New York Public Radio CEO Laura Walker apologized Tuesday to victims who experienced harassment and bullying on the production of The Takeaway and acknowledged her own failure to protect WNYC employees and contributors.
In her first public interview since complaints about misconduct by former Takeaway host John Hockenberry were exposed by New York Magazine, Walker told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, “I deeply regret that our culture and protocols did not work as they should, such that the full extent of the allegations are just coming to light. This alleged behavior happened on my watch and I take responsibility.”
She acknowledged knowing “about … some of the behavior,” described in Suki Kim’s report for New York Magazine and a subsequent WNYC story. Walker knew of Kim’s complaint about receiving sexually suggestive messages from Hockenberry, but was not aware of all the incidents brought to light by the investigations, she said. “We learned about other allegations after he left, some very disturbing ones,” Walker said. She had not been aware that Hockenberry had forcibly kissed Takeaway producers, for example.
Walker confirmed that WNYC and PRI, which co-produces The Takeaway, decided earlier this year not to renew Hockenberry’s contact, but said that he “was not fired for sexual misconduct.” “We decided not to renew John’s contract for a variety of reasons, including some of what we knew about how people felt.”
WNYC announced in July that Hockenberry was leaving the show. “Ultimately, in every challenging career, there comes a time when it is important to know when to move on,” he said at the time.
Lehrer later asked why Hockenberry was “allowed to leave with public praise and the impression that it was his decision?”
“We gave him the option, which is often the case, to characterize this as his decision,” Walker said.
Walker would not elaborate on why Hockenberry’s contract was not renewed, or whether he received a severance payment. She also declined to answer whether the station paid settlements to victims who filed complaints against Hockenberry.
Lehrer pressed Walker on the question about monetary severance, asking “you don’t think you owe that accounting and that transparency to our listener members?”
“I cannot discuss that kind of information,” Walker said, saying that “there’s confidentiality for personnel matters.”
After Lehrer asked whether WNYC’s confidentiality policy in resolving harassment complaints was appropriate, Walker said the station’s board and top management are “revisiting everything,” including how the policy has been applied.
“We are looking into every new allegation that we get about John with the help of outside counsel. We are doing a review of what happened here with the help of outside counsel. We are also looking very, very carefully at our policies and practices to make sure they work way better, because they need to work better.”
Lehrer also asked about Hockenberry’s bullying of former co-hosts of The Takeaway, including Farai Chideya, who complained that Hockenberry called her a “diversity hire” and told her to “go lose weight.” “Why wasn’t that firing offense?” Lehrer asked.
“It was taken seriously and we did take some action,” Walker said. “…I apologize to Farai … and the women who came forward. I have huge amount of admiration and respect for these women coming forward at this time.”
Referring to the women who had been co-hosts with Hockenberry, Lehrer asked: “The coming and going of Adaora Udoji, Farai Chideya, Celeste Headlee makes three African American women sharing the air with John, all leaving while he persisted. Do you see the impression that leaves?”
Declining to comment on those departures, Walker pointed out that in 2012 The Takeaway changed from a co-hosted, four-hour show to a one-hour show with Hockenberry as the solo host.
“We are an organization that not only values diversity, but champions the importance of respecting people of color at this difficult time in our country’s history,” Walker said. “So these racial comments are especially painful to me. I regret that women, and especially women of color, felt disrespected and I apologize to them. I too have been a victim of sexual harassment and I know how it feels. … I do not know what racial comments feel like as a white woman. We must do better.”
Lehrer asked if there are plans to change the mostly white “editorial power structure” at WNYC. “We will be looking at bringing in even more people in power of diverse backgrounds.”
On social media, listeners expressed frustration with Walker’s comments and some even called for her resignation:
I don't think Walker and @WNYC management realize the extent of the groundswell of fury here—from within the building, from veterans and friends of the station, and most important, from listeners, as amply evidenced from callers to @BrianLehrer and on social media.
— siddhartha mitter (@siddhmi) December 5, 2017
They kept releasing Hockenberry back into the newsroom. Laura Walker should resign. https://t.co/Wh7Z5Eb1AB
— Joe Blaney (@realJoeBlaney) December 5, 2017
My name is @lwalker. I was once a victim of workplace sexual harassment but when WOC and others complained about John Hockenberry on @TheTakeaway , I ignored them until it became public then I talked about my own harassment to get sympathy.
— Tasha B (@thatgirlsworld) December 5, 2017
The women came forward @lwalker, time and time again. You know that saying the dog bites you once, the dog bites you twice? You didn't take enough action. Womens lives and especially WOC have been forever changed by your lack of leadership. You and @PRI had 10 years to act.
— Andrew Ramsammy (@ramsammy) December 5, 2017
“we have to do better” and “i regret… i take responsibility” she says while giving routine harasser graceful exit by way of professional speak and glass-stepping loopholes.
— at risk arctic fox (@allyhoffmann_) December 5, 2017
“I take responsibility.” is a vague response not tied to any action. Truly disappointing interview with @lwalker on @BrianLehrer on harassment and institutionalized marginalization of Black women at @WNYC.
— Akisa Omulepu (@ABrandNewWorld) December 5, 2017