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Media outlets reassess their newsroom cultures

The New York Times is calling attention to an anonymous hotline. CBS News is increasing training. NBC News is looking at all of the above.

They, like other major media outlets, including POLITICO, are grappling with how to better communicate and reach out to employees as the news business faces a wave of revelations of inappropriate behavior.

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By Wednesday, two of the three major broadcast networks, the leading cable network, the second-leading cable network, the top public-radio network, and the nation’s most prestigious newspaper have all confronted the same problem: A prominent figure accused of behaving inappropriately.

In the wake of “CBS Morning” host Charlie Rose’s firing and New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush’s suspension this week, many news organizations were trying to figure out how better to handle workplace problems in the future. For the most part, news organizations fell back on reminding their employees about their current policies and resources.

“We have robust policies in place and have become more focused on communicating those policies across the organization,” said New York Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha in an email. “In recent weeks, we’ve reminded employees of our Anti-Harassment, Equal Employment Opportunity, and Non-Discrimination policies and we’ve highlighted the many ways an employee can raise an issue or file a complaint, including through an anonymous hotline.”

In a memo to employees announcing Rose’s firing on Tuesday, CBS News President David Rhodes said that he was “deeply disappointed and angry that people were victimized” and added, “We will have human resources support today and every day, and we are organizing more personal and direct training which you will hear about from senior management shortly.”

MSNBC has seen two contributors — reporters Mark Halperin and Thrush — caught up in scandal. The cable network did not provide comment, but a source at NBC News said that the company was working off a similar playbook: Leaders in the news division have reminded employees about the different ways they can report concerns about workplace conduct — alerting managers, HR, confidential tip lines, or an ombudsman — and sent reminders to employees with all the relevant contact information.

“It’s the first time we’ve seen the public display of news organizations and organizations writ large really grappling with this issue,” said Debbie Dougherty, a communications professor at the University of Missouri who specializes in sexual harassment.

Dougherty has researched sexual harassment policies and found that the typically cold, legalistic documents bear little resemblance to how employees experience these issues. Companies need to rethink their policies, she said, “or we’re just going to get a repeat.” They key, she said, is writing policies that connect with employees and help facilitate a broader cultural change in the workplace.

“I think they’re doing what is almost predictable,” she said. “They fired the perpetrator and they push out their policy and say, ‘Look everybody, here’s a policy, why aren’t you following it?’ That’s usually the first thing people do, they focus on those two things. And then they’re going to find that doesn’t resolve their situation and they’re going to hopefully start looking for broader answers.”

That means, she says, “Bringing in experts, listening to them, really grappling with this problem, thinking hard about it differently. I know these sound sort of vague and fuzzy, but if you can’t think differently about this problem, it’s never going to go away.”

One outlet has been confronting this problem for more than a year: Fox News, which lost its president, Roger Ailes, top-rated host, Bill O’Reilly, and another top host, Eric Bolling, all over sexual harassment allegations that weren’t initially revealed to the public, let alone discussed in the newsroom.

President Donald Trump is pictured. | Getty Images

Reached for comment, Fox News pointed to the changes the network has made over the last year, including beefing up its HR staff with hires from outside the company — including a new head of the department — and adding mandatory sexual harassment training for all employees.

Though some executives closely tied to Ailes — including former co-president Bill Shine and executive vice president of legal and business affairs Dianne Brandi — are no longer with the network, the people currently in charge — president of programming Suzanne Scott and co-president Jack Abernethy — have been with Fox News for years and were also prominent parts of the Ailes regime. Even with new policies in place, it remains to be seen how much of a cultural shift takes hold at Rupert Murdoch’s network.

POLITICO has not been immune, either. Three of the four allegations against Thrush occurred while he was a POLITICO employee; the fourth came once he had left for the Times, but was attending another POLITICO staffer’s going-away party. After the news on Monday about Thrush, CEO Patrick Steel sent a staffwide email saying, “POLITICO is a place where you should feel supported in your work, respected as an individual, and able to achieve your professional goals …The notion that anyone at POLITICO would be subjected to harassment — or feel as though they couldn’t speak out — is totally unacceptable to me. Our standards and values leave no ambiguity — this behavior will not be tolerated, period.”

Like his colleagues at other outlets, Steel asked employees to review the company’s policies and procedures for harassment and professional conduct.

Jennifer Drobac, a professor at the McKinney School of Law at Indiana University and an expert on sexual harassment, said that recirculating policies is “a good first step,” but agreed that a broader cultural change is needed. She said adding an ombudsman is a good idea for companies, and that training for top executives is especially important.

Rep. John Conyers is pictured. | POLITICO

“I actually think that just the message from key executives that they recognize that there’s been a cultural change and that they are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure a safe and respectful work environment, that message goes a long way, particularly when it’s followed up by concrete action when there’s a problem,” she said.

Drobac said she approved of CBS News’ handling of Rose.

“When Charlie Rose gets fired,” she said, “the company means business.”

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