Pssst! CBS! “NCIS” Is Confusing People About Sexual Harassment And Sexual Assault!

“NCIS” starring Mark Harmon and an ensemble cast, is the second longest running scripted drama on television at 15 full seasons (trailing only “Law and Order: SVU,” which will apparently continue until Mariska Hargitay drops dead of old age) and the seventh longest running such show since television began. A breezy procedural that records the adventures of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, it depicts a diverse team that demonstrably idolize its leader, the enigmatic and tragic Jethro Gibbs, and support each other like a family.

As with all series that run this long and go into syndication while the show is still being produced ( “Criminal Minds,” “The Simpsons,” “NCIS LA,” and “Blue Bloods” is getting there), I eventually got sick of “NCIS” and hadn’t watched it for several seasons. However, last night’s Red Sox game was so dispiriting that I gave up for an inning or so, and peeked in to see how Gibbs and the gang were doing in Season 16. Almost immediately, I witnessed Harmon’s character planting a kiss on the face of the team’s new forensic specialist, Kasie Hines (Diona Reasonover, who appears to be about 18) just as he had often kissed Hines’s predecessor, Abby Sciuto (now departed Pauley Perrette), as you can see in the clip above. I gathered from Kasie’s reaction that this was the “new kid’s” first kiss from Gibbs, and she behaved as if it was both a surprise and the thrill of a lifetime.

For God’s sake.

A leader, manager, or supervisor should not, cannot, and must not kiss (or hug, or in my view, even touch) subordinates, particularly when the supervisor is male and the subordinate is female. This conduct was never appropriate, but beginning around 1980 the law began flagging it as potentially discriminatory, and once sexual harassment law crystallized—and Joe Biden’s memory to the contrary, that was a long time ago—such kisses, touches and hugs could be actionable.

The Gibbs kiss I saw last night was technically assault and battery—an unconsented to touching–though it was not unequivocally sexual harassment, as the object of his kiss clearly welcomed it. However, a workplace where females are expected to allow their supervisor to kiss them on whim is a potentially hostile work environment, and Gibbs’ bad habit, which has been going on for 15 years, should have been flagged and stopped, both in Gibbs’ fictional workplace and in Harmon’s real one. How can CBS and the producers of the show (Harmon is the executive producer) be unaware of the developments in this area?  They can’t be. There have been organizational earthquakes from employees who complained about the conduct Harmon is modeling as harmless, affectionate and innocent. It may be innocent at the imaginary NCIS, but too often such kisses are not.

Yet here is a top rated  family TV show that teaches kids as well and men and women who haven’t been paying attention (like Harmon, apparently) that spontaneously kissing a subordinate at work is cute and harmless. (Spontaneously kissing a colleague in the work place is also unethical, bit at least there isn’t the power and position inequality that can make “welcomeness” feel mandatory by the kissee.)

Later in the same episode, Harmon placed his hand on the shoulder of another young woman in an elevator as a gesture of caring and support. Men have been sued, successfully, for this too. Not only is it assault, it can be regarded as a demonstration of dominance, even intimidation.

It is irresponsible for the show and CBS to endorse conduct that is not appropriate for any workplace and that can get naive and trusting audience members in serious trouble.

Harmon is a long-time romantic lead and heart-throb, but he is pushing 70, and looks it. His kissing young ladies in the office is creepily Biden-like. It also demonstrates the valid point that got me canned as an ethics commentator on NPR when I dared to make it . (It could be applied benevolently to Donald Trump, and NPR can’t have that.) Men who are attractive, wealthy,  powerful and young often find that their otherwise risky demonstrations of spontaneous affection are appreciated, but they don’t realize, over time, when they are not so attractive as they used to be. Then their innocent (or not so innocent) touches and flirtations may not be as welcomed as they seem.

If Gibbs runs for public office as a Republican, Kasie may suddenly decide that his kiss was offensive, and made her feel “unsafe,” though she didn’t feel free to object at the time.

TV shows both reflect the culture and create it. Harmon is a smart and sensitive man, from what I’ve been able to discern from interviews. He needs to stop kissing the women on his show; he never should have kissed them in the first place. Men are willfully obtuse about this issue, and he’s just setting them up for disaster.

7 thoughts on “Pssst! CBS! “NCIS” Is Confusing People About Sexual Harassment And Sexual Assault!

  1. Your point is well taken. He should also not be plying them with sugary caffenated mega sized drinks to help them get results.

    With that said do you think people would tune in regularly for years if the gang followed every rule that applies in real life. I see them discharge firearms regularly and never put on admin leave.

