NPR reporter grills boss over sexual harassment allegations

The collision of a radio network’s management and a radio network’s newsroom was heard nationwide on Wednesday when NPR CEO Jarl Mohn was grilled by one of his network’s reporters — Mary Louise Kelly — on why NPR fired its head of news only after the Washington Post blew the whistle on Michael Oreskes’ behavior 20 years ago at the New York Times, when he accosted two women in separate incidents.

It was an unusual, and likely uncomfortable, few minutes as Kelly interrogated her boss. It was unusual for the CEO of an organization to be willing to be grilled so publicly.

Mohn answered the main question that’s circulated since the Washington Post, and then NPR’s media correspondent, David Folkenflik, revealed Oreskes’ behavior towards women at the Times: What difference does it make to NPR that an employee behaved inappropriately while working for another organization?

The short answer was that it didn’t matter.

“The important distinction is, first, that did not happen at NPR,” Mohn said. “Had that happened at NPR, we’d have had a different reaction to it. We wanted to make sure that did not happen here. I’m not aware of anything that bears any resemblance to issues that occurred at the New York Times.”

Mohn acknowledged that a female staffer at NPR complained about an uncomfortable conversation between her and Oreskes not long after he was hired by NPR.

“That was an internal situation that happened here,” he told Kelly. “It was a terrible situation. We confronted him about it and put him on notice that this could not occur.”

It was a year later that Mohn says he learned of one of the incidents at the Times.

“If that is the sequence, and you knew of the multiple allegations, did it cross your mind that leaving him in would put other colleagues at risk?” Kelly asked.

“My understanding is that (NPR) employee felt we satisfactorily addressed the issue…” he responded.

“But that issue you knew about when the second allegation came in,” Kelly interjected.

“When the second woman’s story (at the New York Times) surfaced, there had been rumors circulating around the building here about his behavior. We can’t act on that. We have to act on facts,” he said.

Mohn said it was only via Folkenflik’s reporting on Tuesday evening that he learned that five other women have come forward with stories against Oreskes.

An astute listener could see where Kelly was heading. She was about to ask why it took the Washington Post story on Tuesday to propel NPR to fire Oreskes, when it knew about at least one of the allegations a year ago?

But instead, Kelly veered into a more internal direction for a newsroom concern.

“We’re a news organization, why are we getting scooped by the Washington Post?” she asked, following up with why she had to learn Mohn had fired Oreskes from an Associated Press tweet?

It was a momentary diversion before she returned to the more important question.

“You can’t act on rumors and gossip,” she said to Mohn. “But weren’t you concerned about creating a toxic environment [for women]? Should that not prompt action?”

“Informally we were asking questions,” he said. “Clearly we didn’t do everything we could. But to suggest we were not acting appropriately, or doing nothing, is false.”

In a quick prosecuting-attorney style, Kelly turned to a revelation: That there are more employees at NPR with stories to tell about Oreskes.

“On the range of Harvey Weinstein on one extreme and the other internal [NPR] issue that the complaint you referred to earlier, [the new complaint] was clearly in that range [of uncomfortable conversation].”

There are, of course, unresolved questions. Would NPR have fired Oreskes if another NPR staffer hadn’t stepped forward since the Washington Post story came out? And would NPR have fired Oreskes if the Washington Post story had not come out? And, finally, if the Washington Post was able to find two women with a story to tell about the character of NPR’s top news manager, why didn’t NPR?

  • eat_swim_read

    Most news orgs – and movie studios etc. – do not enjoy tax-free status, nor cash taxpayer-funded checks for millions of dollars.
    Catching NPR trying to hide its $250k/yr. news honcho’s abuse is alarming.
    Women should stop sending in donations, now. And contact NPR sponsors, listed in the about section of the NPR web site.
    Slam those wallets shut, ladies. Let Jarl spin it – walk away.

    • NPR is not listener supported. Stations are and pay for NPR programming.

      People support NPR because, unlike, say, Fox, it has real journalists working for it,cquestionig management willing to be questioned.

