NPR chief faces employee fury over harassment scandal

Sexual Harassment-Oreskes
Michael Oreskes

WASHINGTON – NPR’s employees unleashed their fury at the organization’s top executive on Friday over his handling of a sexual harassment scandal that appears to have spread.

At a packed staff meeting at NPR’s headquarters in Washington, they criticized chief executive Jarl Mohn, who kept top editor Michael Oreskes on the job for months despite knowing about three harassment complaints against Oreskes.

Mohn forced Oreskes to resign this week after the Washington Post reported on the accusations that date back to the editor’s tenure at the New York Times in the late 1990s.

Since then, the scandal appears to have metastasized. Five women at NPR have filed formal harassment complaints against Oreskes, bringing the number who have accused him of misconduct to eight, according to Mohn and people familiar with the allegations. The new claims cover Oreskes’ tenure at NPR over the last three years.

Mohn has repeatedly admitted since the story broke on Tuesday that his response to earlier allegations about Oreskes was inadequate. During Friday’s meeting, he was on the defensive as employees took turns blistering him for moving too slowly to address what appears to have been a widely discussed problem within the organization’s newsroom.

“The number one purpose in being here is first to apologize to every single person in this room for what you had to go through,” he said, according to an audio recording made available to the Post. “I let you down. I should have acted sooner and more forcefully.”

Mohn, who hired Oreskes in 2015, said he and top executives had heard “rumors and gossip” about Oreskes over the years, but Mohn didn’t deem this sufficient to launch a full-scale investigation.

“Had we gotten solid information, we would have acted a lot sooner,” he said, seemingly placing the onus back on NPR’s employees.

He acknowledged that he forced Oreskes out on Tuesday after the Post’s report.

His comments seemed to elicit little sympathy from NPR’s employees. “I must say I have no confidence in you,” newscaster Korva Coleman told him. “My lack of confidence in you extends to your team.”

The statement was greeted with applause from the hundreds who attended.

Oreskes said in an emailed statement on Friday that he had engaged in “inappropriate behavior” in the past. He wrote, “I had worked hard to put those failings behind me. I had no intention to offend or harass anyone at NPR. I am deeply sorry for anything I said or did that failed to live up to that goal.”

One of the new accusations was made Tuesday by a young NPR reporter; it involves an inappropriate conversation Oreskes allegedly had with her last year, according to a person familiar with the complaint. While attempting to persuade the woman to reject an outside job offer, Oreskes purportedly invited her to his beach house, saying they could share bottles of wine there. She rejected the alleged offer and remained at NPR after she was promoted.

The woman filed a complaint about the conversation immediately after learning from the Post that two other women had told NPR that Oreskes had kissed them against their will and put his tongue in their mouths during business meetings in the late 1990s. At the time, Oreskes was the Washington bureau chief at the Times.

Another complaint was filed last week by an NPR producer who said Oreskes had inappropriately touched her during an encounter in the newsroom earlier this year. The woman came forward to NPR’s human resources department after Mohn issued a memo on Oct. 20 reiterating NPR’s harassment-reporting procedures. But Mohn said Friday he was unaware of this accusation when he sought Oreskes’ resignation.

Mohn suggested in an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered on Wednesday that Oreskes’ alleged misconduct in the late 1990s belonged in a lesser category compared with his record while at NPR.

“The important distinction here is first, [those] did not happen at NPR, it was not an NPR employee,” he said in the interview. “It was at the New York Times and it occurred 20 years ago. Had that happened at NPR we would have had a very different reaction to it.”

He added, “One of the things we wanted to do as a result of that is make sure that that did not happen here. And I will tell you up to this moment sitting here and talking with you. . . . I’m not aware of anything that he’s done or that happened that bears any resemblance to those issues that occurred 20 years ago while he was at the New York Times.”

Mohn has announced that NPR will hire a law firm with no previous ties to the organization to review how NPR handled the Oreskes matter, a step sometimes taken by companies and organizations to ensure that an internal investigation is impartial. Another media organization, Fox News Channel, hired the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison last year to investigate employee accusations of sexual harassment against the network’s co-founder, Roger Ailes, and others.

NPR’s management knew of three allegations before Tuesday, including two reported by the Post. A third accuser, producer Rebecca Hersher, told NPR in October 2015 that Oreskes had said inappropriate things to her during a dinner meeting. Mohn told All Things Considered on Wednesday that NPR investigated her complaint “and put [Oreskes] on notice that this could not occur” again without serious consequences.

Yet NPR took no action against Oreskes until this week – a fact that seemed to outrage NPR’s employees at the meeting on Friday.

Susan Stamberg, one of NPR’s founding journalists, called Friday’s meeting with Mohn “free, frank, and heartbreaking. … My heart was broken at what I heard.”

Stamberg said the harassment scandal has raised her concern about “the stability of this institution” and its reputation. “Like most news organizations in this political climate, [NPR is vulnerable] to outside pressures and disparagement,” she said. It’s “very important that steady, transparent steps are being taken in addressing this, so the outside world understands NPR is dealing honorably with its problems.”