An investigation into how NPR management handled complaints of sexual harassment found that top leadership first heard about questionable behavior by Michael Oreskes before hiring him as senior news VP.
A member of the hiring committee told Human Resources in March 2015 about an incident in which Oreskes had behaved inappropriately towards women at a news conference, but NPR CEO Jarl Mohn received an incomplete account of what had happened. After a search firm’s background check and reference checks turned up no issues, Mohn made the hire with full support of the hiring committee.
The report by law firm Morgan Lewis thoroughly examined how NPR handled subsequent complaints about Oreskes. It also described problems with NPR’s workplace culture that allowed bullying and harassment to take place and noted “very prominent distrust” of management within NPR. Staffers expressed concerns about a lack of transparency in harassment investigations and explanations of the outcomes.
Morgan Lewis conducted a two-month investigation into harassment for a special committee of the NPR Board of Directors. NPR employees filed complaints about Oreskes in October 2015, and management mistakenly believed that a “stern” warning to Oreskes had resolved those issues. As reports continued to surface, including some from outside NPR, Mohn wasn’t fully informed of the scope of his behavior, which included inappropriate use of his NPR expense account and sending personal emails to young women who didn’t work at NPR.
The firm began its investigation Dec. 12 and completed its final interview Feb. 9, according to the report. Its lawyers interviewed 86 current and former NPR employees, including 71 women and 15 men. Most of those employees requested the interviews and met with investigators individually, whether in person or by telephone, and for 30 to 90 minutes.
The majority of the report is devoted to Oreskes, but investigators devoted a page to subsequent harassment allegations against former investigative correspondent Daniel Zwerdling and former chief news editor David Sweeney.
When an investigation by Current revealed this month that Zwerdling left NPR amid sexual harassment allegations, Zwerdling told Current that he had “retired from NPR last month.” According to Morgan Lewis, the investigative reporter “left NPR on February 6,” the day Current published its report.
That day, Chris Turpin, acting senior VP for news, notified staff by email that Zwerdling had “chosen to retire from NPR. We fully support his decision to leave the organization.” There was no mention of the harassment allegations against him.
Morgan Lewis’s report describes the allegations against Zwerdling as “inappropriate comments at times during his employment with NPR, such as discussing his dating experiences and comparing an interview to phone sex. There were also reports that Mr. Zwerdling attempted to kiss and hug women without invitations to do so.”
Sweeney, who was promoted by Oreskes, reportedly made explicit sexual comments to a colleague and attempted to kiss her. Another colleague told investigators that when she began to ignore Sweeney’s advances, she was removed from her position.
“Employees reported feeling a lot of frustration surrounding Mr. Sweeney’s and Mr. Zwerdling’s departures from NPR,” the report said. “Specifically, employees felt that there was a lack of transparency both with respect to the allegations made against Mr. Sweeney and Mr. Zwerdling and the reasons they left NPR. Some employees reported feeling that they did not receive any follow-up from HR after reporting these incidents, and only heard of a resolution when Mr. Sweeney’s and Mr. Zwerdling’s departures were announced.”
The investigators found that Oreskes “was widely perceived to take a disproportionate level of interest in female staff members by frequently asking them personal questions and inviting them to talk about their career interests.” They interviewed staff who said Oreskes “leered at women in the newsroom, engaged in uninvited shoulder rubs, and brushed a little too closely when passing by.” Within the newsroom, women were frequently warned to “avoid being alone with Mr. Oreskes,” but this so-called “whisper network” did not extend to women in other divisions.
The report details repeated attempts by management to curtail Oreskes’ behavior, which he continued. After Mohn warned Oreskes last September about his communications with women outside of NPR, Oreskes resumed email correspondence with one woman within days.
On the morning of Oct. 31, Mohn met with the NPR Board to discuss Oreskes’ behavior, but there was no decision to suspend or terminate him, the report said. The Washington Post reported on harassment allegations against Oreskes that afternoon. The Post’s account prompted additional women to come forward and led Mohn to ask Oreskes for his resignation, the report said.
Several employees raised concerns about another senior editor they felt frequently discussed his personal life and marital issues in great detail, in long winded, hours long conversations. HR deemed the conversations inappropriate, but “they did not rise to the level of a terminable offense,” the report said. The editor received discipline and training.
Read the full report.