Paul Farhi, a superior and veteran Washington Post reporter, was ever so briefly a skunk at a summit Tuesday when he respectfully confronted a top New York Times newsroom manager about the tricky sex harassment case involving Times reporter Glenn Thrush.
Carolyn Ryan, assistant managing editor of The Times, had just delicately outlined how the paper handled allegations of inappropriate behavior against the high-profile Thrush (who was at Politico at the time) during an informative daylong "Power Shift Summit" at Washington's Newseum.
In particular, Ryan underscored the paper's comprehensive investigation and the ongoing internal staff discussions about its process, the ultimate decision (he was suspended but will return in late January though not to his old beat at the White House), the values the paper believes it is upholding, and practical counsel it is offering to staff on dealing with potential harassment at the paper. She reiterated what she called the impact of the paper's transparency.
But Farhi, who was in the audience and was also a member of a later panel, opened with a diplomatic phrase perhaps more associated with proceedings in the nearby U.S. Congress — and signaled he would demure: "With all due respect to my colleagues at The New York Times …"
He proceeded to challenge the paper's public transparency on the Thrush matter. He reported the story for The Post and recounted the roadblocks he encountered and the reality that the key report on the matter (overseen by the top newsroom attorney) remains confidential.
"There is an extensive report which you have not made public. Your top management was not available for interviews. And I’d like to know why, and why this is a good way to explain to the public what you’re doing in the face of a harassment case.”
"It's a good question," responded Ryan, representing an institution whose reporting on the whole subject of sex harassment (Bill O'Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, Ford Motor Co. workers, etc.) has been nervy and outstanding. She then sought to broadly explain the tricky issues faced by the paper, especially in dealing with confidential interviews in their Thrush investigation and in dealing with an employee's (Thrush's) own privacy rights.
The paper has put out a statement to readers about the decision but, she implicitly conceded, it has not felt it's possible to tell all.
Ultimately, the issues broached in the Farhi-Ryan exchange may be secondary to those that were the heart of the summit, which was live-streamed. They were mostly the devilish challenges of changing corporate and newsroom cultures. Journalists melded with human resource experts, consultants and others in dealing with those matters, including building trust, assessing the quality of anti-harassment training and dramatically improving diversity.
And then there were subjects that were more tailored to particular institutions, notably startups, which don't have the baggage of old habits but may reflect the personalities of the founders, good or bad.
But hours of discussion suggested how these dilemmas can seem even more vivid when playing out at institutions whose essence is gathering and communicating information, including reporting on sexual harassment in other industries.
And while many people underscored the nuanced realities, there were some points that were rather straightforward and, in some cases, weren't cloaked in ambiguity.
Key, said Carrie Budoff Brown, editor of Politico, is "hiring people who aren't assholes. I will not hire assholes, and if you are a bully, you won't survive here."
"Nobody wants to be around assholes," she said.
Editor's note: This story has been edited to reflect the correct spelling of Carolyn Ryan's name.