Fueled by anger, female employees confront NPR Board with questions left unanswered by harassment investigation

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April Simpson/Current

WASHINGTON — Female NPR staffers told board members Thursday that they are angry and their loyalty is being tested as the company reckons with the outcome of an investigation into sexual harassment within its workforce.

The board’s regularly scheduled February meeting included a discussion of the investigation by outside law firm Morgan Lewis, whose report was released Tuesday. It found that NPR management had been warned about Michael Oreskes’ behavior before he was hired and learned of additional warning signs throughout his tenure.

Public revelations of sexual harassment at NPR began in October when allegations surfaced about former news VP Oreskes. The network then investigated other harassment claims, leading to the departure of chief news editor David Sweeney and investigative correspondent Daniel Zwerdling.

Board member Wonya Lucas, who chaired a committee formed to oversee the Morgan Lewis investigation, recapped the report and said the board had unanimously approved its recommendations during meetings Wednesday. Those include putting the network’s head of human resources under the CEO, establishing continuous board review of HR matters, starting an ongoing cultural survey, and holding audits and regular reviews to assess pay equity.

“We don’t think we will regain trust in a minute; we will regain it over years, so watch this space,” said board chair Paul Haaga.

The employees who spoke during public comment made clear just how far management has to go.

“I don’t want to see confidence in a broken system that allowed dangerous behavior to continue,” said associate newscast producer Rachel Lushinsky. “I want a firm commitment to use outside experts in harassment investigations and to value and protect employees without power at NPR and young women in general.”

All Things Considered editor Jessica Deahl said she felt overwhelmed by rage as she followed the meeting from a nearby overflow room, set up to accommodate the crush of employees and others who couldn’t get into the boardroom to watch. She decided to speak though she had not prepared remarks.

“People are loyal to this place, and that loyalty is being abused,” she said.

‘I don’t get seven second chances’

Haaga and NPR CEO Jarl Mohn said NPR would shift toward focusing on the recommendations made in the Morgan Lewis report and moving forward from the difficult experience. The moment provides an opportunity for NPR and other public media organizations that have publicly dealt with sexual harassment allegations, including WBUR, PBS and Minnesota Public Radio, to set a standard for other industries, Mohn said.

“We must make our cultural goals and our workplace safety every bit as important as our revenue goals,” he said.

Haaga said the board had cast a vote of full confidence for Jarl Mohn and NPR’s leadership team. The meeting was Mohn’s first since taking medical leave in November.

Seven women spoke during the public comment session near the end of the meeting. Several pointed out that the Morgan Lewis report outlined seven attempts by NPR to curb Oreskes’ behavior.

“I get a second chance, but I don’t get seven second chances,” said Morning Edition producer and editor Emily Ochsenschlager. “And that to me is the disturbing part of this, because it feels to me that the higher up you go, the more chances and second chances you get.”

“Even in this post-Oreskes time, NPR continues to shelter sexual harassers by engaging in deals that include nondisclosure agreements, by sending known sexual harassers for training, by allowing people to misbehave,” said National Desk Senior Producer Marisa Peñaloza, who had to pause to compose herself as she spoke. “This needs to stop.”

Martina Stewart, a digital editor on NPR’s Washington Desk, said that when she spoke at the network’s last board meeting she asked that those who handled the Oreskes allegations be held accountable. “That project is not complete,” Stewart said.

Lushinsky said the network’s leadership team had been “negligent” in handling Oreskes, putting women’s safety in jeopardy to protect an executive and a brand. She suggested that NPR create a role for an independent chief ethics officer and a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination, sexual harassment and abusive behavior with clear consequences. Punitive decisions shouldn’t be left to supervisors, she said.

“I personally had to deal with sexual harassment at NPR the year of my unpaid internship,” Lushinsky said. “This report shows me that my instincts and assumptions were correct — that the company would value the senior male over me and my horrible experiences and wouldn’t take appropriate punitive measures.”

Home page editor Carol Ritchie said that Oreskes’ hiring committee knew about questionable behavior in his past before he was hired — why didn’t the committee give Mohn a full account of the behavior? Human Resources learned that Oreskes had emailed young women and college students outside of NPR to arrange meetups. When did management begin monitoring his email and why? she asked.

“There are still a lot of questions that we feel need to be answered,” Ritchie said. “We see the same people in charge. We would like to have some of these things cleared up to help us move forward.”

Though NPR is clarifying its procedure for filing harassment complaints, nothing will change if the process for reporting and responding to complaints isn’t clear at the C-suite level, said Ochsenschlager. That needs to change, she said.

“I’ve talked with young people who would make amazing future journalists here who are looking elsewhere because they just don’t want to be a part of this system that feels like a good-old-boy network,” Ochsenschlager said.

“In order to really address the problem, we have to take a look at that culture that feels like the higher up you go in this organization, the more protection you have,” she said.

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