Tensions Build In NPR Newsroom Over Handling Of Sexual Harassment Allegations

Nov 3, 2017
Originally published on November 5, 2017 4:00 am

NPR CEO Jarl Mohn apologized to angered staffers in a contentious meeting Friday afternoon even as additional women accused the network's former top news executive of sexually harassing them.

"I've let you down," Mohn said, according to people present. "I should have acted sooner and I should have acted more forcefully."

Mohn conceded Friday that he had not taken warning signs in previous years and previous days seriously enough. Only on Tuesday — once The Washington Post published two accusations from unnamed women dating back nearly two decades — did Mohn suspend NPR's senior vice president for news, Michael Oreskes.

Mohn forced Oreskes to resign the next day, after I also reported that Rebecca Hersher had filed a formal complaint of sexual harassment in October 2015 when she was a 26-year-old assistant producer. She alleged that Oreskes had converted a work conversation about her aspiration to become a reporter into a drawn-out dinner over a bottle of wine, with extended exploration of her personal life.

It wasn't the only internal red flag. Two veteran editors told me that they separately approached NPR's human resources department in late September 2016. In urgent conversations, they conveyed that so many journalists were concerned about Oreskes' treatment of women that they warned new female staffers to keep their distance. In separate interviews, each told me they had told NPR's human resource officials that Oreskes had created a toxic workplace in the newsroom.

(One of the editors also told me of having conveyed concerns to a senior network lawyer; the other reported telling a senior news executive, who replied that the matter was being investigated.)

Neither had specific instances they could point to, and both said that their colleagues' perceptions were shaped by Hersher's experiences. One, however, told NPR's human resources department that a second colleague might have been harassed by Oreskes as well.

In October 2016, just a few weeks later, a woman told NPR that Oreskes had forcibly sought to kiss her in the late 1990s, when he was the Washington bureau chief at The New York Times. A few weeks ago, a second woman lodged a separate and similar complaint. At that time, Mohn told staffers on Friday, executives started to take action and informed the chairman and vice chairman of the network's board of directors.

"The Times takes all allegations of sexual harassment seriously and we are looking into it," said a spokeswoman for The New York Times. "We're not aware of other complaints."

A lack of trust in reporting mechanisms and leadership

At the meeting on Friday, Mohn confirmed that objections had been raised generally in September 2016. The CEO also acknowledged that he did not suspend or oust Oreskes until shortly after the Post story ran, citing the two unnamed women accusing Oreskes of harassing them as they sought job opportunities at the Times.

NPR executives declared the session on Friday to be off the record, saying they wanted to allow female employees to share personal accounts if they wished. (At least two women did so, according to people present.) As a result, I did not attend the all-staff meeting, so I relied on the accounts of six people who did participate as the basis of my reporting on the meeting.

A request from Mohn to staff on Oct. 20 to report any incidents of inappropriate behavior yielded no concrete responses. Some people at the meeting told Mohn that was because they did not trust they would be taken seriously. In recent days, Mohn acknowledged, five other women have filed new formal complaints against Oreskes with NPR. At the session, two female staffers told Mohn that they no longer trusted him to lead the network.

Nine women have spoken to me about their experiences with Oreskes, on condition their names not be made public. Several still work at NPR. The incidents span a decade, involving women in their 20s, 30s and 50s. Their interactions with Oreskes often started with an approach on social media — private messages on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Some of those messages were preserved and shown to me. In several cases, they began cordially and become presumptuously intimate.

Each woman spoke to me separately, but many gave closely coinciding accounts of how conversations on mentoring quickly turned personal and carried implications of romance or sex. Two women said they decided not to pursue jobs at NPR as a result of Oreskes' behavior. Others said they refused to be alone with him.

Women describe Oreskes' pattern of pressure

Some of the incidents, in isolation, might not appear consequential. They do not rise to the level of severity of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, the late Roger Ailes or Bill O'Reilly, who are among the most notorious media figures accused of harassing women. Yet taken together, the allegations involving Oreskes paint an ominous picture of an executive willing to abuse his authority to take advantage of younger women in the field of journalism.

Here are six examples:

In 2007, a woman then in her late 20s says she sought employment at the New York Times-owned International Herald-Tribune, where Oreskes was executive editor. In conversations by email, in person and by phone, she said, it proved impossible to keep the tone professional. She quelled her hopes and stayed away.

In 2011, a freelancer then in her late 30s who has written for The New York Times, NPR and other major outlets says Oreskes pursued sexually charged conversations online with her, including some I have seen. She showed me an email she sent to an NPR editor when Oreskes' appointment was announced in early 2015, warning: "INTERNS WATCH OUT."

An NPR reporter, then 25, told me she called Oreskes in August 2016 to talk about improving her standing when offered a job to go elsewhere. After she told Oreskes, she was about to visit a relative in Connecticut, he invited her for drinks at his family's beach house there, suggesting they could continue the conversation over wine. She did not follow up and kept her distance afterward.

