A media mystery popped up a week before Christmas: Leslie Moonves, who had just been fired as the chief executive of CBS after multiple accusations of sexual misconduct, appeared to give an exclusive, on-the-record interview to a little-known publication in which he bluntly addressed his dismissal.
Agenda, a news service owned by The Financial Times, quoted Mr. Moonves in an article as saying, “How quickly the board forgets the job I did for CBS. They were a rudderless ship when I went there, when I took over.” Later in the article, the interview subject addressed the board’s decision to deny him a $120 million severance payment, saying, “I think the board will do the right thing, ultimately.”
It was an unlikely-seeming exclusive. Mr. Moonves had shunned all interview requests since the publication of an article in The New Yorker last summer that included detailed, on-the-record accounts from women saying that he had sexually assaulted them.
For much of 2018, reporters at major outlets, including The New York Times, had aggressively sought Mr. Moonves, with little success. The idea that Agenda, a niche outlet with 6,000 subscribers focused on corporate governance issues, had scored his first on-record comments since his firing struck many observers as implausible.
It turns out the interview, published on Dec. 18, may have been bogus.
On Thursday, Agenda removed Mr. Moonves’s comments from the article and attached an editor’s note that read, in part, “A spokesperson for Mr. Moonves issued a statement denying that Mr. Moonves spoke with reporters from Agenda.”
At the same time, the publication did not admit error, adding later in the note, “We stand by our reporters’ portrayal of those conversations but, in light of the statement from Mr. Moonves, we have removed the quotes from the article.”
Before the retraction, a number of publications, including The Times, had reprinted the executive’s supposed comments.
The statements attributed to Mr. Moonves in the Agenda story were potentially significant, since he can appeal the board’s decision on the $120 million within 30 days of Dec. 17, the date the CBS Corporation board formally decided to characterize his ouster from the company as a firing with cause.
The board was unequivocal in firing Mr. Moonves. It determined that he had misled the company about the allegations made against him and found that he had tried to hide evidence from investigators in “breach of his employment contract.” (Mr. Moonves has said that any sexual contact with the women was consensual.)
The Agenda article suggested, through Mr. Moonves’s now-retracted comments, that he was contemplating action against CBS.
So what happened?
The reporters, Stephanie Forshee and Jennifer Williams-Alvarez, did what most writers do when trying to track down a high-profile subject: They trawled the Nexis database. After they entered his name, the database spit back several phone numbers. The reporters tried each one, until someone on the other end of the call identified himself as “Les Moonves.”
The interview lasted a few minutes. In a follow-up, the reporters called the same number — which has a Maryland area code — to ask a few more questions, according to two people who spoke on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to discuss what happened publicly. They also shared relevant emails with The Times.
A few days after the article appeared, Chris Giglio, a spokesman for Mr. Moonves, said the former executive had not spoken with Agenda. Mr. Moonves himself called Lionel Barber, the editor of The Financial Times, to complain, according to the two people. Mr. Barber, who used to be the managing editor of the newspaper’s United States operation, had become friendly with Mr. Moonves over the years.
Mr. Barber told Mr. Moonves that he was unaware of the article and would look into it, one of the people said. But Agenda is editorially independent of The Financial Times, and the decision on how to handle the complaint fell to the Agenda newsroom.
Mr. Moonves, through a spokesman, issued a statement on Tuesday: “Mr. Moonves did not speak with reporters from Agenda in December 2018 or at any other time. Any suggestion that he did is without any factual basis whatsoever.”
Agenda added an editor’s note to the article reflecting the statement, but did not make any substantial changes to the piece. After inquiries from media reporters, the publication removed the comments attributed to Mr. Moonves.
The editor of Agenda, Andy Willmott, and the reporters offered no statement beyond the editor’s note.
Mr. Moonves has yet to give an extensive on-the-record interview on the accusations made against him. The person who answered the call from the Agenda reporters remains a mystery.
When a reporter for The Times tried the same number, a man answered by saying, “Guten Tag” — German for “good day.” Asked if he was Les Moonves, he ended the call.
The Financial Times owns several titles, part of what it calls its “Specialist” group. Agenda charges about $9,600 a year for a subscription, with corporate accounts making up a big portion of its circulation. The CBS board has a subscription, but it’s unclear if the directors read it on a regular basis.
Rachel Abrams contributed reporting.