NPR reporter grills boss over sexual harassment allegations

The collision of a radio network’s management and a radio network’s newsroom was heard nationwide on Wednesday when NPR CEO Jarl Mohn was grilled by one of his network’s reporters — Mary Louise Kelly — on why NPR fired its head of news only after the Washington Post blew the whistle on Michael Oreskes’ behavior 20 years ago at the New York Times, when he accosted two women in separate incidents.

It was an unusual, and likely uncomfortable, few minutes as Kelly interrogated her boss. It was unusual for the CEO of an organization to be willing to be grilled so publicly.

Mohn answered the main question that’s circulated since the Washington Post, and then NPR’s media correspondent, David Folkenflik, revealed Oreskes’ behavior towards women at the Times: What difference does it make to NPR that an employee behaved inappropriately while working for another organization?

The short answer was that it didn’t matter.

“The important distinction is, first, that did not happen at NPR,” Mohn said. “Had that happened at NPR, we’d have had a different reaction to it. We wanted to make sure that did not happen here. I’m not aware of anything that bears any resemblance to issues that occurred at the New York Times.”

Mohn acknowledged that a female staffer at NPR complained about an uncomfortable conversation between her and Oreskes not long after he was hired by NPR.

“That was an internal situation that happened here,” he told Kelly. “It was a terrible situation. We confronted him about it and put him on notice that this could not occur.”

It was a year later that Mohn says he learned of one of the incidents at the Times.

“If that is the sequence, and you knew of the multiple allegations, did it cross your mind that leaving him in would put other colleagues at risk?” Kelly asked.

“My understanding is that (NPR) employee felt we satisfactorily addressed the issue…” he responded.

“But that issue you knew about when the second allegation came in,” Kelly interjected.

“When the second woman’s story (at the New York Times) surfaced, there had been rumors circulating around the building here about his behavior. We can’t act on that. We have to act on facts,” he said.

Mohn said it was only via Folkenflik’s reporting on Tuesday evening that he learned that five other women have come forward with stories against Oreskes.

An astute listener could see where Kelly was heading. She was about to ask why it took the Washington Post story on Tuesday to propel NPR to fire Oreskes, when it knew about at least one of the allegations a year ago?

But instead, Kelly veered into a more internal direction for a newsroom concern.

“We’re a news organization, why are we getting scooped by the Washington Post?” she asked, following up with why she had to learn Mohn had fired Oreskes from an Associated Press tweet?

It was a momentary diversion before she returned to the more important question.

“You can’t act on rumors and gossip,” she said to Mohn. “But weren’t you concerned about creating a toxic environment [for women]? Should that not prompt action?”

“Informally we were asking questions,” he said. “Clearly we didn’t do everything we could. But to suggest we were not acting appropriately, or doing nothing, is false.”

In a quick prosecuting-attorney style, Kelly turned to a revelation: That there are more employees at NPR with stories to tell about Oreskes.

“On the range of Harvey Weinstein on one extreme and the other internal [NPR] issue that the complaint you referred to earlier, [the new complaint] was clearly in that range [of uncomfortable conversation].”

There are, of course, unresolved questions. Would NPR have fired Oreskes if another NPR staffer hadn’t stepped forward since the Washington Post story came out? And would NPR have fired Oreskes if the Washington Post story had not come out? And, finally, if the Washington Post was able to find two women with a story to tell about the character of NPR’s top news manager, why didn’t NPR?