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How NPR became a public case study of workplace sexual harassment

Complaints against the network’s former editorial director have prompted a reckoning — and the public has the opportunity to watch.

Activists at the Take Back The Workplace March and #MeToo Survivors March & Rally in Hollywood, California
Activists participate in the Take Back the Workplace March and #MeToo survivors march and rally on November 12, 2017, in Hollywood, California.
Sarah Morris/Contributor/Getty Images

When Mary Louise Kelly, a national security correspondent for NPR, interviewed her boss on the air about sexual harassment in their own newsroom, she didn’t pull her punches.

“If you knew of these multiple allegations,” she asked Jarl Mohn, the CEO of NPR, on Nov. 1, “did it cross your mind that leaving Mike in his job might put other women, might put our colleagues, at risk?”

She was talking about allegations of sexual harassment by Michael Oreskes, the network’s editorial director and senior vice president of news who’d just resigned after the allegations became public in the Washington Post. Detailed stories on the subject soon appeared on NPR, CNN, and elsewhere. New complaints became public in mid-November, and the network’s chief news editor has left the company.

Ever since the initial Washington Post story on October 31, in which two women said that Oreskes had harassed them while he worked at the New York Times in the 1990s, at least five women have come forward with reports of inappropriate behavior they say occurred relatively recently, while Oreskes was at NPR.

Another woman described to Vox an encounter similar to other accounts of Oreskes’s behavior toward young female colleagues. She was one of several journalists at NPR and outside the organization who spoke to us about the Oreskes allegations and how NPR has handled them. Some asked to remain anonymous out of concern for their careers or to avoid disrupting efforts to improve the environment at NPR.

Reports of workplace harassment have poured out in the weeks since women began speaking publicly about Harvey Weinstein. And several media companies — including Vox Media, ABC News, Vice, and the New Republic — have had to face long-withheld complaints by current and former employees. But employers’ responses to those reports are often hidden from the public.

Not so at NPR, where listeners and readers have watched in real time as a news organization with more than 800 employees has struggled to keep the trust of its staff. It’s a unique opportunity to understand how an organization reckons with its mistakes and, employees hope, learns to remedy them.

Oreskes’s behavior toward women made several doubt their chances for career advancement

One of the women who came forward in October about Oreskes — Rebecca Hersher, a reporter and producer at NPR — told NPR’s media correspondent David Folkenflik that she filed a complaint with the network in October 2015 after Oreskes invited her to dinner and tried to engage her in conversation about sex and relationships, including calling an ex his “sex girlfriend.”

Vox reached out to several journalists at NPR and outside to learn more about women’s experiences with Oreskes and the climate at the network.

A female journalist who connected with Oreskes for career advice but does not work at NPR told Vox a similar story to Hersher’s. The woman said she reached out to Oreskes after meeting him in 2016, hoping to discuss her career over coffee or lunch. Instead, he invited her to dinner. She was uncomfortable with it but agreed — “I don’t want to hurt my career by not taking a dinner that he requests,” she said.

At dinner, it became clear that Oreskes did not want to talk about work. He asked personal questions and made her feel pressured to extend the dinner and drink with him, she said. She talked about her boyfriend and tried to steer the conversation back to work topics. “I’m doing everything to try and keep it appropriate,” she said. “The onus is on me, the burden is on me.”

She said she left feeling “deflated,” her confidence damaged. “I went into a dinner with a media executive thinking that it had to do with my merit, and I left doubting my own merit,” she said. The episode also affected her perspective on any future opportunities at NPR: “A place I was interested in working at in the future was basically closed off to me as long as he was there.”

Another woman, this one a midlevel female NPR employee, told Vox a colleague had warned her in November 2015 never to be alone with Oreskes, less than a year after he was hired. “The whisper network had already started,” she said. “He never had a good reputation.”

Concerns about Oreskes closed off a potential avenue of career advancement for her, she said. “Being able to go to the senior VP of news and talk about your career path is an amazing opportunity,” the midlevel woman said. “It probably wouldn’t happen at a lot of organizations, but it was an option at ours — unless you were a woman and you had heard through this whisper network that you should never be alone with him.”

Michael Oreskes at the 2010 Blouin Creative Leadership Summit
Michael Oreskes at the 2010 Blouin Creative Leadership Summit.
Thos Robinson/Stringer/Getty Images

Jarl Mohn was notified of Hersher’s 2015 complaint against Oreskes, and he acknowledged in an email to NPR staff last week that a “second similar complaint” was filed at “around the same time.” Around October 2016, Mohn learned of a complaint by a woman who said Oreskes had harassed her while at the Times in the 1990s, according to the Washington Post. Still, Mohn did not ask for Oreskes’s resignation until after allegations against him were made public in the Post.

