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CBS allegations just the latest in long history of sexual harassment claims in network news

CBS allegations just the latest in long history of sexual harassment claims in network news
"60 Minutes" executive producer Jeff Fager at the program's offices in New York on Sept. 12, 2017. (Richard Drew / AP)

Back in the 1970s and ’80s, “60 Minutes” correspondent Mike Wallace was known for putting his hand on the backs of his female CBS News co-workers and unsnapping the clasps on their bras.

It wasn’t a secret. “I have done that,” Wallace told Rolling Stone magazine in 1991. Such was the bawdy atmosphere on a program that depended on the swagger of its correspondents, who were known for their journalistic ferocity and fearlessness.

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Bad behavior in network news was not limited to CBS, and the workplace culture has generally improved over the decades that have passed. But the vigilance of the #MeToo movement is taking no prisoners in a business that has long been a domain where men dominate the executive suites and female anchors, correspondents and even producers are often judged by their appearance.

The latest target is “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager, who is accused of boorish behavior and tolerating inappropriate conduct at the storied newsmagazine. Fager was cited in the New Yorker investigation by Ronan Farrow that carried more serious allegations of sexual harassment against CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves. On Monday, the CBS Board of Directors moved to hire an outside law firm to investigate the claims made against Moonves.

Six women accused Moonves of harassment, some describing forcible kissing. Some of the women said they believe that their careers were hampered when they spurned Moonves’ advances, according to the article published Friday.

Moonves has expressed regret for some of his behavior but said he never used his position to hinder anyone’s career.

Fager, 63, has denied all of the allegations about him in the New Yorker. Citing interviews with 19 current and former CBS employees, the story claimed Fager ignored harassment at the network and that there were at least three financial settlements paid to “60 Minutes” employees related to harassment and discrimination allegations.

“It is wrong that our culture can be falsely defined by a few people with an axe to grind who are using an important movement as a weapon to get even, and not by the hundreds of women and men that have thrived, both personally and professionally, at ‘60 Minutes,’” he told the magazine.

Fager, who joined CBS News in 1982 from the network’s TV affiliate station in San Francisco, is only the second executive producer in the 50-year history of “60 Minutes,” having replaced the show’s creator Don Hewitt in 2004.

He also spent several years as chairman of CBS News, before handing over the reigns of the division to its president, David Rhodes, in 2014. But the success of “60 Minutes” has given the program and Fager a large degree of independence from the rest of CBS News.

Moonves is loyal to Fager because of the strong ratings performance of “60 Minutes” under his watch. Despite the massive upheaval in the broadcast news industry, in which viewers have turned to cable and online outlets, “60 Minutes” remains one of the most watched programs on television, continues to break major stories and wins prestigious awards.

But Fager’s name and reputation are now at risk of being added to the growing roster of TV news giants who have been taken down by reports of inappropriate workplace behavior — a list that includes former CBS news host Charlie Rose, NBC’s Matt Lauer and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes.

“Any time you have an industry where power is aggregated at the top and there is a lot of power there, you have people who do not believe the normal rules apply to them and their behavior is not checked and they surround themselves with other people who engage in the same kind of inappropriate behavior,” said Debra Katz, an attorney at the Washington, D.C., employment law firm Katz, Marshall & Banks LLP.

CBS News’ workplace culture was under scrutiny even before the latest claims surfaced. An outside law firm, Proskauer Rose, has been investigating the workplace environment at CBS News since March, following the dismissal of Rose from “CBS This Morning.”

The veteran TV interviewer was fired last November after a Washington Post account in which multiple female employees at his PBS talk show described being subjected to inappropriate sexual behavior. In May, three female CBS News employees filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Rose and the network news division over his behavior while working with him on the morning program.

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CBS News has said the attorneys will also investigate the allegations in the New Yorker story. Rose was hired by Fager as a “60 Minutes” correspondent and as a morning host.

In the same month Rose was fired, Lauer was dismissed from NBC’s “Today” following an employee accusation of inappropriate sexual behavior. Harassment allegations effectively ended the careers of Ailes, the late founding chief executive for Fox News, and O’Reilly, who for years was the cable news channel’s biggest star.

Why do such incidents keep happening? The importance and interest in the #MeToo movement has given reporters the latitude to take stories that they have heard from friends and colleagues over the years and bring them to light through journalistic rigor.

The hierarchy of the network news environment — where anchors and correspondents are constantly jockeying for a better position and more money — can also create an environment where authority can be abused, much like the rest of the entertainment business.

“The ‘bro culture’ sends an important signal that men are valued to the detriment of women, that women can be mistreated in all sorts of ways,” Katz said. “To simply say, ‘the majority of our senior staff is women’ really tells us nothing about the environment.”

There is also the round-the-clock nature of TV news jobs, which can include long hours and trips on the road that can create situations where inappropriate behavior can occur.

When former NBC News correspondent Linda Vester raised allegations of harassment against the network’s longtime anchor Tom Brokaw (which he strongly denied), one of the alleged incidents occurred while the two were working on assignment.

But while individual career reputations may be ended and millions of dollars in salary can be lost due to harassment allegations or inappropriate behavior, TV news franchises tend to weather the scandals — and the bad publicity they generate.

Rick Kaplan, a veteran TV news producer, said that would probably be the case if Fager was forced out of “60 Minutes” over the allegations. He sees the scandal as having no impact on how the audience views the program.

“Don Hewitt has built something that is extraordinary, and Jeff has had a great run,” Kaplan said. “But if Jeff had to leave ‘60 Minutes,’ they’ll find someone else to do it and it will go on. It’s bigger than any individual. It’s an ensemble. And it’s a great show.”

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