NPR’s management was aware of multiple complaints and incidents of inappropriate behavior by its former head of news but took no disciplinary action against him until forcing him out last year, an internal investigation concluded Tuesday.
The eight-week investigation by a law firm hired by NPR found that the public broadcaster’s executives tried to “counsel” Senior Vice President Michael Oreskes after each of the incidents. Among other things, it said Oreskes continued to send inappropriate emails to young women and used his expense account to entertain them with dinners and drinks after being warned to stop.
NPR didn’t act to remove Oreskes, however, until the complaints spilled into public view via a Washington Post story in late October.
Despite the investigation’s damning conclusions, Paul Haaga Jr., the chairman of NPR’s board, said in an interview Tuesday that he retained “full confidence” in the organization’s chief executive, Jarl Mohn, and his top associates. “People make mistakes, and Jarl and his team are the first ones to admit they made a mistake,” he said.
He hastened to add, however, that “that’s not a board conclusion,” and the board could take further action at an upcoming meeting.
Inside NPR, meanwhile, the findings provoked outrage, especially among female employees.
“There is a sense . . . of disappointment, immense frustration and deep anger,” said a senior journalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for retaliation. “This report hasn’t helped bridge the huge distrust between staffers and senior management. How many times was Oreskes counseled or talked to? What has actually been learned?”
According to a timeline laid out by Morgan, Lewis & Bockius — the law firm hired by NPR — top managers at NPR were aware of issues surrounding Oreskes from the time he was hired in early 2015.
A member of NPR’s hiring committee had told NPR’s human-resources department about an alleged incident involving Oreskes some months earlier: While attending a conference, the committee member reported, Oreskes left voice mails on a woman’s phone late at night and had asked to visit the hotel room of another female attendee at around 11 p.m.
Despite this, the committee voted 8 to 0 to hire Oreskes to lead its newsroom.
Among other episodes recounted in the report:
●In the summer of 2015, Oreskes invited a female NPR employee to dinner to discuss her career at NPR. At that time, he made comments about her appearance and asked personal questions about relationships. After being told the questions were inappropriate, Oreskes apologized and stopped, only to resume his questions about her personal life a short time later.
●In the fall of 2015, Oreskes had dinner with another young female employee and made several comments of a sexual nature to her, which she said made her feel uncomfortable. When they departed, Oreskes gave the woman a hug, which also made her feel uncomfortable.
After these employees complained to the HR department, NPR’s general counsel, Jonathan Hart, had a conversation described as a “stern talking to” in which Hart warned Oreskes that inappropriate comments were unacceptable.
●A review of Oreskes’s expenses in early and mid-2016 found that many of the dinners he submitted for reimbursement were with women and did not appear to have a business justification. The HR and legal departments also learned that Oreskes had several email exchanges with young women and college students outside of NPR in which he attempted to arrange meetings with them to discuss “topics that seemed personal in nature.” Managers agreed to have another “conversation” with him about it.
NPR’s legal department subsequently received calls from two women who said that Oreskes had kissed them without their consent while he was the New York Times’s Washington bureau chief in the late-1990s.
Even after being warned about his expenses, Oreskes last April attempted to expense a lunch meeting with a woman that did not appear business related. He also continued to exchange emails with college-aged women whom he suggested meeting outside of NPR.
Mohn was aware that these contacts and questionable expenses continued into last summer, the report said. Mohn “warned Mr. Oreskes about the appearance of impropriety,” according to the report.
Yet several days after that meeting, Oreskes sent another personal email to a college-aged woman outside of NPR.
Management’s response: “They decided that Mr. Mohn would have an additional counseling session with Mr. Oreskes,” the report said.
Mohn met with NPR’s board on the morning of Oct. 31 to discuss Oreskes, but there was no decision to suspend or terminate him at that point. However, later that day, The Post reported some of the allegations against Oreskes, prompting Mohn to suspend him; Oreskes resigned the next day.
Two other senior NPR journalists were later accused of harassing behavior: news editor David Sweeney and veteran investigative reporter Daniel Zwerdling.
Sweeney, who left NPR in late November, reportedly made explicit sexual comments to an employee during a meeting, invited her back to his apartment, and attempted to kiss her. Another employee said Sweeney repeatedly asked questions about her personal life, frequently invited her out for drinks and at one point invited her on a trip to Europe to meet his family. The employee said that when she started to ignore his advances, she was removed from her position.
Zwerdling, who left NPR earlier this month, allegedly made inappropriate comments at times during his years at the organization, “such as discussing his dating experiences and comparing an interview to phone sex.” The investigators also said there were reports that Zwerdling had attempted to kiss and hug women without invitations to do so.
A younger NPR employee said in an interview Tuesday that her colleagues were upset “over many things” in the report. Among others, she said she was concerned that “management, including Jarl Mohn, will be able to absolve themselves of taking responsibility.”
Mohn, who left on medical leave shortly after Oreskes resigned, was unavailable for comment. Oreskes did not reply to a request for comment.
In a statement, NPR’s spokeswoman, Isabel Lara, said the organization is “committed” to implementing a series of reforms recommended by the report to “ensure we have a workplace where everyone feels safe and respected. . . . NPR’s leadership is committed to addressing the issues of workplace culture and has already taken some immediate steps to improve NPR’s work environment and our complaint process.”