Longtime CBS personality Julie Chen is once again in the spotlight, normally a happy place for a television star used to attending glamorous celebrity events and walking red carpets.
But this time the experience is neither welcome nor enjoyable.
The 48-year-old Chen—a CBS fixture for nearly two decades as the host of two profitable franchises, Big Brother and The Talk—has been grappling since last Friday with the personal and career fallout of a New Yorker article reporting multiple instances of alleged workplace sexual misconduct by her husband and ultimate boss, CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves.
The 68-year-old Moonves continues to run the publicly traded company while awaiting the results of a corporate board-ordered investigation of the allegations, and battling with controlling shareholder Shari Redstone over CBS’ management structure and her plan to merge it with Viacom, CBS’ less successful corporate sibling.
Via Twitter, Chen issued a strong statement of support for her spouse of almost 14 years, the father of their young son, Charlie. Chen dated Moonves while he was still married to his first wife, wedding him in Mexico in December 2004, a few weeks after his divorce. On Twitter, she called him “a good man and a loving father, devoted husband and inspiring corporate leader,” as well as a “a kind, decent and moral human being.”
She doubled down Monday on The Talk—to rousing applause from the largely female studio audience in Los Angeles.“Some of you may be aware of what’s been going on in my life for the last few days,” she declared directly to the camera. “I issued the one and only statement I will ever make on this topic on Twitter, and I will stand by that statement today, tomorrow, forever.”
Whether fair or not—and several of Chen’s friends and allies told The Daily Beast it is deeply unfair—her own workplace behavior is suddenly also under intense scrutiny, with detractors coming forward to describe alleged incidents of favoritism, bullying, and wielding her marital status like a sledgehammer.
That same marital status means the career implications for Chen are uncertain if Moonves is eventually, as many expect, forced to step down.
According to a well-connected CBS insider, Redstone—the daughter of Viacom’s and CBS’ ailing, 95-year-old chairman emeritus, media mogul Sumner Redstone—would be unlikely to take the “churlish” step of firing Chen from her shows. But Chen might decide to leave the network anyway out of loyalty to her husband.
If she has her detractors, others who have worked alongside Chen at both CBS News and The Talk, however, called her “gracious,” “professional” and “discreet.”
“I never saw any behavior that was disrespectful,” said a former colleague. “Could she be stern? Did she know what she wanted? You bet. Did she feel emboldened? Maybe… Julie suffered no fools gladly.” (The same could be said for prominent male TV names.)
Noting that the television business is rife with jealousy and insecurity, this person added that Moonves and Chen are naturally juicy targets: “I completely buy that there are people who’ve been waiting for this moment for either or both of them. I can’t tell you how many people think she got the projects she got because of Leslie… There’s no doubt her marriage to him was the elephant in the room.”
Yet multiple people who worked with Chen at CBS News’ morning program and later at Big Brother and The Talk recounted instances in which Chen was allegedly cold and dismissive to staffers in the control room (“I don’t want her in my ear,” Chen allegedly complained about one CBS Early Show staffer whose job was to give her cues), boasted about her ability to have people who displeased her fired, and exercised her clout behind the scenes to work her will against management decisions she disagreed with.
“You bet you’re taking full responsibility—I’ve made all the right phone calls,” Chen allegedly told a CBS News producer who had irked her with an off-camera glitch and was fired shortly thereafter, according to a source familiar with the conversation.
Such was the perception of Chen’s power within CBS, according to a network source, that the CBS news division is reluctant, and possibly terrified, to break into The Talk’s live broadcasts with special reports. Indeed, from January 2016 through July 2018, ABC broadcast 32 special reports during the 2 p.m.-to-3 p.m. Eastern time period when The Talk is aired; NBC had 19.
CBS had only six—opting not to follow the lead of the other two networks when President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accord, when a Florida pedestrian bridge collapsed and killed six people, and when Trump signed an executive order reversing his widely condemned family separation policy at the U.S-Mexico border.
CBS’ explanation—that it prefers to place important breaking news on its live streaming video service CBSN instead of the broadcast network—isn’t terribly convincing.
“What about abuse of power?” veteran network news executive Shelley Ross posted on her Facebook feed as advance word of The New Yorker’s Moonves blockbuster spread throughout the media. “Leaving [David] Letterman on after his own admissions of egregious behavior. And what about Julie Chen’s abuses of power…”
Former Good Morning America executive producer Ross—who was personally vetted by Moonves and spent an unhappy six months in close proximity to Chen as senior executive producer of the CBS Early Show before being dismissed in March 2008—declined to comment for this article.
