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‘CBS Has a White Problem’: Executive Blasts Toxic Culture at Network in Explosive Letter

Whitney Davis

Last year, CBS hired two white-shoe law firms to conduct an independent investigation into alleged misconduct by then-CEO Leslie Moonves, as well as broader cultural issues at CBS. Writing for Variety, Whitney Davis — a veteran of the company’s news and entertainment divisions — describes how the investigation prompted her to reconsider her nearly decade-and-a-half career at CBS.

In February, I decided to part ways with CBS, the corporation where I began my media career and most recently served as director of entertainment diversity and inclusion. Last fall, when sexual-misconduct allegations against then-CEO Leslie Moonves prompted an outside investigation into the CBS workplace culture, I assumed that all forms of discrimination would be delved into. The attorneys I spoke with did not lead me to believe otherwise. I was eager to tell my story and grateful that two independent law firms were brought in to conduct interviews with several hundred employees. By sharing my experience, I hoped to shed desperately needed light on the truth that CBS, sadly, doesn’t value a diverse workplace.

After an initial interview with one investigator, I talked to six attorneys from both firms, detailing my experience at the company. In that heart-wrenching two-hour interview, I talked about a workplace fraught with systemic racism, discrimination and sexual harassment. My understanding was that there would be follow-up and long-awaited reforms as their discovery continued. Yet I heard nothing again from investigators, and soon saw that their report had been leaked to the media before the board had reviewed its findings. I immediately called the CBS investigation hotline, which, via a recorded message, told me the inquiry was now closed. It was then that I realized what I had long tried to ignore — CBS has a white problem.

The company has a white problem across the board. Did you know that there’s not one black creative executive working at CBS Television Network or CBS Television Studios? Of the network’s 36 creative executives — all upper management roles that deal with content development, casting, current production, daytime and alternative programming — there are only three women of color, none black. There is not one executive of color working in casting at CBS. The one Latinx executive hired in casting last year lasted eight months. He works at Netflix now.

At 23, a recent college graduate with a passion for journalism, I was blessed with a position at CBS News. My first job at the network was an entry-level role with the “CBS Evening News” weekend edition. I cut my teeth in the newsroom getting coffee, running scripts, pulling tape and editing voiceovers, all while remaining at the same entry-level position and pay. While I was at “CBS Evening News,” a co-worker shared some family lore, telling me, “My dad has f—ed black women, and he loved it.” Though horrified, I didn’t take action. Like many women who experience workplace harassment and inappropriate behavior, I didn’t want to lose my job if I complained. Due to my hard work and perseverance, I began to build a reputation in the newsroom as a go-getter, someone who met deadlines, thrived under pressure and worked well with others.

There were two black women working in production on the broadcast — myself and another. We both held the lowest-ranking positions on staff. Not uncommon in most predominantly white institutions, most of our white colleagues had trouble keeping our names straight. As a joke, they began to call us We-Dra — short for Whitney and Deidra. In every job I’ve had at CBS, co-workers have confused me with other black women in the office, as if we’re interchangeable. I don’t think most people understand just how demeaning these daily micro-aggressions are. Or maybe they do and don’t care.

One “CBS Evening News” senior producer always wanted to touch my hair while sharing an inappropriate sexual joke. Once again, I brushed this off as ignorance — not wanting to imperil my job — and kept pushing forward. Looking for a new path, I was able to convince a senior producer to help me with my camera skills, and I soon began to pitch, shoot and produce my own stories.

By the spring of 2009, nearly three years after I began my career at CBS News, I was one of three journalists hired into the newly formed digital-journalist unit. We were associate producers with camera gear who covered breaking news for all of the broadcasts. This was a huge advancement in my career. My goal was to become a “60 Minutes” producer. Despite ongoing concerns, I kept my nose to the grindstone.

One Friday in the newsroom, Bill Felling, then the national editor, asked my two white male colleagues if they could travel to cover a story. Both replied that they weren’t available. He never asked me if I could cover the story. I had already successfully covered important stories including Michael Jackson’s funeral, the Bernie Madoff scandal and several other high-profile news events. Summoning courage, I marched over to his office and told him that I was able to travel to shoot the piece. He looked me dead in the eye and said, “I’m not going to waste the company’s money for you to go there and fail.”

“While CBS proudly touts its diversity programs, a close look beneath the surface reveals that the company is unconcerned about creating space for minorities.”

For years I rolled with the punches. Then in late 2009, when a white female colleague used the N-word in my presence, I was outraged. I was advised to talk to a senior executive in the news division. Her response was to tell me that I should have thicker skin. I was speechless. Why would I go to HR to file a formal complaint if a senior executive would only tell me that I needed to be tougher?

