Business of News

In quest to protect image, NPR tarnished it

February 22, 2018
Ted Eytan via Flickr.

Almost four months ago, National Public Radio forced the resignation of its top editor, Michael Oreskes, following a series of allegations that he had acted inappropriately with young women inside and outside the organization. Among the complaints: unwanted hugs and kisses, awkwardly boozy dinners with young job-seekers, and disproportionate interest in the career trajectory of women staffers.

To its credit, NPR has aggressively pursued the story since Paul Farhi broke it at The Washington Post on October 31, 2017. NPR media reporter, David Folkenflik, has reported diligently on the network’s hesitations and slowness in dealing with complaints that stretched back years. This week, NPR released a confidential investigation prepared by the Philadelphia-based law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. The firm’s probe took two months, and included interviews with 86 current and former NPR staffers, 71 of them women.

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The document is just nine pages, but it serves as a subtle yet unmistakable indictment of NPR management, as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. With depressing regularity, managers were told of Oreskes’ advances, or given evidence of inappropriate behavior. At almost every step, their pursuit was slowed by bureaucratic snafus, or a remarkable lack of curiosity, given how much power Oreskes wielded in his newsroom. Even in Oreskes’ final 24 hours, the board met to discuss the allegations but held off taking take action—until the Post story ran. Then, Oreskes couldn’t be out the door soon enough. (Oreskes also previously sat on CJR’s board.)

For anyone who has worked in a news organization hit with harassment allegations, NPR’s story is familiar: a litany of whispers, dilatory half-steps, and, ultimately, a corrective enforced only when the evidence became public and the pressure to act became overwhelming.

Oreskes came to NPR after a difficult period for the organization. In 2011, Vivian Schiller, its president and CEO, was forced to resign in the wake of a James O’Keefe sting that surfaced a colleague’s comments slamming conservatives. In 2014, NPR’s senior vice president for news, Margaret Low Smith, left after three years in that post, shortly after Jarl Mohn became CEO—the fifth person to hold that post in less than six years. The revolving door took a toll on NPR, an organization that is keenly aware of its image, given public radio’s dependence on personal and corporate donations as well as government support.

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Into that turmoil came Oreskes, a longtime New York Times reporter and editor who had most recently served as a senior managing editor at the Associated Press. He impressed the hiring committee, which named him their top choice. A search firm did a due-diligence check and found “overwhelmingly positive” feedback. Then, near the end of the process, someone on the hiring committee reported an incident from Oreskes’ past about how he had left unsolicited voicemails for a woman after a news conference, and how he had also reportedly stopped by the hotel room of another conference attendee late one night. It barely raised an eyebrow, and Oreskes was hired in March 2015.

It didn’t take long for ominous signs to surface. A few months after Oreskes took over, he invited a female employee to dinner, peppering the conversation with questions about her personal life. In the fall of 2015, a junior staff member who’d approached him for career advice wound up as Oreskes’ personal guest at a three-hour dinner, complete with a bottle of wine, sexual comments, and, to close the evening, an “uncomfortable” hug.

Oreskes was given the benefit of the doubt at every turn.

Often in newsrooms, such incidents go unreported, especially when they involve a senior manager and a junior employee.

Not this time. NPR’s human-resources department was told about the dinners in October 2015, which led its general counsel, Jon Hart, to confront Oreskes.

Despite the seriousness of the allegations, the result of the meeting was more akin to a third-grade teacher’s warning to a student who’d blown milk through his nose. Hart gave Oreskes “a stern talking to,” as investigators put it, and Oreskes “committed to Mr. Hart that it would not happen again.”

That pattern would recur for the next two years.

In 2016, NPR noticed that Oreskes’ expense account included multiple dinners with women, while the HR department found out (it isn’t explained how) that Oreskes had conducted “several email exchanges with young women and college students outside of NPR in which he attempted to arrange meetups to provide career advice or discuss other topics that seemed personal in nature.” Hart and Debbie Cowan, the CFO, met with Oreskes in August 2016—but only to warn him about his sloppy expense account. For reasons left unstated in the report, Cowan and Hart chose not to bring up the inappropriate emails.