      • eat_swim_read

        Read it again. The tax-free status is the big plum, which you did not mention.
        Taxpayer support is *there* – in the no-tax perk.
        Read up on IRS nonprofit status and scan some NPR IRS 990s. It will help educate you.
        If NPR paid taxes it would go under tomorrow. No more half million annual salary for foot-dragger Jarl. Who *enabled* Oreskes. Women knew about him: Wash Post says NPR women discussed him for years. “Open secret.” {See link below.}
        I said nothing about “listeners” – I said taxpayers. Try to follow. Some foreigners, kids and teens, and those who do not make enough to pay income tax listen to NPR. They are listeners. Taxpayers – all of whom are not listeners or web site readers, are a different group.

        Your rote Fox bash is irrelevant. Not idea what it means in this context. It pays taxes, as does ABC, NYT, Disney etc.
        NPR does not. Maybe that should change.
        Glad women are mobilizing to urge corporate sponsors – and individual women – to stop donating/underwriting NPR. Pink hats hard at work – plenty of better places we can give money. Let’s see how smug the male chief and lawyer are a year from now as tax-free revenue falls.
        Paul Farhi has the updated scoop below:

        • Ickster

          I’m utterly confused as to what NPR’s non-profit status has to do with the subject at hand.

          • It’s the old right wing anti-NPR talking points clumsily disguised as a concern for women in the workplace.

        • So really you’re mostly interested in having a anti-NPR jag and stopping in to lecture someone in public radio how the public broadcasting structure works in the U.S.

          How swell for all of us.

          • eat_swim_read

            The tax-free nonprofit Red Cross was criticized when the Haiti and also Sandy financial scandal emerged.
            The funding muffs there led to a Congressional inquiry, and the story was one of propublica’s biggest scoops.
            There is a reason for this. A significant issue arose, and outsiders identified it.
            Orgs with invaluable nonprofit status should be scrutinized. They get better when this is accomplished – Red Cross, NPR, etc.
            The suggestion that CNN’s Stelter reports on – for an external probe by independent parties – is a excellent idea.
            We need the facts. No lectures, just facts.

          • Lindsey

            Because Red Cross was managing funds poorly. Are you saying that NPR is doing that here somehow?

          • eat_swim_read

            ….No – emphatically not saying that.
            Red Cross, Catholic church, some universities – yes.
            Not NPR.
            The probe, now 8 women deep, of the sex harassment at NPR is not financial as far as we know. Red Cross ‘hand in cookie jar’ different.
            But accountabilty for nonprofits is the same.
            ‘Scuse spelling, on a train.


      • eat_swim_read

        Another top media reporter offers the real story about NPR’s harassment scandal, and the men who enabled it.
        Must reading for any donor –

    • Again, people Don’t send donations to NPR. So they can’t stop. Please educate yourself on how the public broadcasting system is structured, and, more important, why, and it might make your campaign to shut it down more effective.

      • eat_swim_read

        Again, the tax-free *status* is a gift when granted, relieving the grantee of a potentially large tax bill.
        Uncle Sam typically has his hand out….unless you are a nonprofit.
        It’s a core concept of the tax code.
        I never said shut NPR – I said with a tax bill added on its revenue (as commercial networks face) it would shut.
        Ditto for the Red Cross, and also tiny nonprofits. All nonprofits safeguard their status, no matter where they glean the revenue, or how much it is. Many would crumble if forced to pay federal tax.
        I hope an outside probe will bring NPR management’s actions to light, as CNN is reporting many NPR women want.
        Once the facts are out, unvarnished, the tax status can be evaluated. In due time –

        • >>Once the facts are out, unvarnished, the tax status can be evaluated. In due time<<

          Using this logic, you would also be in favor of removing non-profit status for all churches as well, is that correct?

          • eat_swim_read

            Onan – yes, if necessary.
            As was discussed for years re: abusive, felonious priests.
            Not “all churches” but…none are above the law.
            It’s not just logic, it is nonprofit law. Lots about this on the IRS site, for a little light reading….

