NPR media reporter David Folkenflik dropped a bombshell out of the Los Angeles Times on Thursday. He reported that publisher and CEO Ross Levinsohn was a defendant in two sexual harassment cases settled by employers before he came to the Times, and that female colleagues have repeatedly accused him of misconduct throughout his career. Based on court documents, financial filings and interviews with 26 former colleagues and associates, Folkenflik wrote, the accounts "suggest a pattern of questionable behavior and questionable decisions on the job....a frat-boy executive, catapulting ever higher, even as he creates corporate climates that alienated some of the people who worked for and with him."
Among the accusations are that Levinsohn admitted to rating the relative "hotness" of his female colleagues while vice president at a digital media company, speculated whether a woman who worked for him was a stripper on the side, engaged in aggressive kissing in view of subordinates and clients, and walked out of a Hollywood Reporter event complaining he would be surrounded by gays — "using a vulgar epithet for them," reportedly fags.
Levinsohn is a neophyte publisher, but he should have known not to make this next move — when confronted with NPR's reporting, he refused to comment and instead called Folkenflik's boss, NPR CEO Jarl Mohn, and termed the story lies. Mohn listened and blew him off (as any real publisher would) and the story was posted today. After it went up, Tronc — the corporate parent of the Times — sent NPR a statement through crisis management strategist Charles Sipkins. [Another dubious move since Sipkins was the hired spin doctor for USC after the Times revealed the scandal around the school's drug-taking medical dean.]
"This week, we became aware of allegations that Ross Levinsohn acted inappropriately. We are immediately launching an investigation so that we have a better understanding of what's occurred," the statement read. "At Tronc, we expect all employees to act in a way that supports a culture of diversity and inclusion. We will take appropriate action to address any behavior that falls short of these expectations." Levinsohn hasn't commented — even to his own paper, which posted a story later on Thursday.
The NPR story — coming the day before Friday's planned unveiling of the results of the union vote at the Times — set off a furious reaction at the Times. Numerous reporters posted online their disgust at Levinsohn's reported behavior, and 12 top editors — everyone on the masthead except for the three newest editors hired under Tronc — signed a statement to Folkenflik saying "the organization should not be led by anyone who has engaged in this behavior, if it is true, particularly given the publication's role in investigating multiple industries and governments on the topic of sexual harassment."
The signers include the two deputy managing editors, Colin Crawford and Scott Kraft, assistant managing editors Shelby Grad, Christina Bellantoni, Kim Murphy and Mary McNamara, editor of the editorial pages Nick Goldberg, and the sports and business editors.
The Los Angeles Times Guild organizing committee, which hopes to learn on Friday that it has been elected as the union representing the newsroom, went further in its statement.
We are appalled by the findings in the NPR story. Ross Levinsohn should resign or be fired immediately. A man who sexually harasses women, engages in 'slut-shaming' and refers to gay men as 'fags' is not fit to lead our newspaper...
The guild called for Tronc's board to be held accountable for not vetting Levinsohn before he was hired and demanded an independent investigation into whether he has acted inappropriately toward any Times employees. Levinsohn was hired last summer after advising Tronc on changes it could make at its new property, the LA Times. One of his suggestions was a new publisher. He got the job, based on his experiences in prominent digital jobs at CBS, the early search engine Alta Vista, News Corp. and Yahoo.
From Folkenflik's story:
As an executive at the search engine company Alta Vista in 2001, Levinsohn gave testimony in a sexual harassment and sexual discrimination case in which he had been sued along with other defendants. Levinsohn conceded under oath that he had assessed the "hotness" and bodies of female subordinates; Levinsohn also testified that he had discussed whether a female subordinate was working as a stripper on the side and that he engaged in speculation about whether she had slept with a co-worker.
Former Alta Vista employee Christine Fox had sued the company and several executives, including Levinsohn. She alleged she had failed to receive a significant raise to move from Massachusetts to the Bay Area, where the cost of living was far higher, and that there was a hostile work environment.
Another former Alta Vista executive, Celia Francis, testified in the case that she had warned two top executives about the culture Levinsohn had created when she left the company. "Ross was creating a frat house environment," Francis testified at the time. "His behavior was inappropriate. ... I wanted to let them know they should do something about it."
"Ross created a definite frat boys' club," [ Alta Vista recruitment and hiring chief Jessie] Dennen says now. "They openly would rate women. I remember feeling uncomfortable. I would roll my eyes."
According to a half-dozen former Yahoo colleagues, Levinsohn's approach to selling ads — a huge component of his job — involved throwing parties to entertain. In 2011, Levinsohn arranged the lease of a boat by Yahoo off the coast of southern France to entertain business partners and clients at the Cannes Lions Creativity Festival. Paid models mingled with participants as they downed drinks while the yacht made small loops in the Mediterranean Sea, according to three former Yahoo executives.
One attendee from another company recalled that she got onboard, having been invited by Levinsohn to talk business. She told NPR she got off the boat as quickly as possible, saying she shouldn't have to strike deals in a setting where men were gawking at bikini-clad women....
Yahoo paid for a vacation home in the Hamptons for Levinsohn and [business partner James] Heckman to entertain clients. On more than one occasion, police intervened to shut down parties that generated so much noise they caused disruptions for neighbors, according to two former Yahoo officials.
The NPR story also describes Levinsohn, by then at Guggenheim Partners, then the controlling owner of the Hollywood Reporter and Billboard magazine, bolting from a Hollywood Reporter party by telling a colleague "why would I hang out with a bunch of ladies and fags?"
His slur directed at gay people was cited by some of the Times reporters who posted objections Thursday on social media.
