© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

NPR's Sexual Harassment Scandal


There is a national conversation going on about sexual harassment. Scandals have touched many industries and toppled powerful people. So today on the program, we're going to explore what could be the beginning of a cultural shift. On October 5, The New York Times published an expose on a Hollywood giant's predatory behavior over decades. But Harvey Weinstein wasn't the first to be publicly accused. It's been only a little over a year since President Trump - then candidate Trump - faced a barrage of claims that he had groped women. In recent weeks, the president has continued to deny those allegations.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: All I can say is it's totally fake news. It's just fake. It's fake.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Other powerful men have lost their jobs or are being investigated in industries like the media, politics, entertainment and academia.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: MSNBC suspended one of its top contributors, Mark Halperin...


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: New this morning - Kevin Spacey dropped by his talent agency and his publicist because of a growing list of sexual assault and sexual harassment accusations since...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: NPR has a real problem here. Mike Oreskes was the head of news at the network for the past couple of years.


JARL MOHN, BYLINE: It was a terrible situation. I condemn his actions. They were unacceptable. They're deplorable.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That last voice was NPR's CEO, Jarl Mohn. Last week, former Senior Vice President of News Mike Oreskes stepped down after a series of allegations of sexual misconduct. So first, here's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Good morning, David.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So NPR CEO Jarl Mohn held a staff meeting on Friday to address the staff. I should say was there. But I'd ask you to go through what we learned there.

FOLKENFLIK: First thing is that he acknowledged what seemed evident to most watching from afar, which is that Mike Oreskes had been placed on leave Tuesday afternoon because of the article posted by The Washington Post detailing two accusations dating back from Oreskes's days at The New York Times nearly two decades ago. In addition, Jarl seemed to acknowledge that he, in some ways, hewed to a legal definition of what he could do and what he knew, as opposed to perhaps the human toll that sexual harassment, as has been alleged, could take on a newsroom and the kind of toxic environment that a lot of our colleagues had felt for many months and, in some cases, for more than a year.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you take us through what you know about what NPR knew and when? Because the story has changed over time.

FOLKENFLIK: I think it's important to note Mike first came to the network in the spring of 2015. Within six months, by October 2015, a colleague of ours, Rebecca Hersher, had formally reported to HR Mike for a dinner which went from supposedly being a moment to counsel her on her career instead to something that very much delved into questions about her personal life in ways that made her feel very uncomfortable. Then in late September 2015, after what's called a fly in, when a lot of reporters come in from all parts of the country, two veteran editors went to HR to say, hey, we don't have specifics here. But we know there's a newsroom in which a lot of people are very upset. In fact, one editor went so far as to say Mike has lost respect of the newsroom and the ability to lead it.

Then in October 2016 was the first of two accusations from a woman who cited Mike's behavior back at The New York Times. She said he kissed her against her will. And then again in October 2017 - that is just a couple of weeks ago but a year later - a second woman came in with a separate but almost identical story. And at that point, NPR started to take action anew, informed the board chairman and the vice chairman and started to look into things. But there it sat, as far as we know, until The Washington Post published its story.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've supplemented some of what we know. Give us a flavor of what you've learned.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, so since Oreskes's being put on leave and the next day being forced to resign, I believe an additional five women have come forward to NPR to say - to make complaints of sexual harassment. I've spoken to nine women. You know, these are subtler transgressions, perhaps, than that what we've heard from Harvey Weinstein, about Bill O'Reilly, Roger Ailes. It's not on that scale. And at the same time, it's a pattern. It's pernicious behavior. And time and time again, women told me he made them have to think about themselves in terms of their bodies, in terms of whether they - he somewhat, in ways, was attracted to them - even whether or not they were misjudging the circumstance and taking it too seriously rather than thinking about themselves as professional journalists. And I think that's one of the real harms done here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many questions about how NPR and, certainly, senior leadership has dealt with this situation. Where does this go from here? Do we know where the board stands on Jarl Mohn? They are ultimately the ones who can keep him in his job.

FOLKENFLIK: NPR's in the process of commissioning an outside law firm to do a review of what happened in went wrong. I think that may influence what happens in the time ahead. People are going to have to decide at the very top level, including the board, whether the mistakes that Jarl Mohn even admits making are significant enough to require new leadership now, or whether he deserves the chance to, in the tail end of his contract, to rebuild trust with the recognition that we've had a number of significant and unexpected leadership changes over the past 10 years. And those can prove very disruptive and can undercut the progress that's been made journalistically and also in terms of just reaching new audiences, which in Mohn's term, has been pretty impressive.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik from New York. David, thanks so much.

FOLKENFLIK: Thanks, guys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.