        • Lindsey

          Why should they have to pay taxes for this? How does sexual harassment/assault = revocation of non-profit status? Does sexual harassment mean that the business side of NPR has suddenly changed?

      • eat_swim_read

        Here’s a link to how “individuals” can donate directly to NPR. See header and scan down for more info. Says major gifts but also says all gifts welcome regardless of size.
        Happy to correct you – again.

        • That’s true for at org. Not a funding mechanism for NPR. But, hey, I bow to your expertise more than my 25 years in the public broadcast business because you’ve got Google and an internet connection.

    • Rob

      The fact that you called women “ladies” tells us all we need to know about your real sympathies.

      • eat_swim_read

        Thanks, much appreciated.

  • MrE85

    I’ve observed that when a news organization is part of the story, and that story has negative implications, they do a very bad job of covering it, if they cover it at all. NPR is no exception to the rule, but the public interview of the CEO is unusual.

  • Mike Worcester

    Listened to the interview on my drive home and found myself saying out loud more than once, “you get him Mary Louise”. She did a fantastic job. Here’s to hoping this interview is used im journalism classes as an example of how to conduct a interview. Fluff it was not.

  • Barton

    It was a very interesting listen AND a bit uncomfortable to listen to as well. ML Kelly did a great job. I did enjoy her asking why NPR was scooped – and I loved Mohn’s response (we were in a mtg deciding on the proper way to report it when the AP report came out, meaning – we assume – that Oreskes informed the AP): I’ll assume the next termination agreement of a high level employee (“resignation agreement”) will include some words requiring NPR to control the release of information.

    That said, Mohn sounding slightly confused about why NPR didn’t get anyone reporting any relevant activity by Oreskes was disappointing. Yes, they provided (as he said) 7 different methods of contact a person could use to report it, but it’s like he hasn’t been paying attention regarding WHY people don’t report such activities against those who have power over their careers.

    • And that’s really the significant point and thank you for pointing it out. Nobody came forward when invited to do so. But they approached Folkenflik, a newsroom colleague. And Mohn learned about it from Folkenflik. The extent to which institutional intimidation exists isn’t well appreciated.

      Keep in mind that the people who didn’t step forward didn’t KNOW about the previous complaint against Oreskes (for which he wasn’t fired) and had no indication that after they stepped forward, Oreskes would continue to be anybody other than their boss.

      I suspect this is going to get kicked to the union* — SAG/AFTRA — and there’ll be some sort of initiative to change the culture.

      (*disclaimer: same union that reps the MPR newsroom)

  • MCH

    I thought MLK interview was excellent, she is one of my favorite hosts these days. Like others I have my stories from my work life that allow me to post “me too”. I too did not report this to my employer at the time fearing some level of nonbelief. However, I have also been on the employer side of these and other employee issues. Without concrete, first hand evidence employer’s hands are tied. You cannot act on rumors or hearsay. You also cannot disclose any details of any actions you are taking to anyone not directly involved in the investigation. This can be extremely frustrating for everyone involved. When the second employee came forward, NPR now had a pattern vs a one-time event and could take the actions they did. I know there are some bad eggs out there, but the majority of employers I know are concerned about any level of harassment, sexual or otherwise in their workforce. And even most of the bad eggs understand that if they don’t have a moral stance, the threat of a lawsuit hangs heavy. My hope is that with the recent revelations the veil of secrecy has been lifted at least a little. It was this secrecy that allowed the behavior to continue and move from job site to job site with no disclosure or consequence. I hope my adult daughter and her peers will feel they can report these acts without fear of retaliation and not be met with disbelief. This is the only way this will end.

  • eat_swim_read

    Paul Farhi, who broke this story for the Washington Post, continues to lead the way with excellent reporting.
    If the Post paywall blocks you, try Brian Stelter’s work on the (free) CNN site.
    Both have more details than NPR’s reporting:

    • Wow. Korva was bringing it.

      I don’t see Mohn surviving