Charlotte Behrendt will be having some long conversations in the coming weeks. She’s the senior manager for employee relations in the newsroom of the New York Times. In that capacity, she’s heading up the investigation into the alleged sexual misconduct of New York Times White House reporter Glenn Thrush, who was the subject of a first-person investigative story by Vox.com’s Laura McGann.
Under the headline “Exclusive: NYT White House correspondent Glenn Thrush’s history of bad judgment around young women journalists,” McGann describes an incident that occurred five years ago at a bar near Politico, where they both worked at the time. As McGann tells it, Thrush “caught me off guard, put his hand on my thigh, and suddenly started kissing me. Thrush says that he recalls the incident differently.”
To round out her case, McGann included the experiences of three other women — experiences that, McGann writes, demonstrate a pattern. “All of the women were in their 20s at the time. They were relatively early in their careers compared to Thrush, who was the kind of seasoned journalist who would be good to know. At an event with alcohol, he made advances,” McGann writes. “Afterward, they (as I did) thought it best to stay on good terms with Thrush, whatever their feelings.”
Recent weeks have established the fatal role of journalism vis-a-vis the careers of sexual harassers. The New York Times and the New Yorker report on the sordid behavior of Harvey Weinstein; he loses his portfolio. The Post reveals the predatory work of Charlie Rose; he is fired from his job at CBS News and loses his partners for “Charlie Rose.” CNN exposes the long-ago outrages of then-ABC News’s Mark Halperin; his journalistic sponsors abandon him. The Post documents long-ago offenses of top NPR editorial official Michael Oreskes; he’s done. Variety and the New York Times mount weeks-long investigations of “Today” show co-host Matt Lauer; he progresses from morning-show baron of bonhomie to workplace monster, without a $25 million job.
After the Vox.com story, however, Thrush has progressed to limbo. The New York Times suspended the White House correspondent pending its investigation into the claims raised in the Vox.com report. In a conference call with Washington bureau staffers last month, Executive Editor Dean Baquet said that the results of the investigation wouldn’t likely be shared with the public, considering that it’s a personnel matter. Baquet also expressed concerns about Thrush himself but emphasized that there are standards of professional behavior that need to be addressed.
The investigation is a tricky undertaking for the New York Times. At the center of the Vox.com piece is the encounter with McGann herself. In a statement, Thrush contested McGann’s telling: “The encounter was consensual, brief and ended by me,” he said. “She was an editor above me at the time and I did not disparage her to colleagues at Politico as she claims.” In her story, McGann says she told officials at Politico about the incident: “There was no conventional HR office at Politico at the time (a VP of human resources position was created there in 2016). So I brought my concern about the night to an experienced colleague right after the incident. When I believed rumors were damaging my standing in the office a few months later, I told a very senior editor. I was under the impression that nothing could be done.”
Perhaps because she was writing a first-person piece, McGann doesn’t identify by name any friends or family members with whom she shared her account at the time of the incident five years ago — a common ingredient in sexual-harassment stories. Lauren Williams, editor in chief of Vox.com, tells the Erik Wemple Blog via email, “Laura’s piece was rigorously reported and fully vetted by Vox editors and attorneys. We stand by her reporting and writing, as well as her telling of her experience with Thrush and its aftermath. Her account in the piece is the same one she shared with several people at the time of the incident and in the years that followed — over email, on the phone, and in person.”
Will she share that information with the New York Times? Media outlets commonly stiff-arm sleuths — cops, inspectors general, corporations, lawyers, what have you — seeking sources, notes or other dirt associated with an investigative story. Reporters, after all, are hired to serve readers, not some other organization’s imperatives. Vox’s Williams did not respond to a question from the Erik Wemple Blog regarding McGann’s availability. McGann told this blog that she wouldn’t be doing any “media” regarding her piece.
Accordingly, the New York Times’s Behrendt may face some obstacles in her pursuit of facts regarding Thrush’s history — a possibly uncooperative McGann, plus three other anonymous women in her story. Those accounts move along a continuum of creepy. One woman tells McGann that in the winter of 2012-13, she attended a Politico function with Thrush and ended up at her apartment. Partially disrobed and in an “alcohol blur,” she pointed out that Thrush was “married.” He took off. Though the proceedings were consensual, she felt “very rattled” by the experience, as a friend of hers told McGann.
