After a bombshell report alleging one of the most influential media honchos yet had sexually harassed women over the span of three decades, CBS head Les Moonves is facing the proverbial firing line.
His board has called for an independent investigation into serious claims by six women, four of whom went on the record with the New Yorker's Ronan Farrow, of forcible kissing, unwanted advances, intimidation and retaliation.
Moonves denies some of that, but admits "there were times decades ago when I may have made some women uncomfortable by making advances. Those were mistakes, and I regret them immensely. But I always understood and respected — and abided by the principle — that 'no' means 'no,' and I have never misused my position to harm or hinder anyone's career."
This apology-cum-denial directly contradicts what his accusers have said.
But astonishingly, multiple high-level and high-profile stars and executives — notably women — have sprung to Moonves' defense.
His wife, Julie Chen, TV host Sharon Osbourne, actress Lynda Carter, CBS publicist LeslieAnne Wade and Jo Ann Ross, the president and chief advertising revenue officer at CBS, all sang a similar note. As Ross put it: "My experience with him on a professional and personal basis has never had any hint of the behavior this story refers to."
This same sort of defense has popped up before. Professional and personal friends rallied around NBC's Tom Brokaw and Matt Lauer. Actress and writer Lena Dunham defended a man she worked with who had been accused of raping a minor. Writer and former news anchor Greta Van Susteren defended then-Fox Chairman Roger Ailes, initially.
All said something along the lines of, "We knew him, and we never saw this."
I'm sure that's cold comfort to the women who did experience the behavior they're alleging. It's also irrelevant because, to be blunt, who cares what you admit you didn't see?
The obvious condemnation of this sort of defense is: Predators are dangerous not because their behavior is predictable, uniform and overt but because it's the opposite: discriminating, inconsistent and discreet. "Well, he didn't murder me," or, "She never stole from me," isn't a defense anyone would take seriously.
It's also irresponsible. It's one thing to admit you're surprised to hear allegations like these, but another thing entirely to assert, under the guise of some kind of behind-the-curtain secret knowledge, that they are simply not believable.
"But if he's found innocent," you might say, "then certainly those who defended him were right to do so."
Actually, the opposite. If Moonves is eventually cleared, these kinds of character witnesses become even more dangerous. They signal to every current and future offender that well-backed PR campaigns by powerful friends — which most victims won't have — can actually work.
This only makes it harder for victims to report bad behavior. They effectively serve as a warning that it won't just be your word against his, but your word against ours.
Defending colleagues, friends, even spouses against allegations of truly deplorable behavior may be well-intentioned. And if anyone has evidence directly contradicting specific claims, by all means, bring it forward. We are all innocent until proved guilty in court, and we shouldn't be railroaded in the court of public opinion either.
But general "he's a good guy as far as I know" vouching for someone accused of behavior you had no occasion to witness is dangerous. It hurts victims present and future.
Much as we don't know if Moonves is guilty of the claims against him — and we should let the investigation play out — we know with even less certainty that he is innocent. Because we weren't there.