Another doomed executive producer was broadcast veteran Susan Winston, who lasted all of two weeks on The Talk, after she was hired ostensibly to fix the chaotic daytime gabfest toward the end of its tempestuous first season in April 2011.
According to CBS and outside sources, two of the Season 1 panelists, actresses Leah Remini and Holly Robinson Peete, didn’t get their contracts renewed after they unwisely pitched a senior CBS entertainment executive that they should be given more authority on the show’s direction—and Chen should be fired. Both Remini and Peete were unavailable for comment.
“You don’t know what you’re getting into,” Moonves allegedly joked to Winston as she took on the challenge. (Winston declined to comment to The Daily Beast, but this account is sourced to a show insider who, like most of the people interviewed for this article, asked for anonymity so as not to risk antagonizing the entertainment industry’s most powerful executive.)
One notable incident allegedly took place during a production meeting of more than two dozen people and panelists at The Talk, where Chen presided, according to the source, who is a self-described witness.
“I was standing in the back and Julie was running the meeting; she ran all the meetings,” this person said. “She was going over what would happen in the show, saying, ‘I’ll say this, and then you’ll say that, and then this will happen,’ and so on. Suddenly she got up and was standing on her chair and she shouted, ‘You make me vomit! You make me vomit!’ And I’m thinking, what the heck is this? I’m not sure what she was angry about. I have no clue. I have watched people go into psychotic rages. I would say that she had what I would call a psychotic break.”
Soon after that, this person continued, Moonves and Winston’s agent, Babette Perry, were summoned to The Talk’s offices, where they agreed that Winston’s gig was abruptly at an end.
Chen wasn’t made available for an interview. But through a CBS spokesperson, Chen and other staffers of The Talk denied that such an incident ever took place, saying it’s out of character for Chen, who doesn’t lose her composure.
However, told of Chen’s denial, the source insisted the account was accurate, and a second The Talk insider who worked on the show at the time but wasn’t a witness independently told The Daily Beast that they learned of Chen’s alleged blowup shortly after it occurred and that news of the incident was widely circulated and discussed among the show’s staff.
Meanwhile, Chen’s defenders—such as actress and comedian Aisha Tyler, her former co-host on The Talk—contradict such characterizations of Chen’s behavior, and ascribe them to a pervasive culture, especially in the TV biz, of sexism and misogyny.
“People love to smack-talk,” Tyler told The Daily Beast. “I will say that there’s a strong thread of misogyny in what people say about Julie, because the underlying thread here is 'Oh, if she’s a woman, somehow she got where she is because of who she slept with.' And I think it’s extraordinarily sexist.”
Tyler continued: “She’s an accomplished journalist. She has been for her entire adult life. She got where she was far prior to the relationship that she’s in now. And the fact that people are now saying that she exploited that relationship for her own gain is, to me, fundamentally misogynistic.”
Yet many of Chen’s detractors are women, this reporter said.
“Oh, yeah,” Tyler responded. “Sexism is not the singular purview of men. If you grow up in a patriarchal culture that tells you that men get ahead through ability and women get ahead through sexuality, then everybody buys into that construct, not just men. Women buy into it too. People have been saying that stuff about her for years—this underlying vein of ‘She can't possibly have done what she’s done without the help of her husband,’ and that’s just fundamentally not true.”
Another defender is producer Scott Stern, who worked closely with Chen on The Early Show—a precursor to CBS This Morning—and has known her since her days in the late 1990s as a local reporter on New York’s CBS-owned station, WCBS Channel 2.
“We had a very fun relationship, and she was undyingly loyal,” Stern said. “She always looked out for me and made sure our working relationship was golden. Personally I’ve never seen her being rude to any underlings; I’ve only seen her being nice to people. She never said, ‘I’m Mrs. Moonves.’ She was never the diva.”
A third defender is CBS corporate communications Senior Vice President Kelli Raftery.
“I worked closely with Julie for over 10 years at CBS Entertainment, first on Big Brother, and more recently on The Talk,” Raftery said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “In all my experiences, she was the consummate professional, treating everyone with respect and quick to express appreciation for a job well done.