Also: In 2013, another woman recalled Thrush planting a “wet kiss” on her. And just this past June, Thrush, then with the New York Times, attended another Politico party and left with a 23-year-old woman. He led her across the Key Bridge from Rosslyn toward Georgetown, then onto the tenebrous C&O Canal. “He kissed her, she says, and she panicked,” McGann writes. More: “The young woman ordered an Uber — the receipt shows it was about 11 pm — and says she planned to call [a friend] back once inside the car. In the few minutes she waited, she said, Thrush walked back over to her and started to kiss her again. She began to cry. When Thrush saw, he abruptly walked off, waving his hand flippantly, and left her alone to wait for her ride, she said.”
Faced with that account, Thrush crafted a statement including these words: “The June incident related in the story was a life-changing event. The woman involved was upset by my actions and for that I am deeply sorry,” he wrote. “Over the past several years, I have responded to a succession of personal and health crises by drinking heavily. During that period, I have done things that I am ashamed of, actions that have brought great hurt to my family and friends. I have not taken a drink since June 15, 2017, have resumed counseling and will soon begin out-patient treatment for alcoholism. I am working hard to repair the damage I have done.”
When we reached Thrush on the phone late last week, he said he was in the midst of his counseling and knew nothing of the newspaper’s investigation.
New York Times staffers are watching the Behrendt investigation in search of cues. Just where is the line that now partitions the predatory from the merely boorish? Asked about that matter by a staffer at the paper’s Washington bureau, Baquet acknowledged that the standards are indeed changing, though he couldn’t specify precisely where they now stand. What’s for sure, he noted, is that the evolving consensus surely beats the status quo of yesteryear, when managers commonly overlooked scandalous workplace behavior.
In an op-ed for the New York Times, Bari Weiss wrote, “In less than two months we’ve moved from uncovering accusations of criminal behavior (Harvey Weinstein) to criminalizing behavior that we previously regarded as presumptuous and boorish (Glenn Thrush). In a climate in which sexual mores are transforming so rapidly, many men are asking: If I were wrongly accused, who would believe me?” And Michael Smerconish of CNN wondered if the Vox.com story overreached. “Have we reached a point where bad judgment is worthy of a professional death sentence?” he asked.
Vox.com’s Williams noted, “Laura McGann’s motivation for writing the story on Glenn Thrush was based on its editorial value, as was our decision to publish it. She was motivated to write the piece in recent weeks because the current news environment has slightly mitigated the fear of reprisal for women who speak out about sexual harassment or misconduct.”
As the New York Times weighs the available evidence, it’ll have to assess whether Thrush attempted to sabotage McGann after their nightclub encounter. In her story, McGann writes about the aftermath of the incident:
A few hours later, I saw him in deep conversation with a number of men I worked with. My gut told me something was up. I worried he was covering his tracks by spreading a rosy version of the night. As many people told me in the course of reporting this story, Thrush is a talker — or, as many put it, “a [bullsh—er].” He likes to hear gossip, and he likes to spread it.
Gradually, things in the office started to change for me. Certain men in the newsroom, I thought, started to look at me differently. Some of their comments seemed a bit too familiar or were outright offensive. I had a nagging sense that I just wasn’t as respected as I used to be.
A few months later, writes McGann, she felt that her “standing” in the newsroom had diminished. There’ll be no doubting McGann’s suspicions about her place at Politico. However, her career appears to have defied her inquietude. In 2013, after the Thrush-bar thing, McGann left Politico for a brief stint at MSNBC.com.* She was hired back at Politico to a broader portfolio and, presumably, a more handsome salary. So maybe Thrush — even if he did bad-mouth McGann — didn’t have enough clout to derail her career. That would be a good thing.
Asked about McGann’s fortunes post-Thrush-ugliness, Williams writes, “Laura succeeded at Politico in spite of the challenges she faced there because of her excellence as a journalist. Questioning women’s credibility and the veracity of their experiences is why, even now, many women believe it’s better to stay silent about such experiences than to come forward.”
A point of clarification: No one here is “questioning women’s credibility.” As we’ve said before, the unnamed women who’ve come forth to accuse sexual harassers this fall have restored national confidence in the much-criticized anonymous source. Yet McGann is playing the double role of accuser and journalist. In that latter capacity, she invites the same scrutiny as any other scribe who gets a second look from the Erik Wemple Blog.
That scrutiny is now being applied by the New York Times, which is looking at a decision that may well set a precedent not only for its HR department, but also for those of other media organizations as well. It’s a decision that the Erik Wemple Blog would much rather cover than make.
*Correction: This piece originally stated that McGann worked for a brief stint at MSNBC. More precisely, she worked at MSNBC.com.
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