"I can say every report about CBS’ toxic work environment is true,” the October 2018 email to The New York Times
tip line read. “This case enrages me so much, and it breaks my heart to look behind the curtain and see the ugliness and moral bankruptcy of institutions and people I admired since childhood.”
The “case” was that of CBS chairman and chief executive Leslie Moonves. Moonves had resigned just a month earlier, the same day The New Yorker
published the second of two articles detailing the accounts of twelve women accusing him of unwanted sexual advances. CBS had launched an internal investigation to determine, among other issues, whether Moonves should receive $120 million in severance pay. In many ways Moonves’s sudden departure had been only the beginning of the story.
At the Times
, the two of us—media reporter Rachel Abrams and business columnist James B. Stewart—were separately pursuing different angles. Rachel, who’d contributed to Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s Pulitzer Prize–winning coverage of movie executive Harvey Weinstein, was focusing on the CBS internal investigation.
Was the company really trying to get to the bottom of what had happened, or—as with so many self‑directed corporate investigations—was it trying to sweep the scandal under the rug and protect other powerful interests? James was exploring the inner workings of the CBS board and how it had handled the accusations against its chief executive.
After the email landed in the Times
’s “tip jar,” a screener forwarded it to Jim Windolf, the Times
’s media editor. He in turn sent it to Rachel. She was heading out that day when she passed James at his desk in the Times
’s third‑floor newsroom. They barely knew each other, but Rachel paused because she’d heard he, too, was looking into Moonves and CBS. She described the email, and he was excited: the source sounded like someone who could both confirm and expand upon what he was hearing from other people, which was that the real reasons for Moonves’s departure had been far more intriguing than reported and had even involved an attempt at extortion.
Rachel spoke to the source that evening. Her impression was that the source’s motive for reaching out and putting a career at risk was altruistic: having closely followed the #MeToo movement, this person didn’t want to see men get away with abusing their power by exploiting women and then covering it up. Rachel felt the source was equally interested in the structures that enabled such behavior—in this case a public corporation. She was confident the source had no allegiance to any of the warring factions at CBS.
This source became one of a number of people who turned over hundreds of pages of original material—emails, texts, interview notes, internal reports—documenting an astonishing saga of sex, lies, and betrayal at the highest levels of a major corporation.
At CBS, the #MeToo movement had collided explosively with the corporate boardroom. Moonves was the first chief executive of a major publicly traded company forced to resign for predatory sexual conduct. (The much smaller Weinstein Company was privately owned.)
And Moonves wasn’t just any chief executive. As a leading media and entertainment company with a vaunted news division, CBS had an outsize influence on American politics and culture. Under Moonves’s leadership, the CBS network had gone from last to first place in the ratings and stayed there for over ten years. CBS stock had more than doubled in price. The Hollywood Reporter
named Moonves the most powerful person in entertainment. He had earned over $700 million during his tenure, making him one of the highest‑paid chief executives in the country.
For all his power and influence, Moonves still reported to a board of directors with the power to hire, fire, or otherwise discipline or reward him. At CBS, members of the board included a former secretary of defense, a former head of the NAACP, the former dean of Harvard Law School, and an Academy Award–winning film producer. But they could be replaced by a controlling shareholder that exercised 80 percent of the shareholders’ voting rights.
That controlling shareholder was National Amusements Incorporated, a movie theater chain and holding company for a media empire assembled by the ninety‑five‑year‑old and increasingly infirm Sumner M. Redstone. Sumner owned Viacom (the entertainment company that included Paramount Pictures and cable channels MTV, Comedy Central, and Nickelodeon) and CBS. In recent years he had largely ceded control to his sixty‑four‑year‑old daughter, Shari Redstone, who was vice chair of both the CBS and Viacom boards and might—or might not—be his heir apparent.
Shari Redstone was in many ways an unwilling participant, dragged into the drama because her father’s increasingly erratic and bizarre behavior threatened his family’s fortune and legacy—everything he’d spent decades building. She was largely unversed in the ways of Hollywood, unprepared for the all‑male bastion and deep‑seated gender stereotypes that greeted her, and repeatedly underestimated, especially by her own father.
