Why 'A Father-Son Talking-To' Is So Troubling

Before NPR’s Michael Oreskes resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct, his former colleagues offered insight into the male-driven version of the whisper network.

Mike Oreskes, then Associated Press Vice President and Senior Managing Editor, photographed at the organization's New York headquarters in 2015 (AP Photo)

“Toby is in HR, which technically means he works for corporate, so he’s really not a part of our family,” Michael Scott told the documentary cameras, of his arch-enemy, in the second season of The Office. Unable, in classic Scottian style, to help himself, the Dunder Mifflin branch manager added: “Also, he’s divorced, so he’s really not a part of his family.”

The Office captured many awkward truths about the American workplace of the early 21st century; one of them was the tension that inevitably results when workplaces think of themselves, as Michael Scott insists on doing, as a family by other means. In some ways, certainly, it’s logic that makes sense: Coworkers are teams; they (ideally) enjoy and respect each other; they often spend more time in each others’ company than they do in the company of their actual families. And, yet, recent sexual-harassment allegations and revelations—the “Harvey effect,” my colleague Adrienne LaFrance called it—have made clear how problematic a familial framework can be in a professional environment. So many women who didn’t trust their HR departments to properly handle their experiences; so many instances of women forced to give up their jobs—their families—rather than stay on in environments where they were harassed. So many instances of employees who were not, in the end, treated like family.

I mention that because, earlier Wednesday, Michael Oreskes, the senior vice president and editorial director at National Public Radio—essentially, NPR’s top newsroom executive—resigned amid allegations that he had harassed at least three women during his tenure there and, previously, at The New York Times. In a statement, Oreskes said, “I am deeply sorry to the people I hurt. My behavior was wrong and inexcusable, and I accept full responsibility.”

The news on the one hand marks another instance of the Harvey effect in action: past misconduct, coming to light; past misconduct, facing the belated consequences. What was also striking about Oreskes’s case, though, was the fact that his misbehavior had been known to some of his former colleagues. The family, essentially, was aware of the problem. And yet there had been no meaningful intervention.

In The Washington Post, which broke the story of the accusations against Oreskes, the media reporter Paul Farhi provided details of Oreskes’s alleged harassment of women working at the Times—and of how rumors of his behavior had been known by at least some at the paper. “Eventually,” Farhi reported, “another editor passed the word to a senior editor in New York, who gave Oreskes ‘a father-son talking-to,’ as one editor put it, warning him to steer clear of the young woman.”

It’s the phrasing here—“a father-son talking-to”—that’s especially striking. Given Oreskes’s age (63) and the time period of the allegations in question, Oreskes would have been in his 40s when he took part in such a ritualistic coming-of-age conversation. What the anonymous editor is describing is the stuff of the after-school special, ported to a professional environment: a talk that would seem, given the circumstances, at once overly intimate and also, in retrospect, ineffective. A talk that prioritizes the happiness of one family member over the interests of the institution and the good of the professional collective. A talk that smacks of Michael Scott.

“A father-son talking-to” is extremely familiar, though, as an idea—in the workplace, and far beyond. It suggests male exceptionalism: the logic of boys being boys, of locker-room talk, of perpetual adolescence that feels no need to make an apology for itself. After the Weinstein allegations emerged in October, many spoke of the whisper networks that women, in Hollywood and elsewhere, had used to warn each other about the mogul’s alleged predations. A list of “shitty media men” circulated among women in media, intended to issue similar warnings. Women, basically, tried to help each other. They tried to have each others’ backs, as best they could. They tried to form a little family.

“A father-son talking-to” is the same logic from the opposite direction: It suggests a man, helping another man. It suggests an attempt to protect the family, an impulse to avoid airing the family’s dirty laundry. An instinct to close ranks. An instinct that may be less and less possible to indulge, the more stories like Oreskes’s emerge. HR is corporate, which isn’t really a part of our family. Except, of course, as today’s events reminded: It is.