Steve Clemons, the editor and public face of the AtlanticLIVE events business and the Atlantic’s Washington editor-at-large, announced earlier this week that he would be joining Axios, the young and brash home to “smart brevity” and corporate-sponsored events. In an email to the Erik Wemple Blog on Thursday morning, however, Clemons sent a statement pulling out of the gig:
Recently I began a sabbatical after eight intense years at The Atlantic, moderating more than a thousand events in that time, to travel, and think, and work on my book. Then I suspended that by jumping at a great opportunity at the hugely successful Axios. Upon reflection, I am going to spend the next few months resetting some of the stuff I want to do. When I was at The Atlantic, some of my high expectations as a leader unintentionally were overly demanding of our staff, and I have recently become aware of this. I want a chance to slow down and catch up with myself. I loved my many years at The Atlantic and very much admire Axios. For at least a time, I will survey the worlds of policy and politics in new ways and come to see how I can be a consequential part of it. So sabbatical back on -- and stay tuned.
Yes, there’s a backstory to the week’s events.
Politico’s Playbook on Monday carried a headline announcing a personnel development of interest to Washington people: “Clemons to leave The Atlantic,” it reported. The treatment delighted Clemons. In an email to friends, he raved, “The news made the headline of Politico this morning. Wow.” He continued, “I’ll leave the tributes I have for my colleagues to other notes and, hopefully, celebration parties -- but everyone there, and every client we dealt with, every speaker we interviewed, just came together in a bundle of constant excellence and consequence.”
There’s a constituency at AtlanticLIVE, however, that might not pitch in for a nice send-off. Several young, female subordinates of Clemons at AtlanticLIVE got together for a meal in January and discovered that they had something in common: unfortunate interactions with Clemons in the course of coordinating AtlanticLIVE’s events lineup.
Among the complaints, according to sources familiar with the meeting: that Clemons once mistook two female African American Atlantic staffers for catering workers at an AtlanticLIVE event; that he very frequently hectored employees over small matters; that he was routinely dismissive of his subordinates and made little attempt to learn their names; and that he reacted poorly to negative feedback about his work as a moderator. (None of the accusations included sexual harassment.)
Word of the problems was escalated to Aretae Wyler, chief administrative officer and general counsel of Atlantic Media. By mid-February, management convened a meeting in which the complainants received assurances that they wouldn’t have to deal with these circumstances any longer, according to company sources.
Days later, Clemons, 56, sent a note to his email list: “After … close to a thousand events at LIVE, [AtlanticLIVE President] Margaret [Low] and I have figured out a way to give me a much-desired sabbatical. I’m going to get some time now to write some big things I’ve wanted to do and get the space to think and re-juice. I’m very excited about this and am grateful to Margaret (and Rob [Hendin]) who has assured me that Live will be just fine as I embark on some things that will give me lighter presence in our halls,” wrote Clemons, who showed a knack for crowdsourcing: “If you have great ideas for my book on the DC scene (yes, I’m going to do a book and David [Bradley] will throw a book party I’m sure) -- please get in touch.”
By the beginning of March, Clemons’s sabbatical took a sabbatical: “I’ve been hanging for years with the best in Long Form -- but now I’m really up for Smart Brevity in Axios Land,” he wrote in his Monday email to friends.
In a Tuesday interview, Clemons answered every question of the Erik Wemple Blog. Indeed, Clemons says, colleagues took some complaints to management, which were in turn raised with him. However, Clemons maintains that he wasn’t pushed out of the company. He viewed the process as an opportunity to express his own interest in making a break with nearly eight years of traveling, studying, moderating and so on. “This is me saying I need a punctuation point,” asserts Clemons.
As for the particular complaints against him, Clemons counters that he’s “not a yeller,” though he doesn’t deny insisting on excellence. “I can be short and dismissive and passionate and I think people can hear and experience things in different ways, but I can’t dispute that other people felt the tension, but I’m not an abusive person,” he says. As for the waitstaff allegation, Clemons denies it. “Totally untrue,” he says. “I don’t have any recollection of that.”
The former AtlanticLIVE editor volunteered an incident in which he blew up at staff over a three-city event marathon from D.C. to New York to Los Angeles. There was a problem with his travel arrangements, and he lost his temper over the incident. “We have a spirit of generosity here, and this was not a generous moment,” he says. “I look at that moment as one that I didn’t live up to my standards,” he says. “I was in a pressure cooker in that moment. I do admit that I shouldn’t have done that.”
One of the flash points revolved around a classic Beltway tug of war: invite lists for a party during White House correspondents’ dinner (WHCD) weekend. Informed sources tell the Erik Wemple Blog that Clemons yelled at a young female staffer over whether powerhouse lobbyist Heather Podesta would get a “plus one” for the 2018 WHCD party held by Atlantic Media boss David Bradley. Asked about the incident, Clemons denied intervening on Podesta’s behalf, but did say he was “miffed” about the alleged mishandling of an invite to another Heather — Heather Bresch, CEO of drug company Mylan. “I think I advocated for her to come because they were prospectively putting a lot of money” into programming of interest to AtlanticLIVE, he says. Mylan underwrote a November 2018 AtlanticLIVE event on HIV/AIDS. As it turned out, Podesta did attend with a guest; Bresch did not appear on the guest list.
As Clemons tells it, though, he never yelled at anyone about invites. “I’m not a John Bolton kind of guy. I don’t kiss up and kick down,” he says.
Emily Lenzner, a spokeswoman for Atlantic Media, sent the Erik Wemple Blog this statement regarding Clemons: “Like most, we do not comment on employment or personnel matters.” Axios spokeswoman Megan Swiatkowski issued this statement: “Steve will not be joining Axios. He has had a long, distinguished career, and we wish him all the best.” Clemons himself shared several complimentary email messages that he received from his colleagues, including one that said, in part, “Just wanted to drop you a note to say thanks for all you’ve done to help me learn the craft of onstage interviewing, not to mention massive roundtable dinners … You’ve been such a support for me and my work with Live. Can’t wait to see what you will build in this new chapter.”
Before he announced that he wouldn’t be joining Axios, Clemons had told the Erik Wemple Blog what he had planned for the site co-founded by former Politico luminaries Mike Allen, Roy Schwartz and Jim VandeHei. The idea, he said, was to “help them take their excellent business and and help it scale to a larger size … Where Axios would like to grow, in my view, is up the complexity chain and the value chain.” Asked to explain the complexity-chain concept, Clemons said that Axios could benefit from greater topical variety and more interviews/discussions at its events.
Now it appears that Axios will have to scale that chain on its own. The move interrupts an interesting career transition, as Clemons himself said in his Monday email to friends: “Another cool part of the story is that David & Katherine Bradley as well as Atlantic majority owner Laurene Powell Jobs [actually, Emerson Collective] are original investors in Axios and thus will kinda still be in the family.”