Moonves and his allies found Shari’s attempts to assert herself and play a role in running CBS to be intolerable. Just months before he was forced to resign, Moonves had declared war on the Redstone family by seeking to strip them of their voting power. One of the mysteries we confronted was why Moonves would have unleashed a corporate civil war knowing (as he did) that his predatory sexual past was at great and imminent risk of being publicly revealed.
Of course, the great media moguls—from Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor, Ted Turner, John Malone, Rupert Murdoch, and Redstone himself—had never worried about such issues. They were all white men whose power and authority went unquestioned no matter how unbridled their outbursts of temper or insensitive or even bigoted their treatment of women and minorities.
Their boards of directors, charged with protecting all shareholders, were little more than window dressing for their autocratic control. Sumner boasted that the Viacom board had never defied his wishes.
In their world, sexual indiscretions were as routine as deals cut on the eighteenth tee at the Bel Air Country Club. Though hardly confined to the business of media and entertainment, the notion of the “casting couch”—sex in return for a job or a part—got its name in Hollywood. Rumors about Harvey Weinstein, the head of Miramax and then the Weinstein Company, had circulated for years without getting in the way of his many Academy Awards. If anything, it was the women who bore the brunt of the criticism—the “bimbos” using sex to extort something from powerful men. The veteran Hollywood producer and CBS board member Arnold Kopelson seemed baffled by concerns over Moonves’s alleged sexual advances in the workplace. “We all did that,” he said dismissively.
Hollywood’s traditional business model had thrived for decades on cable fees and theatrical film rentals. That was the model Sumner Redstone had mastered and dominated. It had made him a billionaire. But at CBS—as well as every other major media and entertainment company—that world was crumbling under the combined assault of technological advances and changing cultural norms. Netflix, the entertainment streaming service that had already crushed Viacom’s Block‑ buster DVD‑rental business, had nearly 210 million global subscribers.
It was creating its own content in direct competition with Viacom’s Paramount Pictures and CBS television. The new world of direct‑to‑consumer streaming and cable cord‑cutting called for a radical change in strategy at every traditional media company.
The workplace was also undergoing radical change—not just from #MeToo but from a reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing advances in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. The chief executive as autocrat was giving way to a more plural, democratic governance model that recognized the competing interests of diverse customers, employees, and communities as well as shareholders.
All these forces played out in Redstone’s media empire. They unleashed a torrent of litigation among the warring factions fighting for dominance as Sumner’s authoritarian grip weakened and his daughter tried to assert herself. While the clashes at Viacom and CBS may have been especially bitter and personal, the same forces are colliding to varying degrees at every public company confronted with generational turnover, fast‑changing technology, and rapidly evolving social norms. Many of the often‑startling twists in the Redstone saga made headlines in the tabloids, Hollywood trade publications, the national media, even Sumner’s own CBS News. But these stories only hinted at the drama inside Sumner’s lavish Beverly Hills mansion, Paramount’s Times Square headquarters, the CBS boardroom at Black Rock, and previously secret legal proceedings in courthouses from Los Angeles to Boston to Delaware.
Our reporting led us to a cast of characters that included not just top corporate executives, board members, and Redstone family members but glamorous paramours, a former soap opera and reality‑TV star, a down‑at‑the‑heels talent agent mounting a comeback, and a celebrity matchmaker, all drawn to the spoils of a multibillion‑dollar fortune and the mythmaking allure of Hollywood.
As we dug deeper into the story over three years of reporting, we gained access to hundreds of pages of original material. We obtained additional information from court files, much of it sealed from public view. With litigation continuing—and the threat of more lawsuits hovering over every participant—many sources asked to remain confidential. The source who initially reached out to the Times
declined to be identified or cooperate further for this book. Other sources are identified in the notes.
All of this material afforded a detailed and unprecedented look at the usually secret inner workings of two public companies, their boards of directors, and a wealthy family in the throes of seismic change. For many of these people, money, power—even love—was never enough.
The drama that unfolded may have occurred at Viacom and CBS, but the recent drumbeat of greed, backstabbing, plotting, and betrayal at the upper levels of American business and society has hardly been confined to one or two companies or one wealthy family and its hangers‑on. It’s no wonder there has been a growing backlash against what many Americans see as self‑serving entertainment and business elites who, no matter how bad their behavior or serious the consequences, emerge with their fortunes intact or even enhanced, ready and able to step out onto the next red carpet that lands at their feet.
Copyright © 2023 by James B Stewart. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.