What Was the Washington Post Afraid Of?

Jeff Fager. Photo: AP/REX/Shutterstock

The afternoon of March 7, 2018, was go time, or so we believed. Inside a glass huddle room at the Washington Post, its walls covered with headlines from journalistic coups of the past, we began dialing numbers on a speakerphone and pressing send on carefully drafted, bullet-pointed emails. For nearly four months, investigative reporter Amy Brittain and I, then a freelancer, had been working on a follow-up to our November front-page story about sexual-harassment allegations against Charlie Rose. In the wake of our story, Rose had been fired from his gigs as a CBS This Morning anchor and 60 Minutes correspondent, and his PBS show had been canceled.

This new article had 27 additional allegations against Rose and three instances in which CBS management had been warned about him, but it went further. Our editor, Peter Wallsten, had encouraged us to ask who had known about Rose’s conduct and protected him, and whether he’d been enabled by a culture — assuming we had the reporting to back it up, of course. Answering that question had led to the then–60 Minutes boss and former network chairman Jeff Fager, who had repeatedly championed Rose at the network. That was awkward because 60 Minutes had been the Post’s partner for a just-wrapped yearlong investigation of the roots of the opioid crisis.

The Post had nonetheless kept both Amy and me on the story and, to ensure the integrity of the process, reassigned us to editors on the national desk who had never worked with Fager. So the isolation of the huddle room wasn’t just to bar distraction. It was a firewall — between us and the reporters and editors who’d just spent months in the trenches with the very men we had found ourselves investigating.

By that day in March, our draft had passed muster with layers of editors all the way up to the Post’s legendary executive editor Marty Baron and his deputy, Cameron Barr, as well as the paper’s lawyers. Now it was time for Amy and me to find out what Fager and other CBS brass had to say about the fruits of our reporting.

Amy took a deep breath and pushed send on the email to Fager. “A longtime employee of CBS has told the Post that you approached her from behind at a company party and said, ‘Grab my dick. I’m hung like a horse.’ ” We told him we’d spoken to an eyewitness who’d confirmed it happened when Fager was the chairman of CBS News. We asked him about an allegation that he’d groped an employee at a holiday party, that he’d retaliated against a producer named Habiba Nosheen for filing a federal complaint calling 60 Minutes a hostile work environment for women, that many 60 Minutes staffers we’d interviewed “said the workplace culture there was a difficult place for women, including being subjected to groping and demeaning comments.”

That afternoon, only one person from CBS got on the phone with us. We’d heard that 60 Minutes producer Ira Rosen had for weeks been calling Post reporters he’d previously worked with, demanding to know what we were doing. Amy told him now that three former junior producers had told us he made them uncomfortable by suggesting they flirt with sources and dangle sex for information or to twirl in front of him. One was Nosheen, whose complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had led to an inconclusive result that gave her the right to sue.

Rosen seemed unnerved by Amy, whose southern politesse can quickly give way to relentlessness. “You sound like you’re ready to argue with me, but you’re not ready to listen to me,” he said. He offered to show us emails and documents that Amy told him we’d already seen. Frustrated, he hung up — and called Marty Baron.

Within a couple of hours, Wallsten showed up in the huddle room and told us to come with him to Baron’s office. “Don’t be defensive,” he told Amy just before we went in. She had no time to ask him what he meant. Behind us, Barr raced to join the meeting.

I’d first met Baron when he showed up at the investigative editor’s office to edit our first story. I’d been struck by the thoughtfulness of his comments and how well Liev Schreiber had nailed his mannerisms in Spotlight. It had been thrilling for me to spend time inside the Post, revitalized by Baron’s ambition and Jeff Bezos’s money. I still felt like I had sneaked in through the back door, even though no one ever treated me that way. Indeed, when I’d come to them with information for the first Charlie Rose story, they’d paired me with Amy to investigate. I remained awed that mainstream news organizations wanted to devote resources to these stories.

Now Baron was furious: about the 24-hour deadline we’d given our subjects, about Rosen telling him, falsely, that Amy had refused to look at documents. I looked helplessly at Wallsten and Barr, who’d authorized the 24-hour deadline, but in Baron’s presence they hunched and murmured that, indeed, they shouldn’t have authorized us to ask our subjects to respond so quickly.