As the report goes on, it gives the impression NPR officials were more worried about discretion than conduct. At an October 2016 meeting, Hart warned Oreskes that “issues … had re-emerged” and the lawyer added that because of “the fact that people were talking … Oreskes needed to be hypervigilant.” At no point, at least according to the report, did Oreskes’s bosses warn him to stop because he was endangering women’s careers or taking advantage of his position.

Oreskes was given the benefit of the doubt at every turn. At the same meeting, Hart asked if there are “any other issues that he needed to know about,” and once again “Oreskes stated that there were not.”

After this point, one might think that something would change: Either Oreskes would stop his misconduct, or NPR would take more direct action. One would be mistaken.

Last spring and summer, Hart and Loren Mayor, the chief operating officer, learned that Oreskes was still taking women out on NPR’s dime, and was continuing his personal email approaches to college-aged women. Once again he was told to knock it off, and once again he promised to do so. By last September, Hart and Mayor brought in Mohn to let him know about Oreskes’ entreaties to college students, and the CEO met directly with his top editor. Mohn, according to the report, warned Oreskes “about the appearance of impropriety.”

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Again, it’s as important to reflect on what isn’t said as what is. NPR’s CEO isn’t quoted as worrying that Oreskes’ conduct would demean women, or that it would take advantage of his tremendous influence over their careers. Instead, the chief concern seems to be this “appearance of impropriety”—that is, the reputational damage that NPR’s leaders, or their organization, could suffer were this to become public.

In mid-October—notably, just a few days after The New York Times published its blockbuster story on Harvey Weinstein—Mohn met again with Oreskes. The Post was, by now, starting to report on Oreskes’ misconduct. Mohn “counseled” Oreskes and asked if there were any new issues that NPR managers needed to know about. His top editor was as reassuring as ever: “Oreskes stated that there were not.”

By now, NPR executives knew they had a problem on their hands, and they sent employees a note inviting evidence of harassment. But even so, when one NPR employee reported to HR that Oreskes had groped her, her “report was not relayed to management until one to two weeks later.”

By October 31, with the Post ready to publish its story, Mohn called a morning board meeting to discuss Oreskes’ future. The board declined to take action. The Post story ran that afternoon. Mohn quickly suspended Oreskes, and by the next day, with one last allegation—an employee reported she had been invited to Oreskes’ beach house for a glass of wine—his NPR career was over.

The Morgan Lewis report offers a host of recommendations, including more thorough background checks for new employees, hiring an outside firm to investigate allegations of harassment, and regular reporting to the board of directors about complaints.

News organizations that pride themselves on holding the powerful to account need to apply those standards of scrutiny to their own hierarchies.

Since Oreskes left, NPR officials have been alternately contrite and introspective. To his credit, Mohn submitted to a withering interview by NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly on the day that Oreskes left. Near the end of the broadcast, Kelly asked Mohn why senior management had been so slow to act. The CEO responded, “We informally were asking questions. Clearly we didn’t do everything we could because it didn’t result in the right answer. But to suggest we were not doing anything or we were not acting appropriately is not—or that we were doing nothing is false.”

Similarly, NPR Board Chairman Paul Haaga told Folkenflik recently that the Oreskes disciplinary process had been like a game of “Whac-a-Mole… Remonstrations were effective in stopping one behavior but not in stopping all behaviors that should have stopped.”

Perhaps. But perhaps Mohn and Haaga are letting themselves off the hook too easily. As the report notes, NPR’s “attempts to curtail Mr. Oreskes’ conduct and attention to women were not successful.… He was not deterred.”

NPR is promising to do better. After the report came out this week, Mohn told his staff, “We are committed to a work environment where everyone feels safe and respected. … where every one of us is held to the same standards.”

News organizations that pride themselves on holding the powerful to account need to apply those standards of scrutiny to their own hierarchies. Oreskes’s bosses had multiple opportunities to learn about and correct for his misconduct. NPR sullied its reputation in its very attempts to protect it.

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Bill Grueskin is on the faculty at Columbia Journalism School. He has previously worked as founding editor of a newspaper on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, city editor of the Miami Herald, deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, and an executive editor at Bloomberg News. He is a graduate of Stanford University (Classics) and Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies (US Foreign Policy and International Economics).