NPR's Head Of News Placed On Leave After Past Harassment Allegations Surface

Oct 31, 2017
Originally published on November 1, 2017 5:48 am

NPR has placed its senior vice president for news, Michael Oreskes, on leave after fielding accusations that he sexually harassed two women seeking career opportunities nearly two decades ago, when he worked at The New York Times.

The allegations from the two women were first reported by The Washington Post on Tuesday afternoon. They included similar accounts of unwanted and unexpected kisses during business meetings.

Meanwhile, a current NPR employee is going public with her account of filing a formal complaint with the network's human resources division in October 2015. Rebecca Hersher says she considers the incident less severe but nevertheless felt it crossed a line and made her uncomfortable. At the time a 26-year-old assistant producer on Weekend All Things Considered, she said Oreskes hijacked a career counseling session into a three-hour-long dinner that delved into deeply personal territory.

Oreskes did not respond to multiple efforts to reach him for comment. NPR executives say that they cannot address individual personnel matters but that they take concerns of sexual harassment or other inappropriate workplace behavior seriously.

According to The Washington Post, there were two separate complaints about Oreskes from his tenure as Washington bureau chief at The New York Times nearly 20 years ago. Both women tell similar stories: After meeting Oreskes and discussing their job prospects, they said he unexpectedly kissed them on the lips and stuck his tongue in their mouths. The Post did not disclose their names, stating they spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to damage future employment prospects. The women also shared their allegations with NPR management in mid-October.

After joining NPR in the spring of 2015, Oreskes encouraged staffers to reach out to him to discuss their careers during his visit to NPR West in Culver City, Calif. At the time Hersher had been working a series of temporary assignments for NPR, and she took him up on his offer during a subsequent visit to Washington. An afternoon meeting was pushed off into evening and an invitation to dinner at a seafood restaurant near Union Station.

Hersher, now a reporter and producer on NPR's science desk, says she wanted to tell him about her belief that she would need to leave NPR to transform from a producer to a reporter. Her dinner with Oreskes became increasingly uncomfortable as the conversation veered into personal matters involving relationships and sex. At one point, she says, he referred to a former flame as his first "sex girlfriend."

Hersher says the conversation made her uncomfortable.

"From my point of view, every little thing that he or I said pointed to the relative difference in power," she said. "Like he's the one with the power. He's the one who gets to decide what we talk about — and I am trying to keep up."

Hersher said he gave her what seemed like a nonromantic hug at the train station afterward, and that he did not otherwise touch her or suggest any physical involvement.

Still, Hersher said Tuesday, the entire evening felt as though it devalued her as a professional. She suddenly questioned why a senior executive would care about her career.

"I went to the train station, and I called my best friend; I cried on the phone to her," Hersher says. "I went home and then I cried to my boyfriend. It undercut my confidence in a way that was surprising to me."

Hersher reported the incident to NPR's human resources division. The network formally rebuked Oreskes and informed other top network executives. Hersher said she felt satisfied with the company's response and that she experienced no retribution.

Two colleagues at NPR confirmed that Hersher told them of the incident at the time. I did considerable reporting on the episode in spring 2016. At that time, Hersher was not willing to go on the record for a news story, and I was unable to confirm a pattern of behavior by Oreskes. The incident did not involve anything physical, and there was no force, retribution or request for a romantic involvement, and Hersher said she believed the network had held Oreskes appropriately accountable.

At the time, this reporter and editors of that story — who did not include Oreskes or anyone who reported directly to him — concluded that the incident on its own did not rise to the level of national news.

The new allegations concerning Oreskes' tenure at The Times changed the equation.

In a note to staff on Tuesday, NPR CEO Jarl Mohn encouraged employees to come forward if they have been harassed.

