BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
The daily headlines about celebrity harassment share that odd quality of being horrifying and utterly unsurprising because, whether it's the Hollywood casting couch or the little manager's office in a saloon, men have extorted sexual favors from subordinates and supplicants since time immemorial -- or tried. The shock and revulsion comes only in the “who.” This week, the avalanche of revelation buried one of public radio's own. After a story in the Washington Post revealed ugly episodes going back 20 years, NPR's Senior Vice President for News Michael Oreskes acknowledged forcing himself on young women, and resigned. It’s shocking not just because he is a colleague but because some of his conduct was long known to both newsroom employees and NPR management, suggesting that the culture of impunity infected even our cathedral of political correctness.
NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik had the unenviable duty of covering the developing story. When he read Paul Farhi’s Washington Post scoop, which documented episodes of unsolicited tongue kisses 20 years ago when Oreskes was Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, it had a special resonance. A year and a half earlier, Folkenflik had chased down a formal complaint lodged against Oreskes by an NPR producer, which involved a boss-employee interaction that made her feel preyed upon.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Now, let’s be clear about the kind of allegation it was. There was no, as far as my reporting was able to discern, no inappropriate touching, no explicit invitation for some sort of romantic or physical involvement, no explicit talk of sex and no promise of promotion on the basis of engagement, no promise of retribution were it to be withheld. You know, there weren’t the things that you’d think of that make it rise to severe sexual harassment that perhaps merits national coverage. I got to say we did look around: Was there anything back then that I could show that there was some kind of pattern? I even talked to folks at The New York Times and the Associated Press. Perhaps if I had spent weeks digging, I could have found more but in the initial consultations I couldn't find a pattern. There was a complaint made but it wasn’t news.
Well, the allegations that Paul Farhi brought from these two unnamed women who gave accounts of Michael Oreskes physically pressing himself against them in unsolicited kisses, sticking his tongue in their mouths, suddenly the story that I had that didn’t seem to rise to newsworthiness took on a very urgent nature.
BOB GARFIELD: I think the most institutionally damning line in Farhi’s story was that NPR management knew about the old New York Times incidents because those women in the Post’s story had been in touch; they had contacted NPR to say, I want you to know who your senior VP for news is. When they got that information from these women, as far as you can tell, what did they do?
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: We had initially thought that they had informed NPR about this in, in mid-October and that that had led to more significant reviews, and NPR said that it had started to look into this stuff, and the fact that we didn't know all that had happened didn't mean that stuff wasn’t happening with seriousness behind the scenes. Okay, fair enough.
But through pressing on questions and through talking with corporate executives, we actually learned that the first of the two women making accusations about Mike Oreskes’ time back nearly two decades ago as the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, she made her report to NPR not in October of 2017, that is, a couple of weeks ago, but in October of 2016, that is, slightly more than a year ago. So as of that time, NPR was in possession of a second data point that his behavior towards women might contain objectionable tendencies. The New York Times woman then got in touch again this year. Apparently inspired by the coverage that NPR has done of the sexual harassment scandals besetting so many media companies, she calls to register what happened to her, by her account, because she's concerned that he might be involved in guiding that coverage. And I just want to be very clear. He certainly had no direct or even, to my knowledge, oversight or strong influence on anything I did. It may be he suggested certain kinds of stories.
BOB GARFIELD: But he didn’t try to put the brakes on coverage of other organizations’ sexual harassment scandals.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: No, in no way. This was driven by reporters and editors. Jarl Mohn, the CEO, sent out a memo in mid-October, call it the 20th of October, basically restating, in light of all these scandals that were playing out publicly, the company's commitment to an affirming workplace free from harassment and encouraged employees to report to them any concerns or instances that they had encountered or knew of in which people had behaved inappropriately. I assume newsrooms and corporations across the country have sent out memos like that, reminding people of policies and of the law.
What we didn’t know was that it was, in a sense, a plea for more specifics to be shared. And Jarl Mohn has said, we can’t act on rumor, we have to act on fact. And that would have been an opportunity for employees to come forward with their own stories or those that they knew of others who had encountered inappropriate behavior toward them.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, I want to ask you about that because, you know, I heard this news and was stunned, but women in the NPR newsroom, evidently, weren't especially stunned because Mike’s conduct was, I, I gather, a kind of open secret. So Jarl Mohn solicits reports from them. He didn't get them. Why do you suppose that is?
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Our colleagues, particularly our female colleagues, they didn't trust HR, they didn’t trust the corporation. They didn’t have full faith, I guess, in the legal department to address these issues to their satisfaction because they felt issues had been raised and flagged and that they hadn’t been addressed. They felt that this was known enough that the corporation should have dealt with it.
BOB GARFIELD: Other women materialized with their stories, including a number of your colleagues. How many have you spoken to now?
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: There are six women but two of those women never worked at NPR and they were essentially discouraged from applying to NPR as a result of his behavior towards them. One of them, he said, I close my eyes at night and fall asleep thinking of you. The other he essentially tried to invite himself up to her apartment. He essentially walked her home, asked what she was doing later on. It was already late at night. She said, I’m going up to sleep, and he said, you know, I’m free all night. I’ve also spoken to other women who don't work for NPR and have never thought to apply to NPR who say that he used social media as a way of cultivating them, encouraging them and then, when dining with them or, or meeting with them, turning the conversation to boyfriends and sex.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to get back to top management. In the intro, we heard Mary Louise Kelly holding Jarl Mohn’s feet to the fire about management response. The Post says that the newsroom is steaming and smells a cover-up going on? Do you have any reason to believe that there is or was a cover-up going on, and has Mohn put any suspicions to rest?
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: You said, I think, “steaming,” I would say “seething.” When Jarl went into the studio down at NPR headquarters in Washington, it's a glass-paneled studio in certain portions of it and there were, as I understand it, several dozen employees, mostly female, standing there watching the interview take place, and you don't see that too often. I work up in New York Bureau. I’m not down there very often, and so I can't say I physically took the temperature in person over the last day or two, but I’ve talked to a lot of folks and I think Jarl Mohn has not put the questions to rest about why there was this gap between the time at which they knew that at least three women had reported inappropriate harassing behavior by Oreskes and why it took until just a couple of hours after Paul Farhi posted his story for them to decide put Mike on leave and take a hard look at this.
BOB GARFIELD: Jarl, of course, is the boss of bosses but he, himself, has to answer to NPR's board. I’m not asking for your opinion. I’m curious whether your reporting suggests that he's in trouble with his board.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Here’s what I know in terms of timeline. I'm told that Jarl informed the chairman of the board and the vice chairman of the board about these concerns, all three of them, by mid-October of this year, when the second New York Times accuser came to the network and registered her complaint -- and by that point, you’ve got three women making specific allegations of different natures -- and that the full board was only informed on the afternoon of Halloween, which is when, of course, Paul Farhi first posted his story and I was proceeding with mine. So certainly, senior figures on the board knew pretty much in real time, once the second New York Times accusation rolled in. So those figures are, in some sense, along for the ride, but that doesn't mean the full board was. And I think we’re going to see whether there are fissures and tensions in the board, as there have been in the newsroom, about all this.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, David, thank you so much.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: You bet.
BOB GARFIELD: David Folkenflik is the media correspondent for National Public Radio.
In an all-staff memo late this week and in a subsequent town hall-style meeting, Mohn apologized to the NPR staff, quote, “I should have acted sooner and should have acted more forcefully.” He also stated NPR’s commitment to an independent investigation by an outside law firm.