Maybe it doesn’t seem so shocking to some, because we have already seen the sins of patriarchy strip a top-rated news organization of its senior management and biggest star in the space of a year.
Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly were pushed out in a nine-month span at Fox News in 2016 and 2017. Longtime Ailes deputy Bill Shine, the current White House deputy chief of staff for communications, left Fox as co-president of the channel just weeks after O’Reilly’s firing amid questions about his handling of sexual harassment complaints.
But the firing Wednesday of Jeff Fager at CBS News as executive producer of “60 Minutes” marks just as epic a moment in network TV. It comes just two days after the ouster of CBS chairman Les Moonves and the firing of CBS “This Morning” co-host and “60 Minutes” correspondent Charlie Rose in November.
Multiple women accused Moonves and Rose of sexual harassment and assault. Like Ailes, O’Reilly, Shine and Fager, who was accused of inappropriate touching and allowing a climate of sexual harassment, all have denied the allegations.
But just as three of the most powerful men in cable news were gone within the space of less than a year, here three of the most successful and powerful in network news are gone in the same span of time.
Even in this era of nanosecond news cycles, what happened at CBS News warrants a moment or two of reflection. There are some darker truths here to be absorbed — such as how deep and wide the roots of patriarchy reach throughout not just the media but the entire culture, and how much work is yet to be done before we can even start to talk about gender equality in the workplace.
The removal of Rose, Moonves and Fager demands that we be as tough in our criticism of CBS News as we were Fox News. It was easy to denounce the behavior at the highly politicized, right-wing Fox News channel. But we need to be just as harsh in denouncing the culture at CBS News, which likes to portray itself as holding to the highest legacy standards of news and ethical behavior. In fact, CBS News was once considered the epitome of such standards in the TV industry.
When Ailes was fired after fighting his ouster, I wrote a piece titled “Monsters don’t die easy.” He was a monster in every sense of that term for what he personally did to some of the women who worked at Fox and for the toxic culture he established there. As allegations mounted against O’Reilly, I wrote that be became “the face of that sick, sexist, predatory culture” at the channel.
David Zurawik says the sexual harassment accusations against Bill O'Reilly are the most recent additions to the "sick, sexist and predatory culture" that's eating away at Fox News. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)
But is CBS News any better? It held up Rose, who was hired by Fager, according to the network, as the face of its morning show and the embodiment of serious, thoughtful, intelligent, civil conversation. And it did so even as there were complaints from women who had worked with him of “unwanted sexual advances toward them, including lewd phone calls, walking around naked in their presence, or groping their breasts, buttocks or genital areas,” according to a Washington Post investigation.
If the Washington Post and Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker could document complaints, why not CBS?
What the network describes as an independent investigation of Rose’s behavior is ongoing, as is one involving Moonves. Why do I think it is going to end up like the “investigation” at NBC News that looked into Matt Lauer’s inappropriate sexual behavior? That one, which concluded in May, found that no one in any position of authority at NBC News or “Today” knew anything about Lauer’s behavior, which had allegedly been going on for years. And, of course, as soon as they did hear about it in 2017, they all took appropriate steps.
Right. OK, then.
On Monday, Joe Ianniello, a top deputy to Moonves and now interim CEO, sent a memo to employees underscoring what he characterized as the network’s commitment to a “safe and positive working environment,” but he did not directly address the accusations against his former boss. They included forced groping, kissing and oral sex and retaliation against some women, according to Farrow’s two New Yorker reports with 12 women on the record.
The 68-year-old Moonves denied all allegations, saying any relationships he had were consensual.
CBS management continued not properly acknowledging the elephant of inappropriate sexual behavior in the room with CBS News President David Rhodes sending a memo to staffers Wednesday saying Fager was fired for violating “company policy.”
"This action today is not directly related to the allegations surfaced in press reports, which continue to be investigated independently,” the memo from Rhodes said. “However, he violated company policy and it is our commitment to uphold those policies at every level."
Through his attorney, Fager issued his own statement, according to CBS News, which furthered that narrative.
“The company’s decision had nothing to do with the false allegations printed in The New Yorker,” CBS News quoted his statement as saying.
“Instead, they terminated my contract early because I sent a text message to one of our own CBS reporters demanding that she be fair in covering the story,” the statement continued. “My language was harsh and, despite the fact that journalists receive harsh demands for fairness all the time, CBS did not like it. One such note should not result in termination after 36 years, but it did.”
Coming from a news executive who was once chairman of CBS News, the text message that the reporter, Jericka Duncan, read on air Wednesday on the “CBS Evening News,” was indeed inappropriate.
“If you repeat these false accusations without any of your own reporting to back them up you will be responsible for harming me,” Duncan quoted Fager as texting. “Be careful. There are people who lost their jobs trying to harm me and if you pass on these damaging claims without your own reporting to back them up that will become a serious problem.”
But, as nasty as that note was, sadly, it has been my experience that the TV news industry doesn’t fire someone who makes tens of millions of dollars for a network for being a bully. If it did, the ranks of newsroom producers would probably be instantly diminished by half.
As I wrote in 2009 in an appreciation of Don Hewitt, the legendary founder of “60 Minutes,” who was succeeded by Fager, the Sunday night news magazine is the most successful show in the history of network television. It has won more awards with its watchdog journalism than any other network news program, and since it found its voice and audience in the 1970s, it has contributed more than $100 million a year to the network's bottom line as a Top 10 rated prime-time show. (It launched in 1968.) Journalistic prestige and piles of money every year for half a century: the dream show.
In part, that is how an on-air figure like Rose and executives like Moonves and Fager could stay in place even as the industry paid lip service to #MeToo. Rose also brought prestige and better ratings to mornings for CBS News.
But, as I have been writing since the allegations against Ailes first started bubbling up from within the hell he created at Fox, patriarchy does not die overnight. It’s Old Testament old.
If you think the work of #MeToo is done, think about what 58-year-old comedian Norm Macdonald, who has a new show on Netflix, said to The Hollywood Reporter in an interview published Tuesday.
"I'm happy the #MeToo movement has slowed down a little bit," he said. "It used to be, ‘One hundred women can't be lying.’ And then it became, ‘One woman can't lie.’ And that became ‘I believe all women.’ And then you're like, ‘What?’ ”
Macdonald went on to say how badly he felt about what happened to the careers of his friends, Roseanne Barr after she posted racist tweets and Louis C.K. in the wake of allegations by five women of sexual harassment against him.
“Of course, people will go, 'What about the victims?'” he said. “But you know what? The victims didn't have to go through that.”
Macdonald later apologized for the obvious insensitivity to victims as a backlash set in that included Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight” show canceling his appearance Tuesday night because of the remarks.