Accusations Of 'Frat House' Behavior Trail 'LA Times' Publisher's Career
Updated at 5:02 p.m. ET
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. Taken in concert, they suggest a pattern of questionable behavior and questionable decisions on the job. 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.
Among the accusations:
Almost all people interviewed declined to be quoted by name, citing concerns for their careers given Levinsohn's current perch atop the Los Angeles Times. It is one of the most important newspapers in the country and is the most influential media organization in California, the capital to the world's entertainment industry. His behavior, as described by those who worked with him, raises questions about how effectively he can lead the paper as it covers the #MeToo movement and such widespread harassment revelations.
Levinsohn did not respond on the record to detailed questions emailed to him and a Times spokeswoman setting out the chief allegations raised in this story. In a telephone call he initiated Wednesday with NPR's CEO, Jarl Mohn, Levinsohn called those allegations "lies" and said he would retain legal counsel if he felt NPR had disparaged him. NPR sent detailed questions to Tronc's chief executive and public affairs staffers early Wednesday morning. The crisis management strategist Charles Sipkins issued a statement on Tronc's behalf Thursday afternoon saying Levinsohn had been placed under investigation by the corporation after the story was posted.
"This week, we became aware of allegations that Ross Levinsohn acted inappropriately. We are immediately launching an investigation so that we have a better understanding of what's occurred," the statement read. "At Tronc, we expect all employees to act in a way that supports a culture of diversity and inclusion. We will take appropriate action to address any behavior that falls short of these expectations."
Sipkins said Tronc had not suspended Levinsohn. Other media executives who have been investigated, suspended or terminated after being accused of sexual misconduct include Michael Oreskes, NPR's former top news editor.
On Thursday afternoon, the organizing committee of the journalists in the Los Angeles Times newsroom pushing for a union there called for Levinsohn to be fired immediately, based on NPR's findings.
Back in August, top officials at the Los Angeles Times' parent company — called Tronc — wanted new leadership to run its crown jewel. They fired a slew of top executives at the newspaper and hired Levinsohn.
Levinsohn has held prominent jobs at some of the nation's most notable media and digital media companies over the past generation, including CBS, the early search engine Alta Vista, News Corp. and Yahoo.
Tronc CEO Justin Dearborn called Levinsohn "a visionary and innovative leader" in August while naming him to the top job at the LA Times. Levinsohn is invariably described as an affable and charismatic presence, seen as a consummate salesman by advertising clients and corporate mentors. And he was a familiar figure at Tronc, which had already paid his firm hundreds of thousands of dollars for strategic advice.
On Friday, federal regulators will reveal the results of a unionization drive in the Los Angeles Times newsroom — a drive fueled in part by profound doubts over Levinsohn's commitment to quality journalism and ability to lead the paper.
As an executive at the search engine company Alta Vista in 2001, Levinsohn gave testimony in a sexual harassment and sexual discrimination case in which he had been sued along with other defendants. Levinsohn conceded under oath that he had assessed the "hotness" and bodies of female subordinates; Levinsohn also testified that he had discussed whether a female subordinate was working as a stripper on the side and that he engaged in speculation about whether she had slept with a co-worker.
Former Alta Vista employee Christine Fox had sued the company and several executives, including Levinsohn. She alleged she had failed to receive a significant raise to move from Massachusetts to the Bay Area, where the cost of living was far higher, and that there was a hostile work environment.
Another former Alta Vista executive, Celia Francis, testified in the case that she had warned two top executives about the culture Levinsohn had created when she left the company. "Ross was creating a frat house environment," Francis testified at the time. "His behavior was inappropriate. ... I wanted to let them know they should do something about it."
In his deposition, Levinsohn testified that he thought Fox's complaint was "ludicrous" given her own behavior. Fox's lawyers argued Alta Vista's attorneys made such wide-ranging inquiries into her romantic and dating life in defending the case that Fox's attorneys asked the judge to limit such queries to people named in the suit. (Christine Fox could not be reached for comment.)
In his testimony, Levinsohn said any sexually charged banter he participated in took place at a distance from female employees.
Jessie Dennen, who was Alta Vista's recruitment and hiring chief at that time, contradicts Levinsohn's testimony. Dennen tells NPR that Levinsohn directly participated in conversations speculating about Fox's sexual partners in staff meetings, right in front of Dennen and others.
"Ross created a definite frat boys' club," Dennen says now. "They openly would rate women. I remember feeling uncomfortable. I would roll my eyes."
