The Los Angeles Times chief executive and publisher is the latest media executive under investigation for inappropriate behavior, following an extensive NPR report.
Tronc, the parent company of the Los Angeles Times, began investigating Ross Levinsohn on Thursday after NPR reported he had been named a defendant in two sexual harassment lawsuits as an executive at two different companies, Alta Vista and News Corp, before joining the Times. Levinsohn’s former colleagues and employees described him as a party-loving executive who created a fraternity-like environment, often making women feel uncomfortable.
“The portrait that repeatedly emerges is one of a frat-boy executive, catapulting ever higher, even as he creates corporate climates that alienated some of the people who worked for and with him,” wrote NPR’s media correspondent David Folkenflik. His report was based on a review of court documents, financial filings and interviews with 26 former colleagues and associates.
Tronc learned of the allegations of inappropriate behavior this week, Tronc chief executive Justin Dearborn said in a note to employees, according to the Los Angeles Times, which featured a story about the investigation prominently on its website’s home page.
“Tronc is committed to creating a culture of diversity and inclusion, and we will take appropriate action to address any behavior that is inconsistent with this culture,” Dearborn said. “We are conducting an independent review into these matters. Once that review is complete, we will take swift and appropriate action to address any behavior that falls short of our expectations.”
Levinsohn did not respond to a request for comment from the NPR reporter. But he called the news outlet’s CEO, Jarl Mohn, about the story on Wednesday, saying the allegations against him are “lies,” Folkenflik reported.
The investigation follows a number of similar recent probes into allegations of inappropriate behavior against powerful men in the media. Others accused of misconduct include top editors and executives at NPR, the New Republic, Vice Media, Billboard magazine and others. Prominent media figures have also lost their jobs amid complaints of sexual harassment or misconduct, such as the CBS and PBS anchor Charlie Rose, “Today” show host Matt Lauer, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and political journalist Mark Halperin, an analyst for NBC News who faced accusations from his time at ABC News.
Earlier this month, The Washington Post suspended veteran reporter Joel Achenbach for 90 days without pay for what it called “inappropriate workplace conduct” involving current and former female colleagues.
The Los Angeles Times has reported extensively on sexual misconduct scandals involving several prominent media and entertainment figures, including James Toback and James Franco. Levinsohn’s alleged behavior, Folkenflik wrote in NPR, “raises questions about how effectively he can lead the paper as it covers the #MeToo movement and such widespread harassment revelations.”
Levinsohn, who was named publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times in August, previously held executive roles at Yahoo, News Corp. and the early search engine Alta Vista.
As an executive at Alta Vista in 2001, according to the NPR report, Levinsohn was sued alongside other defendants in a sexual harassment and sexual discrimination case. Levinsohn testified under oath that he had assessed the “hotness” and bodies of female subordinates. He also admitted to discussing whether a female subordinate was working as a stripper on the side.
Though he testified that he made such remarks at a distance from female employees, some of his associates said otherwise. Jessie Dennen, who was Alta Vista’s recruitment and hiring chief at that time, told NPR that Levinsohn would openly rate women and speculate about a female subordinate’s sexual partners in staff meetings.
As senior vice president for News Corp., Levinsohn was also a defendant in a 2006 lawsuit against the company and various Fox executives. A video producer suing the company alleged that when she asked Levinsohn for a promotion, he pointed to a Fox Sports sideline reporter, a former pinup model, as an example of “how to work her way to the top.”
At a 2013 music industry party, witnesses said they were disturbed to see Levinsohn pressing himself against a woman and kissing her aggressively in open sight of his subordinates and clients, NPR reported. Witnesses described the physical contact as apparently consensual, but inappropriate and unprofessional. Levinsohn was married at the time.
At a lunch for Hollywood fashion stylists, Levinsohn allegedly used a gay slur to describe the crowd to an executive for the Hollywood Reporter, witnesses told NPR.
Following the NPR report, members of the Los Angeles Times Guild organizing committee released a statement calling for Levinsohn to resign or be fired immediately.
“We are appalled by the findings in the NPR story,” the statement read. “A man who sexually harasses women, engages in ‘slut-shaming’ and refers to gay men as ‘fags’ is not fit to lead our newspaper. Tronc and its board of directors must be held accountable for their failure to properly vet Levinsohn for one of the most important positions at the company and in American journalism.”
The organizing committee also demanded an independent probe into how Levinsohn was hired given his documented history of misconduct, and “whether he acted inappropriately toward Times employees during his tenure as publisher; and how the company and board have responded previously to allegations of sexual misconduct by newspaper leaders.”
The investigation into Levinsohn’s behavior comes at a particularly touchy time for the newspaper. The Los Angeles Times newsroom has never been represented by a union. But a recent effort to unionize has been prompted by concerns over finances, staff cutbacks and management turnover, according to the newspaper.
On Friday, the National Labor Relations Board is expected to announce the results of an election held to determine whether newsroom staffers want the NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America to represent them in collective bargaining, the Los Angeles Times reported.
A group of 12 senior editors at the Times also signed a statement saying Levinsohn’s alleged behavior is “unacceptable and jeopardizes The Times’ 136-year legacy of integrity,” NPR’s Folkenflik reported on Twitter.
“The organization should not be led by anyone who has engaged in this behavior, if it is true, particularly given the publication’s role in investigating multiple industries and governments on the topic of sexual harassment,” the statement read.
The letter was signed by the entire Times masthead except for three recent additions under Levinsohn’s leadership, according to a Los Angeles Times reporter.
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