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For the past year, those who work in the entertainment and media industries have been deluged with stories about harassment, toxicity, assault and rape on sets, in offices, in hotels rooms and just about everywhere else. These stories are hard to read. “Gut-churning” doesn’t quite cover it.
Unfortunately, that was the easy part. Changing Hollywood culture is going to be much, much harder.
I don’t say that lightly. I reported some of these stories over the past year, and hearing the fear in the voices of the men and women I talked to was harrowing. Listening to competent, hard-working professionals recount story after story of abuses of power that were covered up, denied or explained away altered my outlook on a fundamental level.
It convinced me that this work is just beginning. What the industry needs to do now is move beyond reading the latest exhaustive report about this or that individual and stop assuming that things will change if we take out a few bad apples.
Folks, the whole barrel of apples is rotten. It needs to be washed out and refilled from the bottom up.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a closer look at just one powerful television entity.
Here is a list of individuals affiliated with the CBS Corp. who were the subject of abuse or harassment allegations in the press between October 2017 and today: Jeremy Piven, star of the (now canceled) Wisdom of the Crowd; Charlie Rose of 60 Minutes and CBS This Morning; NCIS: New Orleans showrunner Brad Kern; actor and Madam Secretary executive producer Morgan Freeman; Aaron Harberts and Gretchen Berg, former showrunners of Star Trek: Discovery; executive producer Jeff Fager of 60 Minutes; CBS comedy/late-night executive Vinnie Favale; Bob Kushell, co-showrunner of the CBS comedy Fam; and Criminal Minds director of photography Greg St. Johns.
There was also a spate of stories after former NCIS castmember Pauley Perrette tweeted and then deleted allegations of serious problems on that set. In the CBS-owned CW realm, allegations of harassment and abuse led to the firing of Andrew Kreisberg, an executive producer on multiple shows on that network; allegations of abuse were made against actor Robert Knepper of iZombie. And, most recently, Warner Bros. TV — the studio that employed Kreisberg and Knepper — opened an investigation into The CW’s Black Lightning executive producer Salim Akil, who was the subject of a legal action alleging physical and sexual abuse. (Many of the above names have denied the accusations.)
That’s all in addition to everything that Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker has documented about Leslie Moonves’ alleged abuses over a period of decades. Just this week, The New York Times published a story that detailed the executive’s efforts to stop a survivor from speaking out about what she had allegedly endured at the hands of Moonves, former CEO of CBS Corp.
That’s one year at one company. And those are just the stories we know about. Does anyone doubt there’s more?
If you think I’m making the case that all or most people who work at CBS-affiliated entities are toxic or abusive, you’ve missed the point entirely. I’ve spent a good chunk of 2018 talking to current and former employees who just wanted to do their jobs. But dozens of sources were prevented from doing just that in a safe and respectful environment thanks to abusive, vindictive, harassing bosses whose reigns of terror were never checked in any meaningful way. Often, this toxicity was not just ignored but rewarded.
What are employees supposed to think when people in comedy, drama, late-night, morning programming, the news division and the C-suite are all accused in either engaging in or enabling toxic and harassing behavior? Are those rank-and-file workers at CBS — or anywhere else — really supposed to feel sure their concerns are going to be taken seriously?
The sad fact is, every person trying to report abuse, officially or unofficially, knows they could be ending their career. It’s a spin of the roulette wheel: I have occasionally seen companies and studios take prompt action when reports of problematic employees surface. But all too often, I have witnessed vicious and prolonged attempts to end the careers of whistleblowers. One year after the #MeToo movement began, many people who are scared to take on the predators and abusers are fully justified in being afraid.
Beyond that, these businesses are making dumb strategic decisions. For every abuser and harasser who is tolerated and enabled, dozens of key creative folks get demoralized and leave. There’s a full-on war for talent these days, and driving people away — at all levels — is a bad idea. What if the next Shonda Rhimes had to endure a stint working for Brad Kern or Charlie Rose? Do you think she’d really pitch her projects to any division of CBS, given the culture that Moonves created? It’s worth pointing out that most of the CBS executives that prospered in the Moonves era are still there. It’s fair to wonder how much has changed, even if he’s gone.
