NPR lets itself off the hook after sexual harassment review

NPR’s management pretty much gave its CEO and every other exec a pass this week when reacting to an outside law firm’s review of how two news executives sexually harassed their way through their employment while the bosses did little to stop them.

NPR’s board chair said CEO Jarl Mohn, heavily criticized by NPR news staffers, particularly female staffers, had “owned” the problem and had learned. It’s making procedural changes in monitoring these things.

“I missed it and it clearly must have been going on while I was here,” the board chair also said.

In an open session yesterday, NPR’s board said it has full confidence in Mohn.

“Some outsiders have speculated that there is something unique about public media that has allowed these situations to occur,” Mohn said. “But what happened here and throughout public media has also occurred in other media companies, investment banks, sports organizations, universities, the worlds of art and dance, and religious organizations. It has also occurred in other arenas that are much less high profile: small factories, retail stores, malls, and diners in every community across the country. So what is different about public media?”

That one’s easy. First, public media is supposed to be better informed and more educated. Second, public media — NPR, really — was founded mostly by women.

But, as we’ve seen with the reaction to the fall of both Sen. Al Franken and public radio icon Garrison Keillor, tolerance for sexual harassment isn’t about education, intelligence or knowledge.

“I want to believe that they are committed to fixing the problem. I believe that there are lot of people here who are committed to fixing the problem,” said Alicia Montgomery, senior supervising editor/producer for Morning Edition. “I’m not sure that the people in leadership are more committed to solving the problem than committed to ending the public and embarrassing conversation about it.”

It is this point that disturbs Columbia Journalism School professor Bill Grueskin who says in the Columbia Journal Review the management of NPR was more concerned with discretion than the conduct.

Again, it’s as important to reflect on what isn’t said as what is. NPR’s CEO isn’t quoted as worrying that Oreskes’ conduct would demean women, or that it would take advantage of his tremendous influence over their careers. Instead, the chief concern seems to be this “appearance of impropriety”—that is, the reputational damage that NPR’s leaders, or their organization, could suffer were this to become public.

In mid-October—notably, just a few days after The New York Times published its blockbuster story on Harvey Weinstein—Mohn met again with Oreskes. The Post was, by now, starting to report on Oreskes’ misconduct. Mohn “counseled” Oreskes and asked if there were any new issues that NPR managers needed to know about. His top editor was as reassuring as ever: “Oreskes stated that there were not.”

By now, NPR executives knew they had a problem on their hands, and they sent employees a note inviting evidence of harassment. But even so, when one NPR employee reported to HR that Oreskes had groped her, her “report was not relayed to management until one to two weeks later.”

“Mohn and Haaga are letting themselves off the hook too easily,” Grueskin writes.

News organizations that pride themselves on holding the powerful to account need to apply those standards of scrutiny to their own hierarchies. Oreskes’s bosses had multiple opportunities to learn about and correct for his misconduct. NPR sullied its reputation in its very attempts to protect it.