deeply contingent, dependent as they are on an investigation that is still being carried out—under the ultimate auspices of CBS itself. The statement CBS released on Sunday is double-edged. On the one side, there’s contrition: the departure of the alleged abuser, the offering of millions to the cause of women’s welfare, the additional note that the CBS Corporation will be replacing some of its board members with new participants in a nod toward structural change. On the other side, though, there is, in all this, extremely little evidence of deeper or more meaningful amends making. Moonves might well leave CBS, in the end, with an especially gleaming version of a golden parachute. The culture that appears to have allowed him to operate unimpeded for so long might well remain in place.
The familiar defense that Moonves’s associates have deployed
Or … not? The final outcome of much of this—the payout Moonves will (or will not) ultimately receive, the work CBS will do (or not do) to ensure that its workplace is safe for all within it—is contingent, it seems, on the findings of CBS’s lawyers’ investigation. The physics of that are familiar: the delayed reckoning. The kicked can. The lack of moral urgency. Our Board of Directors is conducting a thorough investigation of these matters, which is ongoing. In CBS’s statements from July up to now, investigation has carried something of an incantational quality: It summons and attempts to soothe. It suggests an easy promise of (future) accountability. It evokes progress and duty and the scientific method—things explored and celebrated in shows like, say, NCIS, one of the many megahits that Les Moonves brought to CBS and therefore to your grandmother’s living room. Have faith, CBS is saying, for there is an investigation afoot.