Rosen had told Baron that Nosheen was a disgruntled “crazy person” (though the evidence he offered quickly fell apart) and that he should be “paranoid” about our story — and to our shock, it seemed to have worked. We’d been carefully reporting for weeks and had spent hours vetting each claim and hours more working on our draft with a series of editors. Rosen was a mere footnote to our story, and even on that day I wondered whether it was a proxy war for a bigger fight to come over Fager, a far more powerful figure.

Later, Wallsten would apologize to us for not preparing us, and, pressed by Amy, for the fact that we were the only women in the room in a contentious conversation about reporting on sexual harassment. Unprompted, he would go to Baron to request that female editors be involved in our story. Baron agreed but added that all decisions about the story would be made strictly on the basis of journalism. (I’m not sure what else he expected the decisions to be made on.)

I’d believed, in the fevered months of #MeToo, that journalism could swoop in where other institutions had failed to hold big-league abusers accountable. But what would unspool that spring was a lesson beyond any one story or media organization. It was about the limits, despite undeniable progress, of journalistic institutions to tell these stories of sexual misconduct.

But all of this was to come. For now, as we left Baron’s office dejectedly, it dawned on us that we were nowhere near done with our story.

Fager himself had had no trouble meeting our now-irrelevant 24-hour deadline via email: “I don’t know how to respond to an anonymous claim that I said something so horrible…, except that it is not true. To attribute such a quote to me from an anonymous source is something I cannot imagine appearing in the Washington Post. It would certainly never appear on 60 Minutes unless it was on the record. It is not language I would ever use or have ever used in my life. But you have not even afforded me the basic right to know who my ‘accusers’ are.”

Going on the record — giving both your story and your name — is the journalistic gold standard for good reason, to prevent giving cover to people who would make up or exaggerate events. But journalists routinely grant anonymity when the news value of the information seems to compel it, when anonymity is weighed against the risks to the source, and when the information can be corroborated. By that point, we’d spent months begging women to go on the record. One of Fager’s accusers still worked at CBS; another was job-hunting. All of the women who talked about his conduct and the environment at 60 Minutes feared his power in the industry.

Still, we’d been surprised, in the ten days of editing numerous drafts, that no editor or lawyer had asked us to defend the anonymous sourcing. Yes, we had corroboration — an eyewitness to one of the stories, plus interviews with people our sources had confided in at the time of the incidents — but still, we’d expected someone to bring it up.

The calls from 60 Minutes kept coming. We knew Fager had contacted Baron back in December because Baron told us. But in the days that followed, at least two senior women on the show called Baron to say that Fager was being falsely accused and to express anger at the characterization of 60 Minutes as a hostile environment for women. One, who has already made her feelings on the subject publicly known, was Lesley Stahl. Both refused to speak to Amy and me directly.

We’d already interviewed around 40 current and former 60 Minutes staffers, starting with the ones who would help us answer what management had known about Rose and fanning out when the inquiry widened. Our draft had noted that five employees, “who declined to be named, praised Fager’s treatment of female employees, contrasting it with the Mad Men–like mentality of the past. They said Fager supported women’s careers, including those of young mothers.” Still, we gamely started calling more women at 60 Minutes.

We spoke with ten, who told us that anything we’d heard about Fager was concocted by aggrieved former employees, and even if it were true, it didn’t matter. “You said it’s groping. I have to ask you, does that really rise to the level of derailing a man’s career?” one demanded of Amy. Another said, “Groping isn’t a felony.” None of these women would go on the record. (Later, an unnamed producer would tell Ronan Farrow of this period, “There was this ham-handed effort to make women at the show say Jeff was a wonderful person. It was so obvious we were doing it with a gun to our heads.”)

No one knew what was next. But that weekend, a Post editor inadvertently located a new source. At a bar mitzvah, he was approached by a woman who said she’d heard the paper was investigating CBS. She didn’t know who we were focusing on, but she wanted to talk: Fager, she said, had groped and tried to kiss her at a company holiday party while he was chairman of the network.

Within a day, I was at her apartment, listening to her account and gathering text messages about Fager she’d sent the day Rose was fired. She still worked at CBS, where she said Fager was regarded as a god. We could use her story but not her name. That she had dropped from the sky and that she worked at the network but not at 60 Minutes seemed to rebut the suggestion, implied in the pushback to our story, that there was some kind of female cabal conspiring against Fager.

