An outside legal review of NPR’s handling of allegations against its former top news executive, Michael Oreskes, found that questions were raised about his behavior toward women even before he was hired. And concerns about misconduct were reportedly flagged throughout Oreskes’ 2 1/2-year tenure at the network right up to the day he was fired.
Repeated warnings from the network’s top leadership about Oreskes’ inappropriate conduct and expenditures proved ineffective, the review by the law firm Morgan Lewis noted.
“Attempts to curtail Mr. Oreskes’ conduct and attention to women were not successful,” the report stated. “While management made multiple attempts to counsel Mr. Oreskes about his conduct, he was not deterred from pursuing conversations and dinner meetings with women inside and outside of NPR that were inappropriate and served a nonbusiness purpose.” Oreskes was forced to resign on Nov. 1.
In an interview on Tuesday, NPR Board Chairman Paul Haaga compared the process of reviewing Oreskes to “whack-a-mole.”
“Remonstrations were effective in stopping one behavior, but not in stopping all behaviors that should have stopped,” Haaga said. “We didn’t know that he was going to solicit dates outside NPR.”
The nine-page report on the review’s findings was released to NPR staffers Tuesday afternoon, as NPR CEO Jarl Mohn and Chief Operating Officer Loren Mayor had promised. Morgan Lewis conducted the review from December to February, interviewing 86 current and former NPR employees, 71 of whom are women.
In effect, the legal review offered greater texture to Mohn’s contention that he had failed to connect relevant dots — a contention he made in apologizing to the network’s staffers in November.
The law firm also surveyed the culture at NPR and found a “high level of distrust” in management to address such problems effectively. More broadly, it found a “perception of a culture at NPR that favors men,” in a way that it said many employees believe “can foster harassment and bullying.”
Morgan Lewis suggested several fixes: NPR should require all employees to undergo sexual harassment training, preferably in person; NPR should contract with an outside firm to conduct investigations into sexual harassment complaints, at least for now, as a way of rebuilding trust; NPR’s board of directors should monitor complaints, processes and resolutions; and NPR should conduct a gender equity study of pay and promotion.
The network already appears to have embarked on several closely related initiatives under the leadership of Mayor.
In its recommendations, the report also urges that hiring processes use blind references for job candidates. In a separate section on Oreskes, the report notes that he had four referrals and eight blind references.
NPR journalists expressed anger toward Mohn and management at all-staff meetings held in November. Some questioned whether he could continue in the job.
In a joint interview Tuesday, Haaga and NPR board member Wonya Lucas, who is leading the board’s special committee on sexual harassment and workplace culture, said they retained faith in Mohn and his senior team.
“There were clear lapses in judgment,” said Lucas, a veteran cable television executive who is the president and CEO of Public Broadcasting Atlanta. “There was a breakdown in communication among senior management. There were policies and procedures that were not in place and others that were not followed.”
But Lucas said the current management team should be given the chance to succeed, given the work that Mayor has initiated and recommendations the board was poised to pass Tuesday evening.
“People make mistakes. Some mistakes are so egregious that they are [professionally] fatal,” Haaga said. “What I like to look at is, do they own the mistake? Do they learn from them?
“They just owned it.”
In a note to NPR staff on Tuesday, Mohn said he and senior staff are reviewing the Morgan Lewis report. “We can learn from it, and we will,” he said. “While we cannot change the past, we can commit to not repeating it.”
Mohn added: “We are committed to a work environment where everyone feels safe and respected. I want to build an organization of equality and empowerment, where every one of us is held to the same standards and every voice can be heard.”
NPR News exchanged emails with Oreskes but did not secure comment. NPR News will update with any response from Oreskes.
The problems involving Oreskes were flagged even before he took the job. At the tail end of the hiring process, one participant in his hiring review raised a past incident in which Oreskes reportedly sought to meet women late at night at a conference under the guise of discussing his book.
