NPR’s senior management was aware of multiple harassment complaints by women against its top newsroom executive during the past two years but took no action to remove him from his job until news reports about his conduct appeared on Tuesday.
The public broadcasting organization formally severed ties on Wednesday with Michael Oreskes a day after The Washington Post reported that he had been accused of making inappropriate advances toward two women when he ran the New York Times's Washington bureau nearly two decades earlier.
NPR itself reported Tuesday night that a third woman, a 26-year-old assistant producer named Rebecca Hersher, had complained to NPR's management about a sexually oriented conversation that Oreskes initiated in October 2015.
NPR’s chief executive, Jarl Mohn, and chief legal officer, Jonathan Hart, were aware of all three allegations against Oreskes but didn’t act to remove him until Tuesday, after publication of The Post article.
Oreskes’s behavior, and the organization’s response to it, has stirred a virtual rebellion in NPR’s newsroom, particularly among female employees. In a draft petition signed Wednesday by dozens of women, including some of its best-known hosts and correspondents, the women wrote: “We are profoundly concerned by how NPR has handled sexual harassment reports and senior management’s insufficient efforts to create a workplace environment free of harassment and one that ensures equal opportunity for all employees.”
“The in-house mood is stunned, shocked, angry,” Susan Stamberg, one of NPR’s founding journalists, said Wednesday. “We’re trying to talk it through, and figure out effective responses.”
Oreskes, 63, is among several journalists who have lost their jobs because of sexual-harassment allegations; the others include political commentator Mark Halperin and editor Leon Wieseltier. The rapid developments follow multiple accusations leveled against film mogul Harvey Weinstein and former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly. The surge in complaints has various industries grappling with how to deal with misconduct allegations that sometimes date back decades.
Current and former NPR employees said Oreskes’s misconduct was an open secret in the newsroom and expressed dismay that he was allowed to keep such a powerful job despite management’s awareness of the accusations.
NPR officials, including Mohn, Hart and NPR board chairman Roger Lamay, either declined interviews or did not respond to The Post’s requests for comment.
In a statement Wednesday, Oreskes said, “I am deeply sorry to the people I hurt. My behavior was wrong and inexcusable, and I accept full responsibility.” He said he was grateful to his colleagues “for every minute I’ve had to work with each of you. . . . Public radio matters so much and I will always be your supporter.”
Mohn said in a statement Wednesday that he asked for Oreskes’s resignation because of “inappropriate behavior.” He added, “Some have asked me if it took published news reports for us to take action. The answer is that it did not. We have been acting. Some of the steps were visible and others weren’t. We have a process in place and we followed that process.”
The first complaint was lodged by Hersher seven months after Oreskes arrived at NPR in March 2015.
According to NPR spokeswoman Isabel Lara, Oreskes was “formally rebuked” after Hersher alleged that he had discussed his “sex girlfriend” during a business conversation with her. Lara said a warning was placed in Oreskes’s personnel file at the time and that Hersher was “satisfied” with the action. Hersher declined to comment on Wednesday.
The second complaint was in October 2016, when a woman alleged that Oreskes unexpectedly French-kissed her during a work meeting nearly two decades earlier when he was with the New York Times. The woman told The Post she was motivated to take her information to NPR by the disclosure of an “Access Hollywood” tape that showed then-candidate Donald Trump talking about groping women.
Mohn and Hart both spoke with Oreskes at the time about the woman’s allegation, Lara said. “The matter was looked into and steps were taken,” she said. She declined to say whether there were any disciplinary measures.
The third complaint came in mid-October from another woman who alleged that Oreskes had kissed her and put his tongue in her mouth while he worked at the Times. Around this time, the woman who had complained in 2016 reiterated her complaint, saying she was outraged that NPR permitted Oreskes to oversee coverage of the harassment allegations unfolding against Harvey Weinstein.
Hart and Mohn spoke to Oreskes again about the kissing allegations, Lara said. She again declined to describe the nature of the conversation or say whether any disciplinary action was taken against Oreskes. He remained NPR’s editorial director.
In an interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered” Wednesday, Mohn said that after the 2015 incident involving Hersher, “We put him on notice that this could not occur” again.
Addressing the incidents from the 1990s that were later brought to light, Mohn said: “The important distinction here is first, that did not happen at NPR, it was not an NPR employee. It was at the New York Times and it occurred 20 years ago. Had that happened at NPR we would have had a very different reaction to it.”
On Oct. 20, Mohn sent a memo to employees reiterating NPR’s commitment “to a workplace where everyone can do their best work in a safe and productive environment.” He recited NPR’s policies against harassment and its procedures for filing a complaint. Lara said NPR received no complaints after the memo was circulated. Oreskes continued to run NPR’s newsroom.
But NPR acted swiftly after The Post published its article detailing accusations against Oreskes. Within minutes of its appearance on Tuesday, he was placed on indefinite leave. He was forced out on Wednesday.
Lara declined to draw a direct connection between the public disclosure of the allegations against Oreskes and NPR’s actions against him. The organization took action, she said, because of “the totality of [his] inappropriate behavior and his inability to lead the newsroom.”
The newsroom discussion about Oreskes also includes alleged recent behavior. Women said it ranges from suggestions of inappropriate conversations with young female employees to what one described as “spontaneous kissing.”
One woman, 26 at the time, said Oreskes, then 62, peppered her with messages seeking to have dinner last year after she had contacted him for a media appearance on a program she helped produce a few years before. The woman, who worked for another media organization, said she agreed to do so on Feb. 26, 2016. During the course of their conversation, she mentioned that she sometimes daydreamed. She said Oreskes asked her, “’Do you daydream about sex?’”
“My whole body went tense,” she said. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I’m not sure what I said after that because I was so in shock.”
She did not file a formal complaint.
NPR named Christopher Turpin, vice president of news programming and operations, as Oreskes’s replacement on an interim basis.