Dennen testified in defense of the company at the time but tells NPR that she regrets failing to object in those meetings and regrets not supporting Fox's claim.
"I didn't appreciate how Alta Vista was trying to slut-shame Chris," Dennen tells NPR.
Fox's sexual harassment lawsuit against Levinsohn and others at the company was settled in August 2002, five days before going to trial. The size of the payment to settle the case was not made public, though filings in the Santa Clara County courthouse state she had asked for $750,000 to settle it and that Alta Vista had offered $100,000.
Alta Vista crumbled under challenge from other newer search engines, including Google.
Levinsohn moved on to other major gigs at Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Consistently, Levinsohn's colleagues — admirers and detractors — describe him as a good-time guy, someone happy to party as a way to smooth the path to deals. He advocated that Rupert Murdoch acquire the social media platform MySpace — which News Corp. did in 2005, for $580 million. MySpace was all but vaporized by Facebook. Murdoch sold the social media platform in 2011 for $35 million, calling it "a huge mistake," but blamed himself for the failure of the investment.
In June 2006, Levinsohn, by then a senior vice president for News Corp., was a defendant in a lawsuit against the company and various Fox executives (Fox Sports and other parts of Murdoch's entertainment and television empire were still under the News Corp. umbrella at that time). The video producer who filed the suit claimed she had been sexually harassed in the workplace by her boss, a subordinate of Levinsohn's. She alleged that when she asked Levinsohn for a promotion, he pointed to a Fox Sports sideline reporter, a former pinup model, as a template for success, saying she "learned how to work her way to the top." The producer suing the company also alleged that sexual harassment was rife in the workplace culture under Levinsohn and other executives there.
The suit was withdrawn by the plaintiff, Amber Tribble, in December 2006, a month after Levinsohn left News Corp. She filed a second case making the same allegations against Levinsohn and others in June 2007. It was fully settled by News Corp. and Fox in April 2008, according to court documents.
Levinsohn joined Yahoo as a senior executive over ad sales in North America in 2010. His tenure was marked by a swift ascent, including, in 2012, an eight-week stint as interim CEO. Levinsohn had pushed for greater creation of content, with an emphasis on video, winning the loyalty of much of his media team, former Yahoo colleagues say. Levinsohn was so confident that he would be named CEO permanently that he quietly hired a cadre of senior executives — only to find that the board named Google executive Marissa Mayer to the job the following week. That's according to two associates with direct knowledge of his plans at the time.
Other factors nettled his colleagues.
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.
She told NPR that she told Levinsohn they could make appointments to do business at a more conventional setting. Levinsohn seemed to consider the event a success and later boasted to associates about how he got to host the actor Robert Redford at the Cannes Festival that weekend.
Levinsohn had pushed for new acquisitions, among them a digital advertising network called 5to1 that he had helped to found. Yahoo purchased it in 2011 for $28 million from his partner at the firm, James Heckman, who had previously worked at News Corp. with him and joined Yahoo.
That summer, Yahoo paid for a vacation home in the Hamptons for Levinsohn and Heckman to entertain clients. On more than one occasion, police intervened to shut down parties that generated so much noise they caused disruptions for neighbors, according to two former Yahoo officials.
After Yahoo, Levinsohn set up shop working on various ventures, including one with Heckman called Scout Media, for which he served as executive chairman. Scout went bankrupt and both men were named as defendants in an ongoing shareholder lawsuit filed last year in federal court.
Levinsohn landed at Guggenheim Partners, then controlling owner of the Hollywood Reporter and Billboard magazine, among other properties. He was given the firm's media portfolio to oversee.
Two incidents stood out for those who witnessed them.
Levinsohn arrived late at a March 2013 luncheon held by the Hollywood Reporter on the rooftop of the SoHo House in West Hollywood. Stars such as Naomi Watts and Zoe Saldana mixed with top Hollywood fashion stylists. The affair was sponsored by the upscale designer line Jimmy Choo. Levinsohn couldn't get out quickly enough. He told an executive for the Hollywood Reporter why he would have to leave early: "As my buddy said, why would I hang out with a bunch of ladies and fags?"
The executive that afternoon called the human resources department of the magazine's parent company to describe the incident and told associates what had happened. Two of those associates shared the episode with NPR, and the executive confirmed that sequence of events with NPR as well.