Within six months of Oreskes’ start in the spring of 2015, two NPR female journalists lodged sexual harassment complaints against him — each after attending separate dinners at which they alleged Oreskes had inquired pointedly about their personal lives and in at least one instance “made several comments of a sexual nature.”
Oreskes was warned about his behavior by NPR’s top attorney, Jonathan Hart, who said it could not recur. The report suggests that the network did not receive new specific complaints of misconduct toward NPR women.
According to the Morgan Lewis report, subsequent concerns were raised to NPR’s top executives over his expense account submissions involving interactions with women. His digital exchanges with younger women outside NPR, including journalists elsewhere, freelancers, job hopefuls and aspiring college reporters, also set off internal alarms, according to two knowledgeable people.
Colleagues said Oreskes used meals and drinks — ostensibly to discuss career advancement — as opportunities to engage in questionable conduct.
Oreskes would be repeatedly admonished for his conduct and also over his expenses, by Hart, Mayor, Chief Financial Officer Debbie Cowan and ultimately Mohn himself. Oreskes has since reimbursed NPR for $1,800 in invalid expenses, an amount that seems modest in comparison with the amount of social entertaining he is said to have done.
Inside NPR’s newsroom in 2015 and 2016, rumors were swirling and more experienced female news staffers were warning younger journalists not to be alone with their top news executive. By fall 2016, editors were warning HR staffers and their superiors that Oreskes’ conduct was inappropriate, though few had details to offer. At roughly the same time, a woman contacted HR to say that Oreskes had forcibly kissed her in the 1990s while he was Washington bureau chief for The New York Times and she was exploring job opportunities there.
But these episodes were apparently considered as separately defined transgressions — inappropriate behavior toward subordinates; misuse of company funds on expenses; inappropriate conduct toward young female journalists who did not work for the network.
In October 2017, a second woman reported that Oreskes had kissed her against her will in the 1990s while at the Times. The report suggests that only toward the end did Mohn and NPR’s top executives conclude these incidents were part of the same family of misconduct.
As a public matter, attention swiveled to Oreskes on Oct. 31, 2017, when The Washington Post revealed the two allegations from his days at the Times.
Later that afternoon, NPR News reported one of the two HR complaints from an NPR journalist filed in October 2015. The same day as the Post‘s piece, another female NPR journalist notified the network that Oreskes had invited her to a beach cottage to discuss her possible career advancement. According to the report, that additional episode triggered the decision by Mohn to ask for Oreskes’ resignation.
On Nov. 7, in an email to staff, Mohn said he failed to connect other signs. “In retrospect, I did not see the bigger pattern of poor judgment and unacceptable behavior,” Mohn wrote. “I am sorry, and I have learned from this.”
The report does not offer great detail for the individual episodes that occurred during Oreskes’ time at NPR. Nor does it explain the internal deliberations of the network’s leadership. It does suggest, however, two conclusions: First, the network failed to connect visible dots illuminating a related pattern of behavior; and second, NPR’s management did not terminate Oreskes in part because, after the two October 2015 HR filings, it did not receive complaints about behavior toward women who worked at NPR until October 2017.
Haaga, the board chairman, said Mohn should have been brought into discussions about Oreskes’ behavior prior to fall 2016. And he said Hart, NPR’s general counsel, was focused primarily on preventing harm to the company’s employees.
“It was surprising to me [to learn] when certain parties knew certain things,” said Lucas, the NPR board member. “Different people within management had different information over time.”
More women came forward after media coverage of allegations against Oreskes. Other women subsequently told NPR News that Oreskes’ behavior and communications made them decide not to apply for work at the network.
Disclosure: NPR’s David Folkenflik reported this story under the guidance of Deputy Managing Editor Jim Kane and Standards and Practices Editor Mark Memmott. Under standard procedures for reporting on NPR matters, NPR’s corporate and news executives were not allowed to review what they reported until it was posted. No editors or reporters involved in this story attended any private NPR staff meetings related to the subject.