CBS investigating sexual misconduct claims against CEO Les Moonves

The New Yorker is reporting that six women who had professional dealings with the CEO of CBS, Les Moonves, say he sexually harassed them between the 1980s and late 2000s.

New Yorker report includes allegations of forcible kissing and touching, threats

CBS president Leslie Moonves acknowledges to the New Yorker that were times decades ago when he may have made some women uncomfortable by making advances. But he says, 'Those were mistakes, and I regret them immensely.' (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

CBS said Friday it is investigating personal misconduct claims after the company's chief executive, Les Moonves, was the subject of a New Yorker story detailing sexual misconduct allegations.

The media company says it takes all allegations of personal misconduct seriously. It says the independent directors are "investigating claims that violate the company's clear policies in that regard."

CBS Corp.'s stock fell six per cent — its worst one-day loss in nearly seven years — as the reports began to circulate around noon Friday, triggering investor concerns Moonves might be forced to step down. The CBS chief has been a towering figure in television for decades, credited with turning around a network that had been mired for years at the bottom ratings.

CBS did not name Moonves in its statement, which was issued before the New Yorker article was published late Friday. It was written by Ronan Farrow, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning story for the same magazine uncovering many of the allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein​

The article says six women who had professional dealings with Moonves say he sexually harassed them between the 1980s and late 2000s. Four described forcible touching or kissing during business meetings. It says two women said that Moonves physically intimidated them or threatened to derail their careers.

Actress Illeana Douglas is among the women quoted in the New Yorker article. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Among the women quoted in the article were the actress Illeana Douglas, writer Janet Jones and producer Christine Peters. Farrow told The Associated Press that all the women quoted in the article had to overcome "a lot of fear of retaliation to tell very serious stories of sexual misconduct" about Moonves."

Actor Tom Arnold, who knows both Douglas and Moonves, tweeted his support for the actress on Saturday.

Moonves acknowledged to the New Yorker that were times decades ago when he may have made some women uncomfortable by making advances.

But he says, "Those were mistakes, and I regret them immensely." He said that he never misused his position to harm or hinder anyone's career.

Culture of misconduct

The New Yorker article also said a culture of misconduct extended from Moonves to other parts of the corporation, including CBS News. It said men in that division who were accused of sexual misconduct were promoted, even as the company paid settlements to women with complaints.

CBS said that once the investigation is completed, the full corporate board will review the findings and "take appropriate action."

It took issue in its statement, however, with the New Yorker article for not accurately representing "a larger organization that does its best to treat its tens of thousands of employees with dignity and respect."

Mooves is the latest media giant to become embroiled in sexual misconduct allegations since the downfall of Weinstein in October triggered the #metoo movement.

In November, CBS fired veteran news host Charlie Rose over allegations he had groped women, walked naked in front of them and made lewd phone calls. Rose has apologized for his behaviour but questioned the accuracy of some of the claims.

In December, Moonves joined a meeting of chief executives of nearly every major Hollywood studio, TV network and record label to establish a commission to comb sexual misconduct in the industry. They agreed to fund the Commission On Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, and chose Anita Hill to chair it.

Legal battle

The allegations come as CBS is in the middle of a legal battle with its controlling shareholder, National Amusements, which has been pushing for a merger with Viacom, also controlled by National Amusements.

CBS and Viacom were once part of the same company, known as Viacom, but were split in 2005 into separate entities, both controlled by Sumner Redstone. His daughter, Shari Redstone, has been pushing to reunite the companies under one corporate umbrella. Moonves has been opposed to the deal.

CBS said its current "management team has the full support of the independent board members" in the ongoing litigation involving National Amusement. The legal case is being played out in Delaware court.

Moonves is seen with actress Halle Berry, centre, and his wife and TV personality Julie Chen, right, in June 2014 in Los Angeles. (Mark Davis/Getty Images)

National Amusement jumped into the controversy with a statement denying what it called "the malicious insinuation that Ms. Redstone is somehow behind the allegations of inappropriate personal behaviour by Mr. Moonves or today's reports."

"Ms. Redstone hopes that the investigation of these allegations is thorough, open and transparent," the company said.

CBS television personality Sharon Osborne referred to the case in a tweet supporting Moonves, calling the timing of the allegations "interesting."

Moonves, one of the most powerful executives in media, has led CBS for two decades, including the 12 years since it split from Viacom.

He revived the company, which operates the CBS network, Showtime and other entities, with hit shows like NCIS and The Big Bang Theory.

Moonves also introduced separate streaming CBS and Showtime services as more people "cut the cord" and watch TV online. The network consistently tops in primetime ratings.

While CBS's stock took a hit, Viacom's rose sharply as investors anticipated that a combination of CBS and Viacom could become more likely should Moonves be forced out. Viacom closed up 4.6 per cent.

Moonves, who is married to TV personality and CBS producer Julie Chen, was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 2013. He also won the Milestone Award from the Producers Guild of America that year. Chen issued a statement in support of her husband on Friday.

Moonves was the No. 2 highest paid CEO of a major public company in 2017, according to an analysis by The Associated Press and Equilar, an executive data firm. He made $68.4 million US last year, behind only chip maker Broadcom's CEO.

Before joining CBS, he was president of Warner Bros. Television, where he oversaw the development of hit TV shows Friends and ER.