Not long after that, I transferred to Los Angeles, where a woman of color was the bureau chief — an anomaly at CBS News. She was instrumental in creating opportunities for me to thrive. My assignments included covering countless wildfires around California, as well as the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz. I traveled to Japan as an embedded reporter with the USAID relief teams, where I covered the devastating earthquake and tsunami. Feeling empowered, I was on the rise, cutting my own segments for “CBS Evening News.”

In the fall of 2010, I was in New York covering a story. While there, I stopped by the CBS newsroom and, to my surprise, was met by Felling, who complimented me on my producing skills. This was the same man who just a year before refused to waste company money on me. Before I could wipe the smile off my face, he stopped talking about my work and placed his hands on my shoulders, turned me around and asked what I had done differently to my hair. The touching and the remark made me uncomfortable, but at the time, I felt there was nothing I could do.

For the next year, I excelled, covering every breaking news story west of the Mississippi, confident that my work mattered and that I was making a meaningful contribution to CBS News. I soon learned that I was being considered for the L.A.-based weekend-edition producer role. A colleague with insight into the process told me that I had been deemed “not ready.” Although I couldn’t confirm that my career had been sabotaged, I felt as though I had hit a glass ceiling working in news.

In the summer of 2011, I was one of three employees accepted to CBS’ newly launched Emerging Creative Leadership Experience — a two-year program that identifies and develops future creative executives at CBS Entertainment.

From December 2011 through December 2013, I was mentored by execs in casting, drama development, daytime, current programming and marketing. In every meeting I attended in those departments, I was the only black person and often the only person of color. Nothing had prepared me for the lack of diversity I encountered in the entertainment division. In fact, there was not one black creative executive at the network. Today, the only black female executive at CBS Entertainment oversees diversity and inclusion.

During rotations, a common theme was that talent of color and creatives from marginalized communities weren’t good enough for CBS. I sat in meetings where Peter Golden, the head of network casting and talent, flipped through headshots of minority actors, commenting that they weren’t good enough while suggesting white actors who’d be a better fit. During a stint in drama development, I saw that the overwhelming majority of creators, producers and hired writers on CBS series were white and male. During my drama-development rotation, an executive made an Aunt Jemima joke (if there is such a thing) in front of me and several colleagues.

In September 2013, I sat down with the head of current programming to express my interest in joining his team. I was told that there were no manager positions available. Shortly thereafter, a less experienced white male was hired into a manager role. He continues to rise within CBS to this day.

I am grateful that I had the opportunity to participate in the Emerging Creative Leadership Experience. I learned a lot and I worked hard, but I wasn’t as lucky as my two colleagues, who were offered creative positions within CBS. It was made clear at the end of the program that I would not be offered a creative role. None of my colleagues was surprised. If there was no shared outrage about the white problem, how would it ever change?

At the completion of the program, I was promoted to manager of CBS Entertainment Diversity and Inclusion — an important department that creates opportunity for emerging talent in front of and behind the camera, but a non-creative role. During my time in Diversity and Inclusion, my boss and I were the only black CBS Entertainment executives, period. Just as when I began my career, white colleagues continued to confuse our names. In 2015, I attended a colleague’s baby shower, where a high-level executive in comedy development called me by my boss’s name three times — even after I corrected her mistake the first time. The following Monday, several of my colleagues apologized on her behalf.

Having worked as an executive in Diversity and Inclusion for the last five years, I managed CBS on Tour, the Writers Mentoring Program and the Directing Initiative, and helped to produce the annual CBS Diversity Sketch Comedy Showcase. The showcase is considered the best program of its kind in Hollywood, and has helped launch the careers of stars such as Kate McKinnon, Tiffany Haddish and Hasan Minhaj — though not on CBS. It is my opinion that Peter Golden doesn’t find minority performers to be as talented as white actors. He continues to reject the outstanding talent from the showcase because they aren’t good enough, they’re too green or they aren’t “right” for CBS.

In 2016, CBS announced the CBS Drama Diversity Casting Initiative in response to the backlash received about its nearly all-white programming. Casting execs searched the nation for fresh talent, selecting 12 performers of color. The actors came to L.A. for a week of workshops, meetings and studio-shot screen tests. I was one of the executives who weighed in on the talent along with the casting department. After reviewing the screen tests, Golden and then-CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller voiced their disappointment that none of the actors “popped”; none of the 12 was offered a talent-holding deal. Two years later, one of the participants, KiKi Layne, is the star of Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk,” for which she has received rave reviews.

In debating whether or not to speak out about my own story, I have not forgotten the opportunities that were given to me. But it’s just not enough to open doors to diverse, talented candidates. We need to be respected, promoted and compensated on the same level as our white peers.

