August 2, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

CBS hires Proskauer Rose to investigate alleged misconduct

CBS late Friday announced it had hired a prominent New York law firm, Proskauer Rose, to investigate allegations of misconduct by two senior executives in the TV stations group.

The move comes five days after a Los Angeles Times’ investigation into allegations of racism and misogyny at CBS’ television stations group, including its Philadelphia outlet.

The report alleged that the head of CBS’ 28 television stations, Peter Dunn, and a top lieutenant cultivated a hostile work environment that included bullying female managers and blocking the hiring and retention of Black journalists. Dunn also allegedly made racist statements about CBS’ prominent Black anchor in Philadelphia, Ukee Washington.

CBS suspended Dunn and David Friend, the senior vice president for news, late Monday and said it would launch an external investigation.

On Friday, CBS Entertainment Chief Executive George Cheeks sent a note to CBS station employees, saying trial lawyer Keisha-Ann Gray, a partner at Proskauer Rose, would lead the outside review.

“Keisha-Ann is highly experienced in this work, and we believe she is well-suited to examine this matter thoroughly and thoughtfully,” Cheeks wrote in the memo.

With 2,800 employees, the CBS Television Stations group is an influential part of the broadcasting giant. It provides local news for millions of viewers who live in cities where CBS owns a TV station, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago and New York. Dunn, 61, has been in charge of CBS’ television stations chain since 2009.

CBS has been part of the Shari Redstone-controlled media company, ViacomCBS, based in New York, since December 2019.

The Times’ investigation documented that high-level CBS executives had been made aware of Dunn’s alleged conduct in 2018 and 2019. Complaints about Dunn and Friend surfaced during the 2018 investigation into allegations lodged against former CEO Leslie Moonves, who was accused of sexual harassment — charges he has denied.

In August 2018, when CBS was a stand-alone company, it hired two other high-caliber law firms, Debevoise & Plimpton and Covington & Burling, to investigate Moonves and CBS’ wider corporate culture. Individuals who reached out to those investigators told The Times that they came away frustrated and felt their concerns were not taken seriously because Dunn and Friend remained in their jobs.

Cheeks joined CBS as its CEO in March. In his memo Friday, Cheeks sought to assure CBS employees that the company would take the outside investigation seriously.

“I assure you that your voice will be heard, and that we will act on the findings of the investigation both swiftly and appropriately,” Cheeks said. “We also want all employees to know they can and should raise concerns in good faith and without fear, which is why we prohibit retaliation — in any form — against anyone who speaks up.”

ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish on Friday also underscored that the company is committed to rooting out problems with its culture.

“To be clear: our company takes any allegation of misconduct very seriously, which is why we have moved quickly to engage an external investigator to conduct a review of this matter,” Bakish wrote. “Importantly, we are encouraging employees to assist in the investigation by coming forward to share their concerns.”

ViacomCBS is under pressure to address issues of culture. Hours after The Times published its investigation, the National Assn. of Black Journalists met with high-level executives, including Cheeks and ViacomCBS Executive Vice President Marva Smalls, who oversees the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts. During that meeting, NABJ leaders said they raised other complaints and demanded that CBS fire Dunn and Friend.

“We are committed to creating a company culture that is diverse, equitable and inclusive for all members of our CBS and ViacomCBS community,” Cheeks wrote to his staff. “This means holding ourselves accountable, treating each other with respect and working together to build a work environment that empowers everyone to succeed.”

CBS earlier defended its inclusion efforts at Philadelphia TV station KYW Channel 3, saying 45% of the station’s on-air reporters and anchors are Black, Indigenous or other people of color.

“I believe that I — and our stations — have a strong track record of hiring, supporting and placing women and BIPOC journalists in important roles as anchors, reporters and news directors,” Friend said in an earlier statement. “These comments I may have made about our employees or prospective hires were only based on performance or qualifications — not about anyone’s race or gender.”

Dunn has declined to comment on the allegations.