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Women’s reports about a top NPR executive show how sexual harassment can hurt victims’ careers

Michael Oreskes has resigned as editorial director of NPR. The accusations against him reveal a disturbing pattern.

The NPR headquarters in Washington, DC
The NPR headquarters in Washington, DC.
SAUL LOEB/Staff/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

The worst thing wasn’t the kiss. It wasn’t the personal ad he took out, trying to get in touch after what she thought was a work meeting. It wasn’t the fact that he placed it in the “Adult Services” section of the paper.

The worst thing about her experiences with Michael Oreskes, one of the women who’ve accused him of sexual harassment told the Washington Post, was “the fact that he utterly destroyed my ambition.”

Oreskes was, until Wednesday, the senior vice president of news and editorial director at NPR. He has resigned following reports by two women that he harassed them in the late 1990s, when he was the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times. Another woman says Oreskes behaved inappropriately toward her in 2015, when both were at NPR. NPR reportedly was aware of at least two of the complaints for some time, but did nothing to oust Oreskes until this week.

He is just one of several men in Hollywood and the media industry who have been accused of harassment or assault since the allegations against Harvey Weinstein became public, and the reports from women about his behavior follow a disturbing pattern: A woman hopes for career help from a powerful man and instead is subjected to sexual advances. For some, this is a discouraging setback. For others, it is derailing, convincing them to leave careers they once loved.

The allegations against Oreskes are disturbingly familiar

One woman said she met Oreskes while she was working in TV, and mentioned her interest in going back to print reporting, according to Paul Farhi at the Washington Post. They set up a meeting at a restaurant, but he changed their plans and asked to meet at her apartment instead. He put his hand on the small of her back at one point, but the meeting was otherwise uneventful, she said. Then when she was driving him to the airport, he kissed her. When she confronted him about it later, he said, “I was overcome with passion. I couldn’t help myself.”

The other woman met Oreskes at the New York Times’s Washington office in the Army and Navy Club building, she told the Post. After the meeting, he took out a personal ad about her in the Washington City Paper: “Saw you at the Army-Navy Building. Loved hearing your life story and your ideas. Hope you get this message. Let me know.” She didn’t see the ad — which was in “Adult Services,” not “Missed Connections” — until he emailed her and asked why she hadn’t responded.

She turned down his offer of lunch in a hotel room but kept in contact with him — she was still hoping for a job. Eventually, she said, they were both flying to New York, and he told her to get a seat on his flight. They shared a cab to the airport and, she said, he kissed her and put his tongue in her mouth.

“The worst part of my whole encounter with Oreskes wasn’t the weird offers of room service lunch or the tongue kiss but the fact that he utterly destroyed my ambition,” she told the Post.

Neither woman reported the incident at the time, worrying that any report would have little effect except to ruin their chances of working at the Times. Neither ever got a job at the paper.

The women say they decided to speak up after hearing NPR’s coverage of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein. Their stories will sound familiar to anyone who has been following the Weinstein allegations — or, for that matter, the accusations against Donald Trump. In all these cases, women say powerful men seemed to offer career advancement, then touched or kissed them without their consent. Even the details are similar: the hotel rooms, the change of plans to make a public setting a private one. And as the allegations against Oreskes make clear, sexual harassment can have lasting effects on a survivor’s self-image and career.

“It undercut my confidence”

While the behavior the two women reported to the Post took place decades ago, Rebecca Hersher made a complaint about Oreskes to NPR’s human resources department in 2015. Oreskes had invited employees to talk to him about their careers, David Folkenflik reports at NPR. Hersher was a 26-year-old assistant producer who wanted to get into reporting. She scheduled an afternoon meeting that “was pushed off into evening and an invitation to dinner at a seafood restaurant,” Folkenflik writes.

Hersher says Oreskes kept bringing up relationships and sex, calling one ex his first “sex girlfriend.” “Every little thing that he or I said pointed to the relative difference in power," she told Folkenflik. "Like he's the one with the power. He's the one who gets to decide what we talk about — and I am trying to keep up."

She made a report to the human resources department, which rebuked Oreskes and notified other executives. Hersher says she was satisfied with the response. Still, the experience affected her deeply. “It undercut my confidence in a way that was surprising to me," she said.

NPR knew of her allegation for two years, according to Folkenfilk. The organization learned about one of the older allegations in October 2016, Paul Farhi of the Washington Post reported on Wednesday. One of the women who says Oreskes kissed her in the 1990s came forward to report him after the release of the Access Hollywood tape on which Trump talks about grabbing women. Though NPR knew of at least two allegations for the past year, the organization appears to have done little or nothing to get rid of Oreskes until after allegations were published in the Post, Farhi reports.

Jarl Mohn, NPR’s chief executive, asked for Oreskes’ resignation on Wednesday, according to the Associated Press. “Some have asked me if it took published news reports for us to take action,” Mohn said in a statement on Wednesday. “The answer is that it did not. We have been acting. Some of the steps were visible and others weren’t.”

Meanwhile, more women are reporting inappropriate behavior by Oreskes, some of it recent. One woman says Oreskes repeatedly asked her to have dinner with him after she got in touch about a media appearance, according to Farhi. When she agreed to meet him for dinner, in February 2016, she says he asked her, “Do you daydream about sex?”

Rebecca Hersher is now a reporter and producer at NPR. But for many other women, having a powerful man — or a series of powerful men — feign an interest in their careers only to subject them to harassment or assault is enough to drive them out of their chosen fields. After her experience with Oreskes, Folkenflik writes, Hersher “suddenly questioned why a senior executive would care about her career.” And if you have enough reasons to question whether the men in power will ever be interested in helping you, you may stop trying to climb the career ladder entirely.

“A sexual harasser can do untold damage to woman’s self-esteem,” Marin Cogan warned in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, inspired in part by allegations against Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, where Cogan had her first job.

“In the days since the accusations against Mr. Wieseltier have gone public, I have been talking with former colleagues and replaying years of uncomfortable moments in my head, not just with him, but of everything from unwanted kisses to inappropriate comments and looks,” Cogan wrote. “I am thinking about how those situations might have shaped the decisions I made, and the way I viewed myself as a professional. I know I am not the only one.”

Oreskes has resigned from NPR, saying, “My behavior was wrong and inexcusable, and I accept full responsibility,” according to the Associated Press. But for the women who say he violated them, the damage is already done. No apology can make up for years spent living and working with the knowledge that when it mattered, you were seen not as a potential protégé, but as prey.

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