“She is a tireless worker, militant about her preparation and passionate about getting it right. She gives a lot and expects a lot out of people, and is impatient with people who don’t give it their all. When it comes to work, it is always about what is best for the show and the team. I have the greatest respect for Julie professionally and personally.”
This past April—in what now seems a moment of unintended irony, months before Chen and Moonves were struck by New Yorker writer Ronan Farrow’s lightning bolt—she devoted a segment of The Talk to a panel discussion of “What is the worst workplace behavior you’ve ever witnessed?”
She kicked off the segment with what seemed an unusual attack on Good Morning America co-host Lara Spencer, quoting extensively from a New York Post Page Six item that said Spencer was trying to save face over ABC’s decision to reduce her presence on the show by claiming it was her idea.
As the studio audience oohed and aahed, Chen read from the Teleprompter: “Page Six also reports that Lara’s co-workers are relieved about the reduced hours, with with one insider claiming, quote, she treats staff badly. She yells at people, and she makes a lot of extra work for people.” Chen ended with a GMA rep’s pro forma denial.
Spencer didn’t respond to an email seeking comment, and an ABC News spokesperson declined to weigh in.
Chen, who grew up the Mandarin-speaking daughter of Chinese immigrants in Queens, New York, actually began her broadcast career, after graduating in journalism from the University of Southern California, as a Los Angeles-based producer for ABC’s NewsOne, the network’s news service for local affiliates.
A BuzzFeed profile charted her rise against the odds—including the TV news biz’s casual racism against Asian anchors—from a local station in Dayton, Ohio, to CBS News.
On a September 2013 episode of The Talk, in a week devoted to the hosts revealing secrets about themselves, Chen recounted how her boss in Dayton bluntly advised her: "“You will never be on this anchor desk, because you’re Chinese… On top of that, because of your heritage, because of your Asian eyes, sometimes I’ve noticed when you’re on camera and you’re interviewing someone, you look disinterested, you look bored.’”
Chen added: “As soon as my news director told me I would never see the anchor desk as long as he was news director in Dayton … it told me, ‘Don’t think of building a life in Ohio—or a future… It motivated me to go where I would be welcomed.”
In the BuzzFeed piece, she recalled being taunted for her ethnicity in grammar school: “You’re getting on the school bus and someone goes, ‘Oh, ching chong,’ and they’d pull their eyes to the side.”
Pressed by her “big-time agent,” who made similar comments, Chen underwent plastic surgery—a decision that was understandably hard on her parents.
“He had the biggest names in the business,” she said on The Talk of the agent. “And he told me the same thing. He said, ‘I cannot represent you unless you get plastic surgery to make your eyes look better.’ He then whips out a list of plastic surgeons who have done this procedure.”
The agent told her, Chen said, “You’re good at what you do. And if you get this plastic surgery done, you’re going straight to the top.”
“So, I consulted with my mother, and [she greeted me with] silence. She said, ‘This is a deeper conversation that we have to have with your father.’ We talked about if this was denying my heritage, and whether or not I should have this done...
“So, this divided my family. Eventually, my mom said, ‘You wouldn’t have brought this up to me unless this was something that you wanted to do.’ And they told me that they’d support me, and they’d pay for it, and that they’d be there for me.
“And after I had it done, the ball did roll for me,” she concluded. “And I wondered, did I give into the man?” Her co-hosts offered their support after her confession.
Aisha Tyler, a regular on The Talk for six of of its eight seasons, said she and Chen were fast friends.
“We bonded almost immediately because we are close in age, and I think we had similar experiences in a lot of ways, growing up as children in situations where we were one of very few people who looked like us… and people trying to make us feel ‘other,’” said Tyler, who grew up attending schools with a largely white student body. “She went out of her way to make me feel welcome at that show.”
Tyler said she had heard some hair-raising rumors about the show’s allegedly toxic atmosphere and did some due diligence to assure herself that she wasn’t stepping into a “viper’s nest.”
As for Chen, “I was waiting for the mask to drop,” Tyler said, “but it never did.”
Tyler said she considers Chen a soulmate, having spent “hundreds of hours of intimate conversation” with her.
“I haven’t interacted with her over what’s going on right now,” Tyler said. “I don’t know many women who have a stronger sense of self and direction than Julie. She’s going through this in a way that only she can. She’s incredibly capable and self-aware. I don’t really worry about her.”