So, what can be done about all this? Here’s the bottom line: The balance of power in Hollywood is still far too weighted toward the powerful and connected, and that needs to change.
Don’t look to HR departments in the industry to alter these dynamics: They have a proven track record of protecting abusers rather than those being mistreated and blackballed. But the situation is not hopeless. It’ll take years and a huge amount of determination to change the industry. And I should note that there isn’t just one fix for a culture that is rotten to the core: It’ll take a lot of different strategies to make sure the industry’s many winnowing processes are geared toward weeding out creeps, abusers and toxic narcissists.
All that said, one path jumps out as a possible way forward.
When you contemplate the industry’s history of abuse, toxicity and coverups, it’s not hard to make a connection between Hollywood and another institution rocked by unending waves of scandal: The recent history of the Catholic Church is instructive in this regard. Here’s one thing Hollywood employees have that children abused by Catholic priests did not: union cards.
The studios and networks remind me a lot of various incarnations of the Catholic power hierarchies. A subset of Hollywood executives — like some religious leaders of various faiths — are genuinely concerned and do what they can to help change dysfunctional cultures. But institutionally, the song remains the same. Confronted with credible allegations of assault and harassment, there are still too many powerful people stonewalling survivors, building expensive legal roadblocks and burying the actions of abusers.
The guilds were created to protect Hollywood workers from predatory production companies and studios. The unions expanded their agendas to include securing health care and other benefits for their members. Now they need to evolve their agendas once again, to protect their memberships from abusive, predatory or toxic people, whether those abusers are outside a given guild — or inside it.
A process can be built that provides accountability and meaningful action (and protects those who may be falsely accused, which is very rare but does happen).
What if, every time an employee left a job, that employee went through an exit interview at which they were encouraged to speak freely? What if those conducting exit interviews proved, over time, that individuals who were honest would not be penalized? What if a union rep accompanied a union member every time that member had an exit interview or a potentially difficult meeting with a showrunner, executive or HR representative? What if that rep provided not just moral support but also documented (in a confidential way) everything that transpired?
What if each union made it clear to their members that they would be held to a code of conduct? What if they kept track of members of their own guild (or others guilds) who appeared to be repeat offenders? What if, once there was ample and documented proof that a union member repeatedly and systematically violated a fair and reasonable code of conduct, that individual was called to account by their guild?
For a year. Or, for repeat offenders, forever.
A few months ago, I asked someone familiar with the history of the Writers Guild of America if anyone had ever been ejected for anything other than not having enough credits to remain in the union. He had to think about it for a long time. He guessed that some folks may have been kicked out at some point for being scabs.
I’m not pro-scab, but my guess is that most writers would rather be in a room with a scab than a serial abuser. What if paying one’s membership dues ensured that workers didn’t have to put up with either?
But let’s be real: Frontline workers are going to continue to get very annoyed if their guilds don’t help them when they are targeted by sociopaths. Some unions are trying to take action on these fronts. But change may not be coming quickly enough, judging by some conversations I’ve had with members of various unions during the last year.
If abusive cultures continue to be the norm, it’s not difficult to see a future in which some fed-up union members start voting for slates of candidates who promise to make more energetic efforts to police the relatively small number of people who are making industry employees’ lives hell.
One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the Catholic Church scandal is the way that malefactors were passed from parish to parish. Monsters were shoved out of one diocese and inflicted on the unsuspecting faithful in another town, where the horrific patterns would start all over again.
This happens in Hollywood all the time. An abuser who is kicked off one show or even out of a studio often ends up working somewhere else, usually without having changed his or her ways. What if the union cards of the worst of the worst were pulled, and their places were taken by deserving, capable people who are not abusive, harassing or toxic?
The industry won’t change fundamentally unless those willing to abuse their power face meaningful consequences. Unions could make that happen. It is not a total fix — many abusers won’t be affected by these changes, even if they’re implemented. But it’s a start.
And the truth is, if guilds don’t stand up for their people, no one else will.
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