Post reporter Williams apologizes for 'innappropriate' verbal conduct

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 2, 1991; 12:01 AM

Washington Post Magazine reporter Juan Williams said yesterday that the newspaper has disciplined him for what he called "wrong" and "inappropriate" verbal conduct toward women staffers and he apologized to his colleagues.

In an open letter to the newsroom, Williams said: "It pained me to learn during the investigation that I had offended some of you. I have said so repeatedly in the last few weeks, and repeat here: some of my verbal conduct was wrong, I now know that, and I extend my sincerest apology to those whom I offended. I have committed to Post management, and I commit to you -- and to myself -- to change my ways."

Williams's letter came several hours after about 50 female employees met with Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. and said they objected to The Post's refusal to say how the paper had resolved allegations of verbal sexual harassment against Williams. The newspaper's management has maintained that such personnel inquiries must remain confidential.

Downie said in a letter to the staff, which was posted in the newsroom with Williams's letter last evening, that "the complaints about Juan's verbal conduct with a number of women in the newsroom were thoroughly investigated. The complaints were found to be serious, and, as Juan acknowledges, he was disciplined for his conduct and intends to apologize to women he offended." Downie declined to answer questions about his statement.

The Post disclosed the internal inquiry involving Williams, 37, in an editor's note and news story Oct. 15.

The disclosure came five days after a Williams column on The Post's op-ed page in which he said that Anita Hill had "no credible evidence" for her allegations of sexual harassment by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, but that Hill was "prompted" to make her charges by Democratic Senate staffers. The Post's personnel inquiry had begun more than two weeks earlier, but the column angered many women in the newsroom, and several came forward to say that they had also had problems with Williams. Post editors say they decided to make a public statement after WRC-TV aired a report on the controversy.

Williams returned to the newsroom Monday after working away from the office for two weeks, and the controversy seemed to have died down. But emotions began running high again Wednesday when Williams was quoted in USA Today as saying the complaints stemmed from "my attempts at being friendly" and saying "Hi. How are you? . . . Hey, did you have a date? How was your weekend?" He also said The Post had "said basically, 'Come back to work. We're sorry this happened.' "

A letter to Downie signed by 116 newsroom employees yesterday said: "We feel Juan's unrefuted false statements to the national media continue to cause anguish and professional harm to the women involved. They have also left many people inside and outside The Post with the impression that either the complaints were not serious or were not taken seriously . . . . The Post has an obligation to set the record straight by refuting such comments."

In a letter to The Post, 11 female employees, including senior reporters and editors, dismissed the notion that "the women bringing the complaints were victims of some sort of mass hysteria perpetrated by an identification with Anita Hill." They said the recent complaints were made "before the world ever heard the name 'Anita Hill.' "

In his letter, Williams, a frequent television commentator, said that "there was no suggestion that I ever engaged in offensive physical contact, or that I attempted to abuse my position at The Post, or that I discussed pornographic materials, or called women employees at home, or the like." But, he wrote, "I do not mean to belittle the inappropriateness of the verbal conduct which I have acknowledged."

Williams expressed hope that his letter "will be seen as the first step toward restoring those relationships."

Seven women said in on-the-record interviews yesterday that Williams had repeatedly made hostile and sexually explicit comments to them, in some cases over a period of several years. All of them said they believed the comments were meant to embarrass them, not an attempt to date them, and most said that Williams persisted despite their protests.

Jo Ellen Murphy, art director of the Weekend section, said that "he was obsessed with my sex life and that's all he wanted to talk to me about . . . . I raised my voice at him and said, 'Just don't talk to me again.' "

After Williams made some "hostile remarks" in late September, Murphy said, a male co-worker reported it to an editor, which triggered the personnel inquiry.

Nancy McKeon, the magazine's features editor, said she told Williams that "you've got a little problem here" after she complained about a sexual remark he made to her. Karen Tanaka, an assistant photo editor, said Williams had been "nothing but nasty to me." Deborah Needleman, the magazine's photo editor, said that when she objected to Williams's "demeaning" comments, he said: "What's wrong with a little flirting?"

In the Oct. 15 editor's note, The Post said that Downie and other top news editors "mistakenly failed to inform" Editorial Page Editor Meg Greenfield about the inquiry before Williams's column on Thomas was published. Downie said he regretted that he did not read the column before publication.

Williams, who was told about the allegations after he wrote the column but before it was published, said at the time that his view of the Thomas nomination was "completely unconnected" to the Post inquiry. He also called the allegations "absolutely false."

Downie said in his letter yesterday that "we normally keep such newsroom disciplinary matters confidential," but that "maintaining confidentiality does not mean that the seriousness of the charges is being minimized or that discipline is not being applied when warranted."

© 1991 The Washington Post Company