Right now it looks like Les Moonves won’t face any imminent consequences for the decades of sexual harassment and assault he perpetrated and enabled at CBS, as alleged by Ronan Farrow’s meticulously reported exposé. The network’s board of directors met today and after careful deliberation decided to select an outside law firm to conduct an investigation. They took “no other action.” Moonves remains at the reins.
To state the obvious, this is not a promising development.
As many have already noted, Moonves’s fate need not be consigned to the long distant findings of a still-hypothetical outside counsel. It could be determined today by the network’s employees. If CBS and Showtime’s marquee talent and showrunners—Chuck Lorre, Anna Faris, Allison Janney, Jim Parsons, Stephen Colbert—refused to continue working under Moonves’s leadership, he would be out on the street by morning. They all have this power. Hell, Stephen Colbert alone has this power. Which is why his comments on the story in last night’s Late Show were so disappointing:
Colbert addressed the issue briefly in his monologue and in slightly (slightly) more depth at his desk, after the first commercial break. He stressed Farrow’s history of accurate reporting; he quipped about the forthcoming investigation; and he addressed his own friendship with Moonves. “I believe in accountability,” he said. “Everybody believes in accountability until it’s their guy, and make no mistake: Les Moonves is my guy.”
Noticeably, he said little of his own ability to hold Moonves accountable. “I don’t know” what’s going to happen, he said. “And I don’t know who does know. In a situation like this, I’d normally call Les.” (Well, you know, he still could.) He questioned whether it would be appropriate for Moonves to go away, or rather, he acknowledged that the question exists: “Over the past year, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether the disappearing of the accused from public life is the right thing to do, and I get there should be levels of response, but I understand why the disappearing happens.”
He also responded to the common gripe that the #MeToo movement favors witch hunts over due process. “For so long for women in the workplace, there was no change, no justice for the abused,” he said. “So we shouldn’t be surprised that when the change comes, it comes radically. This roar is a natural backlash to all that silence.” Which I suppose is reasonable enough, though it does presuppose that the public exiling of abusers is a radical response, rather than a rational response that just hasn’t happened before. It’s revealing that he set up this observation with a JFK quote, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” Actually, it’s still just the abusers who are doing the violence in this dynamic, not the people reacting to their abuse.
All told, Colbert did not say what he thinks should happen to Les Moonves, who has been accused of forcible touching and kissing by six women, and who reportedly sabotaged the careers of those who refused his advances. No, he left that judgment to the powers above, as though those powers can ever be trusted to do what’s right. And we should be clear that “what’s right” is in no way ambiguous here. The allegations are many and they are meticulously reported. Colbert’s a smart guy; he knows this is the real deal. If he believes the allegations, and if he truly has any of the principles he has professed in his long, successful career, then the only proper course of action is for him to announce that he will not continue working so long as Les Moonves is in charge.
Would this put his staff and crew’s jobs in jeopardy? It would not put his staff and crew’s jobs in jeopardy. As TV writer Owen Ellickson noted the other day, this is not a promise Colbert would ever have to to carry out:
Again, all of CBS’s big names have this power, and that power is far greater if they use it in concert. But Colbert is the only one whose entire job, theoretically, is to provide moral leadership. And he noted himself, correctly, that it would be hypocritical not to make the same demands of Les Moonves that he makes of Donald Trump. “Accountability is meaningless unless it’s for everybody,” he said, “whether its the leader of a network or the leader of the free world.”
Colbert’s greatest strength as a host has always been his moral clarity. His choices right now are to use it or to go easy on a powerful abuser simply because that abuser is his friend. Like I said: no ambiguity here. If Colbert believes Moonves should be held accountable, then he should hold Moonves accountable himself.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.