Also last year, a former NPR editor in her 30s says she was pressured by Oreskes to meet for dinner after she asked for career guidance. She had been interested in exploring a second stint at NPR as well. The then-NPR news chief made it clear after the conclusion of the dinner that he had all night to spend with her. She decided not to apply to NPR and says she found the experience bewildering as she tried to sort out whether what she had experienced was truly sexual harassment.

An NPR producer in her 50s recalled a moment earlier this year when Oreskes placed his open palm on her stomach as he passed by, in what she considered a strong, lingering caress.

This past summer, an unemployed broadcast journalist in her 30s says that she received messages from Oreskes on Facebook and that he kept pushing for drinks and dinners. She concluded that such socializing was the price of his mentoring but thought it inappropriate. She says he asked her about past relationships, told her he would fall asleep thinking of her and one night walked her home. She returned to her apartment alone and decided against applying to NPR because there would be an expectation of a physical involvement. "I knew it was leading in that direction," she told me. "I didn't want to go there for a job."

"Our intention was honorable. The execution was poor."

These episodes, with one exception, were reported to NPR's HR department only in the past few days.

However, many women at the all-staff meeting Friday told Mohn that he had had more than enough information to act upon earlier.

According to attendees, Mohn said he and the network's chief counsel, Jonathan Hart, sat down with Oreskes last month to discuss the two older allegations from his tenure at The New York Times. Because many of the internal warnings centered on rumor rather than specific incidents, NPR's leadership did not feel it could act more severely, Mohn said. It had no concrete proof he had overstepped the boundaries articulated after the rebuke stemming from the internal complaint filed in October 2015.

In that way, Mohn said, he hewed too closely to legal guidelines and did not adequately take into account the human repercussions.

"Our intention was honorable," Mohn said. "The execution was poor. It didn't work."

Mohn pledged to work to rebuild the trust of his employees and asked for their aid in repairing its culture.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

I let you down. I should have acted faster and more decisively - the words of NPR CEO Jarl in an email to our newsroom. He met with NPR staff this afternoon two days after he asked for the resignation of senior vice president for news Michael Oreskes. Oreskes' resignation came after allegations emerged of sexual harassment that occurred two decades ago and before his time at NPR.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has been covering this story. He joins me from New York. Hi, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Mary Louise.

KELLY: So in the interest of being transparent about how we are covering this story, that all-staff meeting was off the record in the interest of women being able to tell their stories and share freely. I went. You chose not to. What have you been able to learn about it?

FOLKENFLIK: It was a tough, contentious meeting. Jarl Mohn was contrite and far more concrete about what he acknowledges now are the failing to heed early warning signs about Mike Oreskes' behavior toward women. A number of female employees in particular voiced great skepticism about his ability to be the one to reshape and reform NPR, and he said he pledged to work very hard to regain their trust.

KELLY: Now, the timeline of what exactly NPR management knew and when has shifted some as the story has unfolded this week. Can you remind us just what we knew a couple of days ago when Oreskes was forced out and then what you've learned since?

FOLKENFLIK: Sure. An assistant producer first filed a complaint against Mike Oreskes in October of 2015. He was formally rebuked after that for a long dinner that delved into personal affairs. In late-September 2016, two veteran editors said that concerns over Mike's behavior towards women had created a toxic workplace. And then there were these two accusations that came in from women who had encounters with him when he was Washington bureau chief for The New York Times almost two decades ago. The first woman came in in October of 2016. The second came in last month, October 2017. At that point, NPR started to look into it more carefully but only took action to suspend him once it had been published in The Washington Post.

KELLY: And you've continued to talk to women who are reporting inappropriate behavior on the part of Oreskes but who have not necessarily taken it to a formal complaint.

FOLKENFLIK: Yes. And I think there have been about a half dozen women - five or six who have made formal complaints since all this news broke. But there are a number of other women who've talked to me, people who work at NPR, a woman who used to work at NPR, a number of women who are thinking about working for NPR after Oreskes had offered them some career counsel and he had encouraged them to do so.

There was the use of social media to sort of start conversations on a friendlier, professional basis, and quickly they veered into the romantic, wistful, laudatory and even sexual. And there seemed to be a grooming of women, sort of a familiarity but also a sense of expanding the boundaries of what's appropriate to allow himself to get entangled with them in ways that they simply did not want.

KELLY: I want people to know that we have reached out. You have reached out to Mike Oreskes himself. He has thus far not commented to NPR other than a statement that went out to staff saying he is sorry, and he apologizes for behavior that was inappropriate. In terms of where this goes next, Jarl Mohn, the NPR CEO, has announced that he's going to bring in an outside law firm to investigate how all this was handled. What exactly are we looking for there?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, we're going to see what they come up with. We're also going to see how public their findings become. And we're going to see how the board reacts to it. And there's one other thing. There's something intangible that's not necessarily formal. But we're going to see how the newsroom reacts and how the company reacts and whether or not Mohn can steady the status ship for himself or whether or not he's has really lost the ability to lead given his handling of the senior executive and his misbehavior towards the women who work for him.

KELLY: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, thanks for that and for your reporting all this week.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.