In the meantime, Wallsten told us we’d have a second chance to explain our reporting to Baron, and this time we would be prepared. In what I understood to be an extraordinary move, Amy and I created a spreadsheet with every single accuser and fact and where it came from, which we presented to five editors. But at the last minute, Barr arrived and told us it would be better if we didn’t attend the meeting with Baron.

Later, we were summoned to find out what Baron had said. He’d balked at the claim of a hostile environment for women at 60 Minutes. And yes, even though no one had raised the anonymity before we went to CBS, now someone, maybe more than one person, would have to put her name to a claim against Fager. “If a man’s career is going to be ruined,” one of the recently added female editors said, and then trailed off.

I reminded the editors that we’d been told many times by sources that our story would never run, that Fager was too powerful. I’d assured more than one woman that that’s not how things work at the Post. That she should remember Baron’s reputation, that she should watch Spotlight. No one responded.

Amy and I slunk back to our glass room, and she began to cry. I watched numbly as the male editors passed with their heads bowed. One of the women recruited to help edit us, deputy national editor Lori Montgomery, entered. She told us a little more about the meeting: At the same time as our mandate was to get an accuser to use her name, Baron had said that he understood why Fager’s defenders didn’t want to do the same — they feared running afoul of the #MeToo movement. And Baron had a hypothetical for the editors: What if someone wrote an article saying the culture of the Washington Post was hostile to women? “Then I would go on the record saying it’s been a great place for me but I can’t speak for anyone else, and I would put my name on it,” she told us she’d replied. Watching Amy’s distress, she began to tear up too.

That night, I turned it over in my mind. How could Baron not see the difference between women who asked for anonymity to challenge a powerful man versus those who sought anonymity to praise him? Or that some women could thrive in a culture other women found hostile, or that some people would do or say anything to defend a status quo that benefited them?

I didn’t believe the new requirements for our piece were due to friendship or some kind of corrupt arrangement related to the partnership. But I did think it was easier for even the most well-meaning editor to empathize with a newsroom leader, a fellow boss with potentially discontented underlings. It’s easier for a lot of us to believe that a man’s career matters more than the hypothetical losses of the women he might have harmed.

We were in relatively new journalistic territory after years in which sexual harassment and assault had barely been considered newsworthy. There are no fixed rules to decide which stories should be published, but editors ask questions like these: How powerful is the man being accused? How “serious” is the misconduct? Is there documentary proof of an act that may involve two people in a room? Is the complainant credible (a judgment that is often inflected by unexamined assumptions about class and race, not to mention gender)? How many accusers are there? When legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon wrote that “it typically took three to four women testifying that they had been violated by the same man in the same way to even begin to make a dent in his denial, [making] a woman, for credibility purposes, one-fourth of a person,” she was talking about a regime that she believed #MeToo had usurped. But that standard is alive and well in newsrooms, which must weigh breaking a story against legal threats from deep-pocketed people.

This uncertainty — about what’s newsworthy, what counts as enough or valid evidence — is something powerful men can leverage in their favor using an asymmetry of resources to apply whatever pressure they can. More was to come.

Our task was once again to cajole the women who’d accused Fager to use their names. And if anything, now they were less disposed to entertain the possibility. We were going back to the women after breaking a vow we’d been given the go-ahead to make, that the process would soon be over, that the story was going to be published. And we could hardly promise that there would be no consequences. CBS PR and Fager had begun feeding us information they claimed would taint the women who’d gone on the record in other parts of the story.

More than one victim of sexual misconduct who allowed me to publish her name has told me she felt liberated by it, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t understand why some women don’t want to. They weigh their own well-being against the public’s right to know, when exposure might not change anything at all. They’ve already been failed at least once by institutions, and now they’re being asked to put their trust in another institution — a journalistic one.

Over drinks in their apartments, over long and apologetic but entreating phone calls, not one woman budged.

We did, however, turn up more damning information about Fager: Previously, we’d heard rumors about a sexual-assault allegation against Fager that had led to a big settlement, and during the time we were begging our sources to use their names, we unearthed documents and multiple sources that confirmed its existence. The legal papers didn’t stipulate what Fager had been accused of, but the woman who’d made the allegation had confided in a friend before signing a nondisclosure agreement and the friend talked to us. Even as 60 Minutes producers had been dispatched to tell us there was no way Fager had ever laid a finger on anyone, the network had taken the allegations against Fager seriously enough to pay the woman nearly a million dollars for her silence.

