Michael Moore, Former CBS Exec Betsy West Recall Her "Uncomfortable" Experiences in TV News

Michael Moore and Betsy West - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Traverse City Film Festival

The longtime television news exec and 'RBG' director says that women in news suffered "indignities" largely in silence until the #MeToo movement.

Former CBS News senior vp Betsy West opened up on mainstream sexism in TV news in a timely discussion with filmmaker Michael Moore at a Michigan film festival on Tuesday night.

During an onstage conversation at the Traverse City Film Festival, Moore asked West, the director of this summer's documentary hit RBG, about whether she could share anything from her time at CBS News in light of allegations against CBS CEO Leslie Moonves.

Moonves was accused of sexual misconduct in a July 27 story in The New Yorker, which also implicated 60 Minutes executive producer and former CBS News chairman Jeff Fager for allegedly allowing sexual harassment in the news division and inappropriately touching employees.

"Yes, I worked in a very male-centric industry like many women did in the early '70s. I think when these opportunities opened up to us, we were just so freaking happy to have a chance to do the kind of work that our mothers didn't have the opportunity to that we just kept going and didn't really think about some of the indignities that we were subjected to," West said.

Across her career, West was a producer and executive at ABC News and later oversaw 60 Minutes and 48 Hours at CBS News. She executive produced MAKERS, The Lavender Scare and 4%: Film's Gender Problem and is currently a professor of professional practice in media and society at Columbia University. 

RBG, West's latest film about Supreme Court Justice and feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has so far made over $13 million at the domestic box office.

West added that when the late Roger Ailes was first accused of misconduct at Fox News, she knew about the allegations from having friends who had worked at the outlet. "When these stories came out, memories kept flooding up," she said.

West then shared a story from her first New York job at ABC Radio, when she was a 25-year-old writer/editor: On her birthday, her primarily male colleagues gave her a penis-shaped cake from an erotic bakeshop. "I didn't know what to do. So of course, what did I do? I just laughed, I just laughed it off, 'Hahaha,' and tried not to think about it," West said. "As opposed to when the memory came back and I'm thinking, 'Why didn't you say to them, "What the hell do you think you're doing, buying a penis cake for a 25-year-old? This is really horrible."' They were looking at me, they were trying to see how I would react, and I just took it as a joke."

West also expanded on how news media work culture treated women at the time. "Look, it's not like attempted rape or horrible things that happen to women in the workplace, but it's indicative of an attitude that I think many of us put up with," she said. "I'm so happy the #MeToo movement is bringing to light so many of the uncomfortable situations and the illegal things that have gone on."

The Traverse City Film Festival began Tuesday and runs through Sunday.