As a gay journalist, I'm sad and frustrated that my publisher would refer to members of the LGBTQ community as "fags." It's homophobic. It has had no place in polite discourse for many decades. This is not OK. 1/?https://t.co/5hnJtm5ZYl— Anthony Pesce 🦅 (@anthonyjpesce) January 18, 2018
This is very alarming to me as a queer woman working at the LATimes. I hope the company addresses this promptly and transparently. https://t.co/JuLORDmz25— Emily Alpert Reyes (@AlpertReyes) January 18, 2018
"Why would I hang out with a bunch of ladies and fags?"— Kate Linthicum (@katelinthicum) January 18, 2018
As a woman and a queer person, these allegations about our publisher are pretty tough to hear. https://t.co/eJ1KX4UHRM
It makes me nauseous and heartsick that I work so hard for and care so much about a company that hires people like this. We deserve better.— Laura J. Nelson 🦅 (@laura_nelson) January 18, 2018
Getting a small taste today of how the women of NPR have probably been feeling. As a gay woman, this is nauseating. https://t.co/39qZWCTkMK— Anna Phillips (@annamphillips) January 18, 2018
Also this from a KTLA Channel 5 digital editor:
And from LAT alumnas.
The @latimes was one of the queerest newsrooms I’ve worked in.— Natalie Kitroeff 🦅 (@Nataliekitro) January 18, 2018
How can you lead them if, to you, they’re fags?
You cannot separate #MeToo from digital transformation that threatened these men and biz as they knew it. In response, the old boys network activates to help them survive - and thrive. https://t.co/GykxUdPnuE— S. Mitra Kalita (@mitrakalita) January 18, 2018
When will the newspaper once led by Otis Chandler, John Carroll and Dean Baquet finally regain the leadership it deserves?: Accusations of 'Frat House' Behavior Trail 'LA Times' Publisher's Career https://t.co/rKKZKUi5DU— Garrett Therolf (@gtherolf) January 18, 2018
Later in the day, Tronc CEO Justin Dearborn sent Times staffers a note.
The management of tronc is fully committed to fostering a professional work environment where employees are respected, valued and appreciated. We expect all employees to act in a way that supports a culture of diversity and inclusion.
This week, the company learned of allegations of inappropriate behavior by Ross Levinsohn. I want to assure you that the management at tronc is taking the allegations seriously. Tronc is committed to creating a culture of diversity and inclusion, and we will take appropriate action to address any behavior that is inconsistent with this culture.
We are conducting an independent review into these matters. Once that review is complete, we will take swift and appropriate action to address any behavior that falls short of our expectations.
Ultimately, we all perform our best – individually and collectively – when everyone feels safe and respected. Tronc is committed to building an accountable and transparent workplace, where we can continue to serve our communities and produce exceptional journalism.
Thank you for your support and cooperation.
It's not the first time the frat boy reference has been thrown around as a description for the antics of Chicago-based owners of the LA Times. Remember in the Sam Zell days when, during a previous attempt to have non-news executives magically reinvent the company's newspapers, the Tribune Company allowed ex-radio guy Randy Michaels to create a horrible workplace culture for women (or professional journalists). A 2010 story by David Carr of the New York Times blew the lid off the boys club in Tribune Tower, citing that "Michaels’s and his executives’ use of sexual innuendo, poisonous workplace banter and profane invective shocked and offended people throughout the company. Tribune Tower, the architectural symbol of the staid company, came to resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, juke boxes and pervasive sex talk."
Michaels was soon gone, then Zell soon after. The split up of Tribune, the name change to Tronc and the era of Michael Ferro, and the hiring of Ross Levinsohn are in some way the cards continuing to fall from Chicago interests fumbling their handling of the Los Angeles Times, an entity they have never fully understood or valued.
Meanwhile — any other day these would be the big media stories in LA — the interim Los Angeles Times editor Jim Kirk, who filled in between the firing of Davan Maharaj and the hiring of Tronc's man Lewis D'Vorkin, is leaving to be the interim editor of the New York Daily News, Tronc's latest newspaper acquisition. And industry analyst Ken Doctor is out with a Newsonomics piece he calls Inside L.A.’s journalistic collapse. It's about not just the return of convulsive change at the LA Times, but the accelerating demise of local journalism here beyond the Times. I'm quoted a couple of times. More tomorrow but here's his update on the new editors D'Vorkin is bringing into the Times (assuming they still want to come.)
While those hires are still unannounced — despite the fact that the Times’ journalists have asked their own management what they mean, given that the hiring leaked through a human resources system visible to all employees — I’ve learned more on the scope of new managing editor Louise Story’s position. Story, a well-regarded hire from The New York Times, will indeed become a managing editor. However, she will be based in New York City, where she lives, and her role includes Tronc-wide responsibilities. Story will lead a team of at least a dozen journalists, a new national Tronc investigative and/or enterprise news team. It’s so far unclear the nature of Story’s relationship with Tronc’s newsrooms or their editor/publisher leaders. Could she be taking on a major Tronc role — similar to the one Joanne Lipman recently left at Gannett — with wider responsibilities for Tronc content? Neither Tronc nor Story returned inquiries on the appointment, which I’ve had verified by multiple sources. A “gag order” — something that seems like an oxymoron for a public-facing, public-serving news company to adopt — apparently has stilled any comment.
The Times’ new management — which includes The Washington Post’s Sylvester Monroe and long-time Forbes editor Bruce Upbin as assistant managing editors — will confront many issues as it is re-organized by D’Vorkin. The newsroom, long a fractured place, must be given a new vision of Times editorial strategy, one that will certainly be greeted with at least journalistic skepticism. About the same time, the newsroom contingent of more than 400 will hear how many more jobs Tronc plans to cut as an anxious 2018 sets in. Last year, print advertising revenue, say sources, was down approaching 20 percent.