Some at NPR believe Mohn acted too slowly — the midlevel female employee said it seems like the reports “weren’t taken very seriously.” Mohn has apologized to NPR staff for failing to spot Oreskes’s “pattern of poor judgment and unacceptable behavior.”

But a senior NPR employee told Vox it should be no surprise that the network’s investigation into Oreskes took a while, especially since some of the allegations against him were decades old. “If the UVA story taught us anything, it’s that you’ve got to be careful,” the employee said, referring to a Rolling Stone article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia that was retracted in 2015.

NPR created an environment in which some women felt more comfortable talking to reporters than making official complaints about harassment

What no one disputes, however, is that the internal mechanisms for reporting harassment at NPR did not work well in the case of Oreskes.

NPR employees can make harassment complaints to an HR representative, their supervisor, any lawyer in the legal department, or their site leader if they are based outside NPR headquarters in Washington, DC, according to Isabel Lara, the network’s director of media relations. These procedures haven’t changed since 2015. The network also has a hotline that allows employees to report misconduct to an outside company, which will forward reports to NPR but keep the employees anonymous if they choose.

But “let’s say your manager is the one who’s doing the harassing,” said the midlevel NPR employee. “It just doesn’t seem like those are great options.”

When Mohn asked staff on October 20 to report any inappropriate behavior, no one came forward with concrete reports, according to Folkenflik. But several NPR employees and other journalists told Folkenflik about their experiences with Oreskes, on the condition that he not publish their names. Some of them have since chosen to report their experiences to NPR. These women had something to say, but at least until recently they did not want to use NPR’s official channels to say it.

Oreskes may have been part of a bigger problem

Some current and former NPR employees are concerned that the revelations about Oreskes point to bigger problems at NPR that the organization has been reluctant to face, at least until recently.

“Are we just investigating Mike, or are we investigating sexual harassment more broadly at NPR?” asked the midlevel NPR employee. “Because that’s obviously a problem as well. It’s not just one bad apple.” She said that as an intern, she was harassed by an NPR staff member (long before Oreskes came to NPR) who has since left the network. Since she hoped to get a job at NPR, she never reported the harassment.

New complaints made public in mid-November implicated several men at NPR beyond Oreskes. David Sweeney, the network’s chief news editor, was placed on administrative leave following reports that he made romantic or sexual advances on three female journalists, Folkenflik and Merrit Kennedy reported at NPR. One of the women, editor Lauren Hodges, also says two other men behaved inappropriately toward her. Roger LaMay, the chairman of NPR’s board, was also the subject of a complaint, according to Folkenflik and Kennedy, and announced he would step down at the end of his term. On Tuesday, Kennedy and Folkenflik reported that Sweeney had left the network.

The feeling that harassment complaints weren’t taken seriously could make female employees feel like second-class citizens at NPR, the midlevel employee said. “If you have these concerns about your safety, what does that mean for concerns about whether or not you’re being promoted?”

The concern “that Mike's behavior may have prevented female members of staff from asking for deserved pay raises and promotions” also came up at a recent all-staff meeting, Lara, the NPR media relations director, said.

Jarl Mohn in 2003.
Jarl Mohn in 2003.
Amanda Edwards/Stringer/Getty Images

For some, reports about Oreskes have raised big questions about whom NPR deems worthy of protection. At NPR, “I remember feeling like I found a home — a family,” tweeted Kainaz Amaria, a former supervising editor at NPR and now the visuals editor at Vox. Much of the language used at NPR supported that idea, she said — for instance, a group of senior female journalists are sometimes called the network’s “founding mothers.”

But “that starts to mess with you psychologically,” Amaria wrote, “when you realize it's not you that it wants to save from leaving ... it’s not your young talented cohorts that it wants to hold close.” Instead, “the institution saved Mike.”

“Beyond Mike,” she added, “there is a lack of will to listen to and cultivate young leaders.” The midlevel NPR employee raised a similar criticism, saying that NPR management sometimes brushed off concerns about women’s advancement at the company by pointing to the network’s many female executive producers. “We have a handful of women who do hold pretty high positions,” she said, “but what does that look like in terms of the promotions you’re handing out generally across the newsroom? Who’s getting the reporting jobs?”

Stopping sexual harassment starts with making reporting it safe

Long a subject of whisper and rumor, the issue of sexual harassment at NPR is now out in the open. According to Lara, the network is committed to making sure employees are safe and improving its culture overall.

But how do you fix something that some employees feel cuts to the very heart of the organization?

The first step for employers like NPR dealing with sexual harassment should be examining their reporting system, said Debbie Dougherty, a professor of communication at the University of Missouri who has studied sexual harassment policies. “Too often you’re reporting exactly to the people who are most likely to support the perpetrator,” she said.