On March 25, 60 Minutes aired the first interview with Stormy Daniels about her affair with President Trump and the NDA she’d signed, which Fager described publicly as “hush money.” We all thought that was pretty ironic, and Baron authorized us to contact both CBS president David Rhodes and then-CEO Les Moonves, asking if, having provided a platform for Daniels to break her NDA, they’d let the women whom CBS had paid off speak. Neither replied.

We’d tipped our hand on the settlement, which unleashed the next stage of resistance. Soon an email on Fager’s behalf landed in my inbox. Attorneys at Clare Locke, whose other clients have included Matt Lauer and Glenn Thrush, wrote that we had “already caused incredible damage to Mr. Fager and his reputation by ‘push polling’ these false allegations to current and former CBS News and 60 Minutes employees.” The letter, which misspelled Baron’s name and contained numerous typos, went on: “There certainly are former employees of CBS who, for reasons wholly unrelated to any misconduct by Mr. Fager, are incentivized to weaponize the ‘Me Too’ movement to make false allegations to embarrass the company or Mr. Fager. We are prepared, under appropriate circumstances, to provide information bearing on the credibly [sic] and veracity of any such source.”

As we tried to determine what this meant, Amy and I were running out of ways to tell to our sources that the Post hadn’t wavered. Wallsten assured us that he believed in the reporting and that he was making the case to get our story in the paper. “This is a story about a system,” he reminded us one day when we were panicking that our story would never run. “And the system has lawyers.”

We worked on a draft that included the settlement, along with the three separate incidents of groping. At last, on April 26, Baron signed off on our telling Fager that we were publishing at 8:30 the next morning and asking for any additional comment. We had the settlement documents, the friend of the woman willing to go on the record to describe the assault allegation, and two of the original three women’s accounts. (We decided to cut one of the groping reports, because the woman couldn’t remember the year.) We went through copyediting and drafted headlines.

But late that night, Amy summoned me back to the newsroom. Fager’s lawyers had asked for a call with the Post’s lawyers — for after the time we’d said we were going to publish. Although our lawyers had already approved our story, Fager’s legal team got their delay.

It was the final stage of attack. This time, the target was the woman with the settlement, whose name Fager knew. The next morning, our lawyers told us that Fager’s lawyers claimed to have documents in which the woman had told a different story, but when we asked for them, the Clare Locke team admitted they didn’t exist. Then came character assassination: With another publication date thrown out the window, we spent several days calling Fager lieutenants, supplied to us by his law firm, whose aim was to undermine the woman’s credibility, though only off the record. One person on the call list supplied by Fager’s lawyer was Bill Owens, who has since taken over 60 Minutes.

We were told that the woman had shared her medication, though no one could seem to remember if it was Klonopin or Vicodin, with two staffers who had asked her to lend them a pill, and she had been verbally reprimanded once for it; that she’d once been very drunk at a book party; and that she had gone to Fager’s father’s funeral. Assuming all this was true, I asked our editors what it had to do with the fact that the company had paid her a million dollars after she accused Fager of assault. I never got a good answer.

A second Clare Locke letter threatening to sue described our questioning as “accusatory and agenda-driven” and more of a “check the box exercise.” It also claimed, falsely, that one of us (without saying which one) had declared to a 60 Minutes employee, “[You] are not going to tell me anything bad about Jeff, are you?” The letter continued, “I’m sure you can appreciate the weight this testimony would have w[i]th a judge or jury in establishing actual malice.”

By May 1, the reporting had become a lawyer-to-lawyer affair. Editors forwarded a Dropbox link, furnished by the Clare Locke lawyers, of a dozen obsequious, even affectionate, emails the woman with the settlement had sent to Fager, her boss: “Tonight was a great and fitting broadcast. You are brilliant.” Thanking him for flowers: “You are wonderful.” She wished him and his family a happy Thanksgiving and signed it, “Miss you.”

“The emails give us pause,” Wallsten told Amy and me during a conference call. She was in the newsroom with him; I was out of town for an unrelated work event.

How, I demanded, were these emails, sent from a subordinate to a boss after an alleged assault, any different from correspondence used to discredit accusations against Bill O’Reilly, Clarence Thomas, and Bill Cosby?  “Let’s just quote from the emails,” I said, as we had done with similar ones in the first Rose story, alongside Fager’s denial. Let readers make up their own minds.

There was a silence in Washington. From inside the room, Amy, who had fought as hard as anyone for the reporting, messaged me. “I realize that you are fighting for us,” she wrote, “but I think it’s clear we’ve lost.”