  2. I saw The Kiss, too, and I had the same thought. I also asked, “Uh, Les Moonves, ya got any thoughts on this?” My, oh my. I also thought, “Uh, Gibbs is the boss, a white male, and clearly in a position of authority. Hines is new to the office (with a delightful, quirky wit about her – the actress* playing the role lights up the screen with a huge presence). Hines is also African American. So, not only does Gibbs demonstrate his boss privilege, he demonstrates his male privilege and racial privilege.” In one 10 second bit, he has earned eternal banishment.


    *Ed. Note: Did you see what this commenter did there? When he get with the program? The preferred noun is definitely NOT “actress”. It is “carbon-based bipedal unit descendant from Homo Erectus, displaying double Y chromosomes”. Alas. Hope springs eternal.

  3. Jack wrote, “it depicts a diverse team that demonstrably idolize its leader, the enigmatic and tragic Jethro Gibbs, and support each other like a family.”

    Interactions between “family” members are a different than interactions in at work, the authors are trying to intertwine the supporting family theme of the stories into the business side of the stories. Gibbs unethical work place behaviors would probably be considered reasonably acceptable behaviors in a supportive family environment and that includes Gibbs you’re acting like a doofas back of the head swipe that Gibbs has routinely done to the male “family members”. The Gibbs character is clearly ethically challenged, the character has always been that way since the very first episode. These unethical workplace Gibbs mannerisms add something human to an otherwise super cop character, I’m not real fond of super cop characters.

    All those rationalizations aside; this character (not the person of course) is certainly engaging in unethical workplace behaviors. Is it unethical to write these kinds of unethical behaviors into a script in such a way that seems to condone the behavior, no, it’s a fictional story and it actually represents a part of human existence, the good and the bad. What has bothered me about these unethical behaviors over the years is that I don’t remember even one time where the unethical behavior was challenged, they’ve done a lot of character development on Gibbs character over the years and it would be good to insert that kind of challenge into the script to see how the character reacts.

    I like NCIS, it’s one of the very few shows I watch regularly, I’ll continue to watch it until that point in time when something turns me away. It burns me that it’s on CBS which I have completely boycotted in recent years for absolutely everything else.

    Side Note 1: As I noted in January 2018, I completely stop watching the NCIS: New Orleans because of the terrible ethical problems that were being promoted as the right thing to do, I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I was never a fan of the NCIS: Los Angeles, I gave it a try a few tries and ended up turning it off, I think it was because of what I perceived as unbelievable characters and unbelievable character interactions.

    Side Note 2: A couple of weeks ago I estimated how much time I spend watching TV and I calculated that it’s somewhere between 5 and 6 hours per week with the vast majority of that being news from various sources, that’s between 4.5% – 5.5% of my waking hours. I’m curious where others fit in this?

    • We might watch an hour several times a week. Let’s call it 3% of my week.

      I lost interest in Bull (Michael Weatherly, former NCIS cast member) as the ethical situations became more and more obtuse, and the doing the wrong thing for rationalized right reasons became more of a feature rather than a bug.

      I had stopped watching when Weatherly fell to #metoo: I wonder if he was corrupted by those years at NCIS?

  4. The question of why the (arguably) most interesting cast member of the show, Pauley “Abby” Perrette, left a year after CBS said they’d attempted to take care of a problem — gives one furiously to think that the problem was never resolved.
    The answer is further muddled by the possibility that Perrette is either as
    zany as her character or has been so separated from the common herd as not recognize the definition of her repeated incendiary mention of “multiple physical assaults” in the public mind.

    Apparently, it could have been a case of dog-bite, anyway. As the story, such as it is, goes, Boss Harmon (what is his rank, anyway?) allegedly brought a dog to work that allegedly bit somebody, “requiring 15 stitches,” — the only fact that has come to light, unattached to any particular cast or crew member. Thereafter the story is shrouded in mist and vaguer-than-mist twitter-hints. Which leaves most people, or so it seems from the comments I checked out one sleepless night (last night, I think – the non-story has me in a mist as well), assuming the assaults were sexual in nature. Both the dog-bite story and the idea of unwanted advances gain credence with the news that the last season Perrette was on, she and Harmon did not meet on set. Their scenes were scheduled to be filmed separately. So there you are. Either this was an escalated clash between two egos (the star/producer relatively insensitive, the other hyper-so) or Harmon has garnered a following of torch-wielding me-too-ers just waiting for an overt reason to light his way off the program and the program off the air for no good reason. Either Pauley or Abby or CBS need to speak up. Clearly. Harmon needs to stay schtum and keep intimacies off set and screen.

    I’m debating between invoking the avenging goddesses, The Three Furies, or perhaps the wilding Maenads (the “raving” women). Either way, it doesn’t take much to arouse their ire. Since they have no interest in reality, truth, honesty, causation, responsibility or anything to do with ethics, I would think the N.C.I.S. writers would watch the “harrassment” stuff. I would think.

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