So what happened?
On Thursday, NPR aired a piece on "All Things Considered" and ran an accompanying story online that put a harsh spotlight on Ross Levinsohn, the CEO and publisher of the Los Angeles Times. The web version of the report, by NPR News Media Correspondent David Folkenflik, is headlined "Accusations Of 'Frat House' Behavior Trail 'LA Times' Publisher's Career." It begins,
The Los Angeles Times has given prominent coverage to recent revelations of sexual harassment of women by prominent men, particularly in entertainment and media. Yet a review by NPR finds that the newspaper's own CEO and publisher, Ross Levinsohn, has been a defendant in two sexual harassment lawsuits and that his conduct in work settings over the past two decades has been called into question repeatedly by female colleagues. ... This story is based on a review of court documents, financial filings and fresh interviews with 26 former colleagues and associates. ... The portrait that repeatedly emerges is one of 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.
Just how bad is this?
Read NPR's story in full for all the details—but for now you can get the quick gist courtesy of an angry statement released by members of the Los Angeles Times Guild organizing committee. Titled "Not fit to lead the Los Angeles Times," it's worth quoting here in full:
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.
Tronc and its board of directors must be held accountable for their failure to properly vet Levinsohn for one of the most important positions at the company and in American journalism.
We demand an independent investigation to examine how Levinsohn was hired given his documented history of misconduct; whether he acted inappropriately toward Times employees during his tenure as publisher; and how the company and board have responded previously to allegations of sexual misconduct by newspaper leaders.
Chicago-based Tronc is the L.A. Times' parent company. Levinsohn is a veteran media executive who's worked at companies including CBS, News Corp. and Yahoo—ultimately rising to interim chief of the latter (he was ultimately passed over for the permanent job when Marissa Mayer was poached from Google). Folkenflik's NPR story covers various portions of Levinsohn's career, including his time at Yahoo. One key passage:
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.
Damn. Hey, Levinsohn hasn't even been around that long at the L.A. Times, has he?
Correct. You can catch up on the dawn of the Levinsohn era at the paper in this Aug. 22, 2017 Ad Age post: "Making Sense of the Dramatic Purge at the L.A. Times." Quick summary: Several executives at the paper were shown the door when Tronc appointed Levinsohn publisher and CEO. As I noted at the time, reflecting on the paper's own coverage of the leadership changes,
Two lines tucked in the L.A. Times story pretty much sum up what's happening here: "Levinsohn becomes The Times' 17th publisher and the fifth in the last decade. He has spent more than 20 years in media—though never in newspapers." In other words, the Times has been rapidly cycling through leadership with inky credentials, but no one's been able to fix the paper's problems—so now a newspaper-industry virgin gets to try his hand at saving the day.
When Levinsohn got the job, a spoof L.A. Times front page calling him a "digital savior" made the rounds on Twitter:
Congratulations Ross. The paper is better already! pic.twitter.com/z1B5B5pJ2S— Terence Kawaja (@tkawaja) August 21, 2017
How are Levinsohn and the L.A. Times responding to the NPR report?
As the paper's Meg James reported last night,
Los Angeles Times' parent company, Tronc, said Thursday that it had opened an investigation into past conduct of Times publisher Ross Levinsohn following a detailed report by National Public Radio. ... "This week, the company learned of allegations of inappropriate behavior by Ross Levinsohn," Tronc Chief Executive Justin Dearborn said in a note to employees. "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."
As for Levinsohn, James writes that he "didn't respond to a request for comment." Levinsohn's Twitter account, @rosslevinsohn, currently serves up an error message ("Sorry, that page doesn't exist!").
Speaking of Twitter, in a tweet last night Folkenflik called attention to a private response Levinsohn had before the publication of the NPR exposé:
Notable: When confronted with possibly negative reporting, the publisher of the LA Times called my big boss - NPR's CEO Jarl Mohn - and threatened to hire legal counsel. Mohn reminded Levinsohn of the concept of a firewall protecting newsrooms from corporate pressure.— David Folkenflik (@davidfolkenflik) January 18, 2018
So what happens next?
We wait for Tronc to complete its investigation. Meanwhile, journalists at the Times are speaking out:
Update: NPR obtained statement from 12 senior editors at LA Times saying Levinsohn's alleged behavior "unacceptable" - can't stay if true pic.twitter.com/26Zfposdrj— David Folkenflik (@davidfolkenflik) January 19, 2018
Here are the names of those LA Times editors - some of the paper's best - taking a stand against their publisher's alleged misconduct pic.twitter.com/QElpVQte2K— David Folkenflik (@davidfolkenflik) January 19, 2018
As L.A. Times Multiplatform Editor Jared Servantez notes,
This list comprises the entire LA Times masthead except for three recent additions in the Levinsohn era: EIC Lewis D'Vorkin, interim executive editor Jim Kirk (leaving for the same position at NY Daily News), and assistant managing editor Stephen Miller (just hired last week) https://t.co/xFckgPpQge— Jared Servantez (@jservantez) January 19, 2018