"We take these kinds of allegations very seriously," Mohn wrote. "If a concern is raised, we review the matter promptly. We take all appropriate steps to assure a safe, comfortable, and productive work environment for everyone at NPR. ... This is our NPR. And I will stand up for it, and every one of you."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

NPR News has placed its top news executive on leave tonight after allegations surfaced that he sexually harassed women when he was Washington bureau chief of The New York Times. Those allegations against senior vice president for news Michael Oreskes, stemming from nearly two decades ago, were first reported by The Washington Post. Two women say he kissed them forcefully without their consent.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports there was another, less-severe incident of sexual harassment alleged here at NPR. David joins us from our studios in New York. And David, first tell us more about the allegations as reported by The Post.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: So these allegations, as you say, stretch back nearly two decades, and they involve separate instances in which two women who are unnamed - have not been willing to be identified to date - say that Oreskes kind of kissed them as they were trying to discuss their job prospects with him at The New York Times. They were expecting it to be a job conversation. Instead, he unexpectedly veered in, kissed them on the lips and stuck his tongue down their mouths without consent. Jill Abramson, at that time the deputy Washington bureau chief for The Times who later rose to run the news room at the paper, confirmed that account of those two women to both The Post and to NPR.

KELLY: OK. How is NPR responding? There's an investigation underway.

FOLKENFLIK: NPR said it's looking into this. And executives have confirmed to me tonight that they've put Michael Oreskes on leave as a matter of taking this seriously. In addition, Jarl Mohn, the CEO, has put out a staff-wide memo saying he's got their back and that, you know, sexual harassment is not welcome here.

KELLY: And just to be clear about the timeline, these are alleged episodes that happened before Oreskes was at NPR. But the complaints being made by these two women have been filed with lawyers here at NPR.

FOLKENFLIK: Just in the last couple weeks.

KELLY: Have you reached out to Mike Oreskes for comment?

FOLKENFLIK: We have in a number of different ways over recent hours - have not heard back and look forward to trying to invite him to help make sense of this thing.

KELLY: You are also reporting tonight that there's been another complaint filed by a younger colleague here at NPR who has filed a formal complaint with HR against Oreskes. Can you tell us what she is alleging?

FOLKENFLIK: Yes. This dates back two years to an episode in October 2015. Rebecca Hersher - she's a producer on the science desk now, has had a number of long-term temporary assignments at the network. Hersher took Oreskes up on his offer when he visited out at NPR West one time to get career advice and guidance, to talk about what lay ahead for them. And she ultimately connected with him in Washington, D.C., at our headquarters. Mid-Afternoon appointment became an invitation for drinks and then dinner.

And during that dinner - she was 26 years old at the time - he asked her a lot of questions about her personal life, about her boyfriend. At one point he said, it's surprising to me that any boyfriend or man could keep up with you. At another point, he talked about a girlfriend being his first sex girlfriend. And there were a number of instances that she claims made her feel deeply uncomfortable. We have a cut of her talking this evening about it.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: From my point of view, every little thing that he or I said pointed to the relative difference in power. Like, he's the one with the power. He gets to decide what we talk about, and I am trying to keep up.

KELLY: And David, you mentioned these events are alleged to have happened two years ago. The ones reported by The Washington Post are reported to have happened two decades ago. Why are we learning of them now?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, corporations don't always announce the actions they take. I've been able to confirm that NPR did formally rebuke Oreskes for these actions, that HR took Hersher's complaint seriously. She said that she was satisfied with the network's response. In addition, what Hersher alleges and what NPR's HR department investigated is not the same severity as what is alleged to have occurred at The New York Times. There is no accusation of forcible or physical sexual harassment - yet sexual harassment nonetheless.

You know, I did reporting on this about a year and a half ago as I learned about it, and it didn't seem to me to rise in the severity as an isolated case in such a way that it rose to the level of a national story. Obviously we now have a different context. We have what is alleged anyway as a pattern of behavior by Oreskes. This very important for the public to know about as we try to be transparent about what happens here at NPR.

KELLY: OK. Thanks very much, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

KELLY: That is NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.