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CEO Les Moonves Speaks During First CBS Earnings Call Since Allegations Broke


The media mogul at the center of the latest #MeToo scandal spoke publicly today. CBS chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves participated on a conference call with investment analysts. The New Yorker reported last week that six women have accused Moonves of sexual harassment and attempts to derail their careers. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us now from New York with more. And, David, I understand this was a quarterly earnings call. This is an opportunity - right? - for investment managers to hear from company executives about how things are going - so awkward?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: A little bit. I mean, let me give you the grand sum total of what Moonves had to say about these accusations he faces - nada, bubkes, nothing. The guy said nothing about it, and it was astonishing to hear these investment analysts go through questions about possible revenues from sports gambling, about their over-the-top streaming items, everything and ignoring the elephants in the room. Let's be fair. They were told at the outset that Moonves and his COO, his chief operating officer, wouldn't be making any comments about the accusations he faces or about the implied - about other legal matters as well. But the investment analysts were there to ask questions, and it's hard to understand the fortunes and future of CBS Corporation without understanding the fate of its CEO - Moonves has led them to so much financial success - and also whether they have any succession plans in place should he be displaced.

CORNISH: It's also interesting given that the CBS board has taken its own actions in recent days, right? What's the status of that?

FOLKENFLIK: Right. Just in the last couple days, they announced they'd be naming two heavy-hitting law firms to conduct an investigation into the culture at CBS and whether they tolerated abusive behavior as well as Moonves' own behavior. That's Covington & Burling and the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, two major former federal prosecutors Nancy Kestenbaum and Mary Jo White. If you recognize White's name, that's because she's the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and also the former chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. They're going to be doing a broad-ranging study on the climate there. And Moonves supposedly has no influence or insight into their review as it's being conducted.

CORNISH: The New Yorker's Ronan Farrow wrote the story about Moonves last week, and that reporting also raised questions about the head of CBS' "60 Minutes." Where does that stand?

FOLKENFLIK: Right. So it alleged that Jeff Fager - he's only the second executive producer in the history of the 50-year history of "60 Minutes" - that he sort of tolerated sexual harassment by others, including two former very senior male producers at the show, that he himself sexually harassed a colleague and that at times women warned one another to be careful around him in social occasions. At one point, they said he can get handsy at social occasions. I think it's worth saying first that Jeff Fager vehemently denies that he did any of that or that he tolerated that kind of climate.

And also compare that to the response of Les Moonves who had said that he acknowledged making advances toward women and towards women professional colleagues but that he accepted, in Moonves' own characterization, that no meant no and that there was never any retribution, which was something that Farrow had recounted the allegations that Moonves had done. And at CBS News, there's an ongoing and earlier review by lawyers of the climate there that was occasioned by the earlier case of Charlie Rose who was forced out last fall, as you recall. And that review of "60 Minutes" and of CBS News is supposed to wrap up within the month.

CORNISH: The backdrop to all of this is that there's this fight brewing over control of CBS. Did Moonves address that on this call?

FOLKENFLIK: No, and it's amazing to have a room in which there are two elephants not being addressed. That wasn't alluded to at all. Again, I think that was part of the vague but broad stricture against talking about any legal matters. And investors didn't challenge that. But, again, the ultimate controlling owner of CBS is a woman named Shari Redstone through a holding company called National Amusements. And there's a pitched legal battle by Les Moonves and by the board of CBS, which has been strongly in his support, a battle in the boardroom but also in the courtroom. And this fall, there's supposed to be a trial in which this is all going to be sorted out. Who ultimately is going to get to control the fate of CBS - another huge question looming over the company.

CORNISH: That's NPR's David Folkenflik. David, thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.