Two months later, in May 2013, sister publication Billboard held a dinner and party the night before the Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas. Guggenheim Partners staged the dinner, sponsored by Samsung, at the Hakkasan restaurant and nightclub in the MGM Grand Hotel. The Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter Miguel mixed with guests over drinks; the Scottish star DJ Calvin Harris staged an EDM set at the nightclub afterward. And, according to two eyewitnesses who attended the event, Levinsohn aggressively kissed a woman, his hands ranging over her body, in open sight of others present, including his own employees. (NPR also spoke to someone to whom one of the witnesses described the episode within 24 hours.) Levinsohn's then-wife arrived in Las Vegas the next day, according to attendees.
The physical contact appeared reciprocated to the witnesses; no one has alleged the contact was nonconsensual. But the two witnesses said they believed it to be inappropriate and unprofessional.
A spokeswoman for the holding company of the two magazines had no comment on either incident.
It is not clear how much Tronc knew of the allegations against Levinsohn in the sexual harassment lawsuits or of the accounts of his behavior at Yahoo and at Guggenheim over the entertainment magazines.
Levinsohn was well-known to Michael Ferro, the chairman and controlling owner of Tronc, as well as others at the company.
Levinsohn had joined the board of directors of its corporate predecessor, Tribune, in 2012 and remains on the board of Tribune Media, the television and entertainment part of the company.
Tronc also paid Levinsohn's consulting firm WAYD $600,000 over 2016 and 2017 for strategic advice about, among other things, the future of the Los Angeles Times.
Levisohn has received a generous package to join the paper full time. According to corporate filings, Levinsohn's contract guarantees him pay and bonuses totalling $1 million a year and a cash bonus of $1 million. He was awarded stock currently worth $7.2 million and options to acquire shares worth millions more.
There is a third element: Levinsohn is also eligible for additional incentive pay of up to 10 percent of the gross revenue Tronc receives from licensing the LA Times content and brand or for syndication of its content internationally. Industry analyst Ken Doctor called that language "odd," saying it was "treating Levinsohn's work there almost as if he were an outside consultant."
Levinsohn is once more turning to old friends to help run the paper. He has installed Mickie Rosen, a former top deputy at Yahoo, as the paper's president. And the newspaper's new editor-in-chief is Lewis D'Vorkin, a former editor-in-chief at Forbes magazine who worked at the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and AOL.
Levinsohn declared he wanted the newspaper to own coverage of Hollywood, and it has sought to remain competitive on stories about sexual harassment allegations against prominent men in entertainment and media. The LA Times broke stories about allegations of sexual assault by the director James Toback and instances of alleged misconduct by actor James Franco, among others.
D'Vorkin and Levinsohn upset many reporters in the newsroom last fall by failing to defend the paper's coverage publicly after meeting with Disney executives who condemned its stories documenting financial windfalls the company received from the City of Anaheim.
D'Vorkin was also the founder of a digital news and commentary site called True/Slant, which paid prominent writers to contribute pieces while offering incentives based on how much traffic they generated. And other figures could pay the site to post articles there promoting their expertise or their products. Levinsohn's venture firm Fuse Capital was an investor in True/Slant and he served on its board until it was sold to Forbes, which adopted a similar model featuring paid staffers, unpaid contributors and those who were paying for exposure on the site.
On Thursday, Levinsohn participated in a presentation to investors in which he appeared to anticipate the adoption of a related "contributor" model for the Los Angeles Times and other Tronc properties: "The approach allows us to be less dependent on the newsroom transformation as we pursue other growth opportunities."
And some at the LA Times have questioned whether the paper's leadership is looking out for itself or the news. The paper's historic headquarters downtown no longer belongs to the paper or Tronc but to its former corporate sibling, Tribune Media. Levinsohn joined peers on the old Tribune Co. board in voting to give away the newspaper assets to the new television company. Last summer, Tribune Media sold the LA Times printing plant for $120 million to a California developer and the downtown headquarters for $105 million to a Canadian developer.
According to six Los Angeles Times journalists, the union drive has been propelled in part by related concerns over the commitment of the paper's leadership to its journalism and its financial soundness.
After this story was first posted, the organizing committee for the newsroom union released a statement for Levinsohn to resign or be fired immediately.
"We are appalled by the findings in the NPR story," the statement reads. "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."
The union demanded an independent investigation to examine the process by which Levinsohn was hired and whether he acted inappropriately toward colleagues at the newspaper during his tenure.
The journalists declined to be identified, saying they feared retribution for public criticism. Several noted they did not have union protections. Federal regulators plan to announce the result of the vote over whether a union will be recognized at the LA Times on Friday.
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