Ending Open Secrets—Both Inside and Outside the Newsroom

This is a decisive moment for women, and also for the journalists investigating their accounts.

The NPR headquarters
Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

“You have me riveted,” reads the incoming text. “How long will you be in NY?”

Later that evening, my phone lights up again: “Reading with pleasure.”

The next ping:  “Exquisite pleasure in fact.”

The man writing me these texts was James Toback. He’d struck up a conversation earlier that day at The Harvard Club in New York, where he’d spotted me sitting alone with a cup of tea, typing away at my laptop. Might he share my table? Might he ask my name? What brought me to town?

Book tour, I told him. I’d just published a novel. Well, fancy that. He was a movie director. Had I ever seen Black and White? He and Jessica Chastain were tight, he informed me; she would be perfect to play my protagonist.

Riiiiiight, I thought. But I Googled him when he excused himself to the men’s room, and the first photo that popped up was of him with Alec Baldwin, arms linked, strolling the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival.

When Toback returned, he scribbled down the address of his apartment on Park Avenue. Perhaps I would care to swing by later, to deliver a copy of my book. Umm, no, thank you. I arranged a bike courier to drop it instead. Over the following weeks, Toback texted and called. I never saw him again. Does it go without saying that he never produced the movie version of my book?

My encounter with Toback came in 2013, and I hadn’t thought of him for ages, until the Los Angeles Times broke a story last month. The headline took my breath away:  38 Women Have Come Forward to Accuse Director James Toback of Sexual Harassment.

“He prowled the streets of Manhattan looking for attractive young women,” the article begins. It continues: “His opening line had a few variations. One went, ‘My name’s James Toback. I’m a movie director. Have you ever seen Black and White or Two Girls and a Guy?’” Oh boy.

The Times interviewed dozens of women who described meetings framed as interviews or auditions, which culminated with Toback dry-humping or masturbating in front of them. Toback has denied these allegations.

In fairness, he never laid a finger on me. But looking back, two thoughts strike me. One, that my encounter might have ended differently had I been younger and more naive, or simply hungrier to make it big in Hollywood.

The second thing is that it never occurred to me—a journalist with two decades of reporting under my belt—that this might be a story. That there might be a pattern of behavior worth investigating. Seeing Toback’s face loom above that headline, I had occasion to regret my lack of imagination.

This is a decisive moment for women—and also for the journalists telling their stories. On the one hand, it’s thanks to journalists that allegations of revolting behavior by Toback, Harvey Weinstein, and so many others have now come to light. Hats off.

On the other hand, it has taken us—all of us in the media—far too long.

The day after the Weinstein story broke, I interviewed Kim Masters of KCRW and The Hollywood Reporter on NPR. Masters is a good reporter, and I was surprised when she told me the claims against Weinstein had been an open secret in Hollywood for years.

Really? I’ll admit to having wondered, a tad judgmentally. If you all knew, why didn’t you write about it?

Ah, how the chickens came home to roost. Three weeks after my chat with Masters, in the middle of the live broadcast of All Things Considered, my co-host Ari Shapiro turned to me in the studio with shock on his face.

“Have you seen this Washington Post story that just posted?” he asked.

The story detailed allegations of sexual harassment against our top news editor, Mike Oreskes. By that evening, he’d been placed on leave. By lunchtime the following day, he’d resigned. And by the time Ari and I were back on air for that afternoon’s broadcast, our media correspondent, David Folkenflik, had spoken to another five women claiming inappropriate behavior by Oreskes.

Turns out we at NPR had been sitting on our own open secret.

Among the many, many questions that gnaw at me is this: How did I miss a scandal unfolding within our own walls? How did a whole newsroom of reporters get scooped on our own story?

One partial answer is that taking on your boss is not pleasant. I can’t say I would have been brave enough to go first. Many colleagues have since allowed that they’d heard rumors about Oreskes, which goes to show their nose for news is better than mine—I didn’t have a clue. And if I’m being perfectly honest, I’d still rather not be writing about this stuff. Not because it’s unimportant—on the contrary—but because 2017 has presented us with so many things to be furious about, so many fights to fight. It irks me that we’re being forced to channel precious energy and outrage in the direction of horndog creeps.

The irony is that if you went looking for a building packed with empowered women, you’d hit the jackpot at NPR. Our four big shows are all led by female executive producers. My immediate boss, the head of the National Desk, is a woman. Women have run every reporting desk; they’ve chaired the board; turn on NPR right now and you will hear women leading our newscasts, filing from the White House and from war zones.

Like many companies, NPR is in the midst of serious soul-searching. A harassment support group has been created. The whistleblower hotline has been expanded. An outside law firm has been hired to investigate what happened. All good steps.

But to me, the most heartening development has been NPR’s policy of allowing its journalists to cover our own turmoil with the same rigor we would apply to any other organization. Folkenflik was on air immediately with the Oreskes story, moving it forward with his own reporting—he had fresh tape of an NPR journalist who agreed to speak about the complaint she’d filed.

Then there’s our CEO, Jarl Mohn. The same day that he asked for Oreskes’s resignation, we asked Mohn for an interview. He agreed and submitted to our grilling him, on the record, about why he hadn’t acted sooner to remove Oreskes from the newsroom. The interview wasn’t perfect. Information has subsequently surfaced that reveals some of his answers as incomplete. But many news organizations would not have allowed what was a decidedly uncomfortable conversation to happen in the first place—much less broadcast the segment nationwide.

Last week, just when it looked like things might be starting to settle, came word the chair of NPR’s board of directors was stepping down, and that another top NPR editor had been placed on leave, as allegations of inappropriate behavior reached them too. Cue the collective if fatigued gasp from the newsroom.

But there’s a scrap of good news, from where I sit: Along with most NPR staffers, I learned of these latest twists not from another news outlet, or from the office rumor mill. We learned them, along with the rest of the world, from a well-sourced and thoroughly reported story on the NPR website, written by Folkenflik and another colleague, Merrit Kennedy.

“At least we didn’t get scooped this time?” tweeted a producer on the National Desk.