Wallsten responded wearily but as if he hadn’t even heard me. He could see what would happen: CBS’s lawyers would leak the emails to “Page Six” or somewhere like that and smear her publicly. “This wouldn’t be good for her,” Wallsten said. “And it wouldn’t be good for the Washington Post.

The Charlie Rose material — 27 new women, three instances of CBS being told about his conduct — had to publish soon because three of the accusers were running out of time to file a lawsuit they would later settle with the network. After weeks of additional reporting, Wallsten and his fellow editors, with Baron’s backing, unanimously decided to strip the Fager allegations from the article.

The gutted story, which barely mentioned the most powerful executive we’d been reporting on, ran on May 3.

By the time I walked into Cipriani on 42nd Street in mid-June for the annual Mirror Awards for reporting on media, I knew Fager and the 60 Minutes team were accepting a prescheduled honor for the show’s 50th anniversary. What I didn’t know was whether I would have the chance to say my piece. Amy and I had been nominated for a Mirror of our own, but the winner in our category would be announced over lunch.

The spring had been a victory lap for the show and Fager. He’d accepted a Fred Friendly First Amendment Award (since rescinded) and a Peabody Award on behalf of 60 Minutes, which the judges described as having “championing the ‘little guy’ in struggles against corrupt politicians, unscrupulous corporations, and uncaring, inaccessible institutions.” The show’s collaboration with the Post about opioids had won a separate award and would eventually score an Emmy, too.

Amy and I did win the Mirror Award for Best Story on Sexual Misconduct in the Media, and when we went onstage to accept it, I spoke: “The stories that we have been doing are about a system. The system has lawyers and a good reputation. It has publicists. It has a perfectly reasonable explanation about what happened. It has powerful friends that will ask if it’s really worth ruining the career of a good man based on what one women says, what four women say, what 35 women say. Indeed, the system is sitting in this room. Some more than others.”

I couldn’t see Fager from where I stood, but I knew he was there. We’d eventually hear he’d returned to his office livid. Later, I’d email Wallsten to tell him he had inspired my speech, if inadvertently.

“The system,” I said from the stage, “is still powerful men getting stories killed that I believe will one day see the light of day.”

That last prediction proved true. In July, Ronan Farrow broke the story in The New Yorker of sexual harassment and assault allegations against Fager and Moonves. The piece confirmed what we had found: Fager “allowed harassment in the division,” according to 19 current and former employees, and six former staffers told Farrow that Fager, while inebriated at company parties, “would touch employees in ways that made them uncomfortable,” though none went on the record.

Four days later, the CBS board of directors announced it had assigned two firms to investigate the claims against Moonves “and cultural issues at all levels of CBS.” In September, Farrow published a second story, this time with a former intern accusing Fager on the record of groping her. Three days later, he was fired after sending a threatening text to a CBS reporter assigned to ask him about The New Yorker story. The investigators would later say his dismissal was justified based on “certain acts of sexual misconduct,” according to the New York Times. The Times also reported that Moonves himself had confirmed our story, revealing to investigators that CBS paid nearly a million dollars to a woman who had “accused Mr. Fager of sexual misconduct,” the Times reported.

Over the past year, I’ve debated whether, at a time when journalism is under attack from all quarters, it is even worth breaking confidences to tell this story. I wanted to hash out what had happened directly with Baron, but he declined to speak with me. A Post spokeswoman said the paper “has a policy of not entering into a detailed, public discussion of the process of editing stories. Reporters and editors have traditionally respected that policy, which is especially pertinent when we are asked to discuss material that failed to meet Post standards for publication in the first place.” She did say that “the reporting throughout was vigorous, sustained, and fully supported by Post editors” and pointed out that five senior editors “unanimously agreed on what met our standards for publication and what did not, and they stand by their decision … Nor did any outside pressures determine what was published.”

I don’t believe there is just one reason the Post rejected the Fager story. I think it was a little of everything. The legal squeeze. The close relationship between the paper and 60 Minutes. The easy identification with a powerful executive in our industry as opposed to the people complaining about him. #MeToo fatigue, a growing sense in journalistic circles that the movement might be going too far. I doubt I’ll ever really know. But much of my job has involved asking people, mostly women, to truthfully tell their stories even when it might harm them or the institutions they care about. I figured the least I could do was to try to do the same.

What Was the Washington Post Afraid Of?