NPR's Head Of News Placed On Leave After Past Harassment Allegations Surface

Oct 31, 2017
Originally published on November 1, 2017 2:48 am

NPR has placed its senior vice president for news, Michael Oreskes, on leave after fielding accusations that he sexually harassed two women seeking career opportunities nearly two decades ago, when he worked at The New York Times.

The allegations from the two women were first reported by The Washington Post on Tuesday afternoon. They included similar accounts of unwanted and unexpected kisses during business meetings.

Meanwhile, a current NPR employee is going public with her account of filing a formal complaint with the network's human resources division in October 2015. Rebecca Hersher says she considers the incident less severe but nevertheless felt it crossed a line and made her uncomfortable. At the time a 26-year-old assistant producer on Weekend All Things Considered, she said Oreskes hijacked a career counseling session into a three-hour-long dinner that delved into deeply personal territory.

Oreskes did not respond to multiple efforts to reach him for comment. NPR executives say that they cannot address individual personnel matters but that they take concerns of sexual harassment or other inappropriate workplace behavior seriously.

According to The Washington Post, there were two separate complaints about Oreskes from his tenure as Washington bureau chief at The New York Times nearly 20 years ago. Both women tell similar stories: After meeting Oreskes and discussing their job prospects, they said he unexpectedly kissed them on the lips and stuck his tongue in their mouths. The Post did not disclose their names, stating they spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to damage future employment prospects. The women also shared their allegations with NPR management in mid-October.

After joining NPR in the spring of 2015, Oreskes encouraged staffers to reach out to him to discuss their careers during his visit to NPR West in Culver City, Calif. At the time Hersher had been working a series of temporary assignments for NPR, and she took him up on his offer during a subsequent visit to Washington. An afternoon meeting was pushed off into evening and an invitation to dinner at a seafood restaurant near Union Station.

Hersher, now a reporter and producer on NPR's science desk, says she wanted to tell him about her belief that she would need to leave NPR to transform from a producer to a reporter. Her dinner with Oreskes became increasingly uncomfortable as the conversation veered into personal matters involving relationships and sex. At one point, she says, he referred to a former flame as his first "sex girlfriend."

Hersher says the conversation made her uncomfortable.

"From my point of view, every little thing that he or I said pointed to the relative difference in power," she said. "Like he's the one with the power. He's the one who gets to decide what we talk about — and I am trying to keep up."

Hersher said he gave her what seemed like a nonromantic hug at the train station afterward, and that he did not otherwise touch her or suggest any physical involvement.

Still, Hersher said Tuesday, the entire evening felt as though it devalued her as a professional. She suddenly questioned why a senior executive would care about her career.

"I went to the train station, and I called my best friend; I cried on the phone to her," Hersher says. "I went home and then I cried to my boyfriend. It undercut my confidence in a way that was surprising to me."

Hersher reported the incident to NPR's human resources division. The network formally rebuked Oreskes and informed other top network executives. Hersher said she felt satisfied with the company's response and that she experienced no retribution.

Two colleagues at NPR confirmed that Hersher told them of the incident at the time. I did considerable reporting on the episode in spring 2016. At that time, Hersher was not willing to go on the record for a news story, and I was unable to confirm a pattern of behavior by Oreskes. The incident did not involve anything physical, and there was no force, retribution or request for a romantic involvement, and Hersher said she believed the network had held Oreskes appropriately accountable.

At the time, this reporter and editors of that story — who did not include Oreskes or anyone who reported directly to him — concluded that the incident on its own did not rise to the level of national news.

The new allegations concerning Oreskes' tenure at The Times changed the equation.

In a note to staff on Tuesday, NPR CEO Jarl Mohn encouraged employees to come forward if they have been harassed.

"We take these kinds of allegations very seriously," Mohn wrote. "If a concern is raised, we review the matter promptly. We take all appropriate steps to assure a safe, comfortable, and productive work environment for everyone at NPR. ... This is our NPR. And I will stand up for it, and every one of you."

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