As More Sexual Harassment Stories Mount Up, I’m Furious For The Women At NPR
NPR listeners are a devoted group, and so are the people who work there. I am one, and have worked there, and I’m furious right now.
This week, the Washington Post reported that Michael Oreskes, the senior vice president of news and editorial director at NPR, sexually harassed women while he was an editor at The New York Times, and later after he took his job in public radio.
Oreskes resigned on Wednesday, and it subsequently was revealed that a number of women at NPR had complained about his actions, and management did nothing more than warn him about them.
My first thought was, “Oh, my God, all those NPR Girls.”
Let me explain. The phrase “NPR Girl” doesn’t in any way demean the women who work there. And by using it, I mean the women at NPR itself, and all the women who work at the 900 stations in the NPR network.
And, there are lots of them.
My first public radio job was leading the Changing Gears reporting project, shared by Michigan Radio, WBEZ in Chicago, and ideastream in Cleveland. Arriving after a decade at the Times, I noticed that the newsrooms at the NPR member stations were full of smart, bright, interesting young women.
There were entire reporting teams dominated by female staff and they were present in digital jobs, as producers, engineers and elsewhere. These women were passionate about their jobs, and a lot of fun to be around.
After working in male-dominated newsrooms, and being around men so much of my career, it was a refreshing change.
I mentioned the presence of so many women to one of my male colleagues, who replied, “Haven’t you heard the phrase, ‘NPR Girl?’” I hadn’t at the time, and a number of people at NPR have since told me they’d never heard it, either.
But to him, “NPR Girl” meant the legions of young and in my case, not so young women who are attracted to public radio for all the opportunities it provides.
The opportunity to care about the news, and the community that hears it. The opportunity to experiment with compelling sound and music. The opportunity to design programs that will meet needs that listeners have expressed.
At many stations, the women and men do not get paid very much. The reporters based at NPR headquarters in Washington earn decent salaries, and some hosts are pulling fairly hefty paychecks.
But that’s not the case across the country, even in markets with expensive real estate. I remember when a manager told me how much to offer in salary to my reporters. I compared the low amount to what reporters earned at the Times, and said, “Nobody will work for that.”
“Yes, they will,” I was told.
And they did. Because many people are working at NPR and its member stations for something more than money.
You might scoff, but these are a combination of reporting and public service jobs, for a devoted group of listeners whose radios and other devices rarely are tuned to anything else.
These listeners almost never ask Alexa to find them any other type of broadcast programs, except those created by public media. From students to the elderly, NPR provides their frame of reference.
When I joined the NPR program Here & Now in 2015, I found our news staff once again populated with talented women, from our co-host, Robin Young, to our executive producer, Kathleen McKenna, to producers, our digital editor and our administrative staff.
That’s why I am so damned mad (actually, madder than that) at the Oreskes allegations. This isn’t just what he supposedly did to the young job applicants at the Times or the women he worked with at NPR’s Washington headquarters.
By extension, he hassled every woman in the NPR system who has given something of themselves to make sure that the audience gets the news they need, is entertained by NPR programming and as important, that the money donated to NPR is well spent.
AT NPR, and elsewhere, people regularly asked me whether I knew Oreskes. Although I didn’t work closely with him, I did know him, and this week, I’ve been remembering the first time I met him.
It was at a New Year’s Eve party at the home of Gail and Dan Collins, in the late 1980s. It was my first year in New York, and I was excited at the idea of being invited to a party by this journalism power couple.
I went far too early, but it was all right, because I got to see all the guests arrive. The door opened, and a man came in. It was Oreskes.
He was the first person I ever saw in one of those J. Peterman caped coats, and he topped it off with what looked to be an Australian outback hat. (A former colleague tells me it was a Borsalino, and so finely made that it could be collapsed and threaded through a wedding ring.)
The Carly Simon song “You’re So Vain,” popped into my head. You can guess why. I was thinking of the line, “You walked into a party like you were walking onto a yacht.” His hat actually was strategically dipped below one eye, although his tie wasn’t apricot.
We were introduced and that was it, although our paths crossed professionally later on. Any time anyone at NPR asked me, “And what do you think of him?” my answer was the non-committal, “Well, he’s flamboyant” thinking of the entrance he made.
NPR management is taking steps to deal with the Oreskes fallout. Jarl Mohn, the CEO, was interviewed on air this week by the respected NPR journalist Mary Louise Kelly, whose tough questioning was professional and had many listeners on the edge of their seats.
There was a town hall on Friday, that included some of NPR’s most prominent women, such as Cokie Roberts, Susan Stamberg and Nina Totenberg and many others.
The Post reported that Stamberg called the meeting ““free, frank and heartbreaking. . . . My heart was broken at what I heard.”
Men, too, are voicing their anger at seeing their women colleagues abused by someone who had no public radio experience before he was hired to run NPR News.
It’s comforting to know they are also distressed, although apparently the people in decision making positions about Oreskes were not distressed enough to act until the Post’s initial story.
According to NPR’s David Folkenflik, the NPR board chair and vice chair were informed of allegations against Oreskes last month. The full board was informed on Oct. 31, the day of the Post story and the day Oreskes resigned.
As I’m picturing NPR newsrooms this week, I’m thinking of these women who are so talented, and the young women, present and future, whose morale was damaged when management covered up for someone who did so much harm.
And the song keeps going through my head: “You’re So Vain.”
Follow Micheline Maynard on Twitter @mickimaynard