To avoid this and other problems, reports should be reviewed by multiple people who don’t work together, she said. That might mean someone from HR, a supervisor, and another person who’s not connected to either of those people. Having multiple unconnected people review each report can prevent groupthink and “the knee-jerk victim-blaming response” that takes hold in many workplaces, she said.

Employers can also borrow from bystander intervention programs developed to fight sexual assault, encouraging employees to report harassment they witness even if it didn’t happen to them, Dougherty said. They can also consider allowing employees to file unofficial reports that enter a tracking system and only lead to more serious investigation if the same perpetrator is reported again. Some university sexual assault reporting mechanisms, like the online system Callisto, include an option like this.

Organizations dealing with sexual harassment may also want to change their written harassment policies, Dougherty said. In her research at one government organization, she found that employees tended to view the sexual harassment policy as a way for irrational women to target blameless men: “The employees shifted the meaning of the policy such that female targets of sexual harassment were framed as the perpetrators and male perpetrators were framed as innocent victims,” she wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

To mitigate this problem, Dougherty suggests rewriting policies with words like “predator” and statements like “sexual harassment is a form of predatory sexual behavior in which a person targets other employees” — emotionally charged language like this, she writes, can help override employees’ biases about who reports sexual harassment.

When harassment is an ingrained cultural problem at an organization, though, new policies alone won’t be enough, Dougherty said. “The biggest part is changing the way that people habitually talk and interact in the organization.” That requires a series of formal and informal conversations about the organization’s values. “For many organizations, the word ‘family’ is a really important cultural trope,” she said. “You often hear people saying, ‘we’re a family around here.’” A culture-changing conversation could involve asking questions like, “What kind of family? Family for whom?”

NPR employees have their own suggestions for improving harassment reporting at the network, from creating a new system for anonymous reporting to building a team of relatively junior managers who work closely with rank-and-file employees and can spot problems before senior management does. NPR is forming a group of peer counselors who are trained to help others navigate the reporting process, Lara said. “These individuals will be required to report issues of harassment to HR and the legal department as well, but can be a preliminary place to discuss uncomfortable situations and an avenue for HR to learn about situations that deserve further attention,” she added.

The network has also hired an outside law firm to investigate Oreskes’s conduct and how NPR handled it, Lara said. The firm will make a report to NPR’s board of directors, and the network will share a summary with the full staff. Asked whether the network was investigating complaints against any other employees beyond Oreskes, Lara declined to comment, citing concerns about employee confidentiality. “If a concern is raised, we review the matter promptly and take appropriate steps, but we do not comment about specific complaints or personnel matters,” she said. “Nor do we confirm whether a complaint has been filed.”

NPR also plans to strengthen sexual harassment training, beginning with senior management. Of women’s questions about pay and career advancement, Lara said, “We take these concerns very seriously and will continue to assess the compensation situation.”

Some employees, like Nina Totenberg, a legal affairs correspondent and prominent voice on the network who has been at NPR since 1975, see signs of positive change. “Everybody recognizes that things could’ve been done better, and they are trying now to do them better,” Totenberg said.

But concerns about NPR’s approach remain. Hiring an outside firm is a good step, the midlevel employee said, but the firm’s full findings should be shared with all employees. “I need to see the full recommendations,” she said. “I feel that that’s owed to me because so much of this process has been kept in the dark.”

A number of employees have been critical of Mohn’s handling of harassment reports, and at least one has called for him to resign, according to Brian Stelter at CNN. Mohn announced last Tuesday that he would be taking medical leave for at least a month due to hypertension.

Totenberg believes Mohn has managed NPR well overall, and that losing him would harm the network. “NPR is a very important institution,” she said. “I don’t want to see it destroyed. As a country, we would pay for that.”

Citing Fox News, where Bill O’Reilly was given a multimillion-dollar contract even though the network knew about sexual harassment allegations against him, Totenberg said no other organization had handled the issue as transparently as NPR had, or given as much consideration to employees’ views.

It’s true that, thanks in no small part to the work of NPR’s journalists, the organization’s struggles with sexual harassment have been more public than most. The network’s efforts to improve will almost certainly be highly public too. That will probably lead to difficulties for senior management and more distraction for newsroom employees. But if it succeeds, NPR can provide an example for other workplaces around the country that, in the wake of reports about Harvey Weinstein and others, are just now beginning to wake up to the realities of sexual harassment and assault. And in the process, NPR’s employees — and its listeners — are sure to hold the network accountable.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the first name of the chief news editor at NPR who has been placed on administrative leave. His name is David Sweeney.

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