In no way do I want to disregard the crucial work my former colleagues are doing within the Entertainment Diversity and Inclusion department. Because of their efforts, some of the industry’s most talented emerging writers, directors, producers and performers started their careers through the many initiatives run by the team. Many industry professionals are aware that while CBS proudly touts its diversity programs, a close look beneath the surface reveals that the company is unconcerned about creating space for minorities. It’s challenging to find people of color in executive positions at CBS. The most diverse departments at the corporation are the diversity teams. A company that only has executives of color in roles within the Diversity and Inclusion departments isn’t hitting the mark. But I can no longer stay silent. CBS continues to promote its diversity initiatives in public, while internally minorities are practically invisible. It has taken me 13 years to harness the courage to speak my truth, but I am empowered to create meaningful dialogue and change.

Last fall’s external investigation failed to address discrimination, gender bias and inappropriate behavior, although we were told it would. The leaked report emphasized sexual misconduct while failing to address the totality of problems at the corporation. We should all be outraged that CBS has opted to ignore its rampant discrimination issues and lack of inclusion.

I never went to HR to report the trauma and bias I experienced because I didn’t trust the process. There was always the voice in my head of the powerful news executive telling me to “have thicker skin.” I honestly thought if I just stuck it out, it would get better. Things would change if I just worked harder. They never did.

In late July I took medical leave for what I initially thought was anxiety and stress from postpartum depression. I’ve since learned that the source of my anxiety and stress was CBS’ toxic work environment. At the encouragement of my therapist, I hired a workplace discrimination attorney to assist me in negotiating an exit package. My lawyer was informed that CBS doesn’t give compensation to employees wishing to exit the company. After some back and forth, CBS offered me $20,000 and later $50,000. It isn’t clear if I would have been asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement, but I assumed so. After considering the offer at length, with encouragement from my husband I determined that my integrity and the power of my voice and experience were worth more than any dollar CBS was willing to part with.

I am not an angry black woman with an ax to grind. As a mom, I don’t want my black boys to have to work at a company that doesn’t value them for their talent and skills, and I don’t want other young girls and boys to encounter similar roadblocks in corporate America. They deserve a better world. I’m speaking out to encourage other black, Latinx, native, API, disabled or LGBTQ workers to know that we don’t have to tolerate what is intolerable.

With the investigation into CBS’ workplace culture now closed, it is my hope that my story is a cautionary tale for companies to value the talent and contributions of people of color and those from marginalized communities in the workplace. A diverse workforce is an asset to any company — we make you stronger and more profitable. My hope is to create lasting change in the industry. Let’s start with CBS.

RESPONSES:

In response to the claims made in Whitney Davis’ letter, a CBS spokesperson provided the following statement to Variety:

“During her time at CBS, Whitney was a valued team member of the News and Entertainment divisions. She was selected for a management-training program, promoted several times, and was given high-profile assignments. While we disagree with some statements in Whitney’s story, we take all employee concerns seriously and remain committed to improving the workplace experience for everyone.

“CBS leadership has made strengthening our culture a top priority. Over the past several months, we have announced plans to devote considerable resources to critical areas such as ethics, compliance, diversity and inclusion, and human resources, including creating a centralized employee relations function to respond to workplace issues. Employees are CBS’ most important resource, and providing them with a safe, fair, inclusive and positive work environment is paramount to our continued success.”

Independent from CBS and one another, Glenn Geller and Peter Golden each provided a response.

From Glenn Geller:

“I have personally been a champion of diversity at CBS, both in front of and behind the camera. For well over a decade, I worked closely with both the writers program and the Directing Initiative. But I am most proud of my involvement with the Drama Diversity Casting Initiative. I conceived, spearheaded and shepherded the program, and was intimately involved every step of the way — from helping choose audition sides to set visits during the actors’ screen tests. For the record, I wanted to make deals with several actors. Ultimately, everyone has a boss who has the final word, and I was no exception.”

From Peter Golden:

“The claims and innuendos made about me by Ms. Davis are categorically untrue. Approximately eight years ago, Ms. Davis was a trainee in my department for the customary three- to -four-month period provided under CBS’ management training program. While it is certainly possible that I may have reviewed headshots in front of Ms. Davis, her claim that I systematically dismissed diverse actors is patently false. In addition, and contrary to her assertions, the Comedy Diversity Showcase has resulted in numerous guest and series regular roles on CBS shows for the participants. Throughout my career in casting, I have always been a vigorous advocate for all actors. Ms. Davis’ implications are completely contrary to who I am personally and professionally.”

Former CBS News executive Bill Felling could not be reached for comment despite multiple attempts.

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