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NPR’s top editor placed on leave after accusations of sexual harassment

NPR’s Michael Oreskes is the latest media figure to be accused of sexual harassment. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

Update, Nov. 1: Michael Oreskes resigned from NPR on Wednesday.

NPR is investigating allegations by two women who said the head of its news department made unwanted physical contact with them while he was employed by another news organization nearly two decades ago.

The women, both journalists at the time of the alleged incidents, made the accusations in recent weeks against Michael Oreskes, senior vice president of news and editorial director at the Washington-based public broadcasting organization.

In response to the allegations, NPR said Tuesday that it has placed Oreskes on indefinite leave.

In separate complaints, the women said Oreskes — at the time, the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times — abruptly kissed them while they were speaking with him about working at the newspaper. Both of them told 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.

Both of the women spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity so as not to damage their employment prospects.

The alleged incidents occurred in the late 1990s, the women said. Oreskes joined NPR in March 2015 after working at the Times and the Associated Press in senior editing roles.

The women spoke with NPR’s attorney in charge of labor and employment matters in mid-October. She sent the women emails acknowledging that the news organization was looking into the information they provided.

NPR didn’t address any of the specific allegations when contacted by The Post for comment. Instead, it issued a statement reading: “We take these kinds of allegations very seriously. If a concern is raised, we review the matter promptly and take appropriate steps as warranted to assure a safe, comfortable and productive work environment. As a matter of policy, we do not comment about personnel matters.” A spokeswoman, Isabel Lara, offered no further comment.

Oreskes didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

The 63-year-old editor is the latest media figure whose conduct has been called into question by women who worked for him or who sought employment when he was in a position to wield power over hiring and firing. Allegations against former New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier and political journalist Mark Halperin have also come to light in the past month.

Both complainants say Oreskes’s alleged behavior had a lasting impact.

One of the women said her encounter with him permanently damaged her confidence. She was in her late 20s at the time, recently arrived in Washington from a small Western town. “When I first went to see him, it was after screwing up my nerve to try to be bold and maneuver myself into a better job, and after what happened with him, I never really tried that again,” she said.

The women said they met with Oreskes after he expressed an interest in reviewing their work and giving them career advice, possibly with an eye toward hiring them as reporters. Neither was ever hired.

The first woman said she met Oreskes at the Times’ offices in the Army and Navy Club Building in downtown Washington.

Afterward, she said, he took out a personal ad in the Washington City Paper aimed at her. It read: “Saw you at the Army-Navy Building. Loved hearing your life story and your ideas. Hope you get this message. Let me know.”

She recounted that a week later, he emailed her to ask why she hadn’t responded to his ad. The woman said she was unaware of it and had to search for it. “What was especially creepy about it was that he put it in the wrong place in the paper,” she said in an interview. Instead of appearing in the “Missed Connections” section, the ad was in a section called “Adult Services” that featured thinly disguised offers of prostitution.

Thereafter, she said, Oreskes invited her to have lunch in a room at the Watergate Hotel, catered by room service. She declined the offer.

She nevertheless maintained contact with him, hoping to keep her job prospects alive. She says that when she mentioned to him that she was traveling to New York for a job interview at the New York Daily News, he told her to book the flight he planned to take the same day. They shared a cab into the city from the airport. At the end of the trip, he leaned against her, kissed her and slipped his tongue into her mouth, she said.

“The worst part of my whole encounter with Oreskes wasn’t the weird offers of room service lunch or the tongue kiss but the fact that he utterly destroyed my ambition,” she said.

The second woman recounted a similar sequence of events. After booking him on a TV program that she was producing, and mentioning that she wanted to return to print reporting, he offered to review her published work. They agreed to meet at a local restaurant, but at the last minute, Oreskes called and said he had a trip planned that day and was running late. He asked to meet at her apartment. She agreed.

The apartment meeting went off without issue, although the woman recalled feeling uncomfortable when Oreskes placed his hand in the small of her back as she showed him around her apartment. She then offered to drive him to Reagan National Airport for his flight. As she pulled to the curb, Oreskes said goodbye, then kissed her unexpectedly, she said.

“I was frozen,” she recalled. “I was shocked. I thought, ‘What just happened?’ ”

She said she drove 100 feet, pulled over and called her boyfriend to tell him about the incident.

Later, she said, she got a voice-mail message from Oreskes saying how much he enjoyed meeting her and that he looked forward to seeing her again.

About two months later, she booked him on the TV program again and invited him to lunch. She arranged to meet him at a restaurant in the center of Union Station.

“I looked him in the eye, and I said: ‘You kissed me, and it was totally inappropriate. That’s not the way I want to get ahead in this business.’ His jaw dropped. He said: ‘I was overcome with passion. I couldn’t help myself.’ ”

Neither woman complained at the time; both believed that their complaints would be ignored and would jeopardize any chance of working for the Times.

Both said they were motivated to come forward now by NPR's coverage of recent sexual harassment episodes, especially those involving Harvey Weinstein. "The idea that he's in charge of that coverage is just so hypocritical to me," one woman said. "It's sickening. I want to say: 'You owe me . . . a public apology. You should recuse yourself" from NPR's coverage of harassment.

Two people who worked at the Times with Oreskes around the late 1990s recalled that he focused extraordinary attention on another young woman who worked as a news aide in the Washington bureau.

“I would call it pestering,” said one editor. “It made [the woman] really nervous. There was excessive phone calling [by him to her] and messages that he wanted to meet her outside the office.”

This account was confirmed by Jill Abramson, who was Oreskes's deputy at the time. Abramson, who went on to become the Times' top editor and is now a columnist and a senior lecturer at Harvard, said in an interview that she regretted not confronting Oreskes about his behavior.

"If I had to do it again, I would have told him to knock it off," said Abramson, co-author of a book about the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill harassment case. "I think I should have raised this with [the Times' human resources department]. . . . Maybe confronting him would have somehow stopped him from doing it to another woman."

Abramson said she hesitated in part because the young woman didn’t want to raise the issue but did want Oreskes’s alleged behavior to stop. But Abramson said: “I don’t really feel it was in a gray area in retrospect. I should have stopped him.”

“The Times takes all allegations of sexual harassment seriously and we are looking into it,” a spokeswoman for the company said.

Eventually, another editor passed the word to a senior editor in New York, who gave Oreskes “a father-son talking-to,” as one editor put it, warning him to steer clear of the young woman. The young woman eventually landed a job at another publication in Washington.

One of the women who complained about Oreskes to NPR said she thought she saw him a few months ago at her gym for the first time in years. “I just about had a heart attack,” she said. “I fled the building feeling sick. I’m not sure I would want to talk to him long enough for him to apologize even if he wanted to.”