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  December 8, 2017

Reporter's Harassment Sparks a #MeToo Moment at WNYC

As Time names the women who publicly confronted sexual predators the magazine's "Person of the Year," we speak to journalist Suki Kim, who outed a longtime radio host at WNYC for targeting her and several of his female colleagues
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Suki Kim is an investigative journalist, novelist and the The New York Times bestseller, Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea's Elite. She is also the Contributing Editor of The New Republic magazine.


AARON MATÉ: It's The Real News. I'm Aaron Maté.

For its annual person of the year, Time Magazine has named what it calls "the silence breakers," the many women who have come forward with stories of sexual misconduct and crimes by male abusers.

One of the latest institutions to be rocked by this "Me, too" moment is the NPR radio station WNYC. On Saturday, the journalist Suki Kim wrote a story in New York Magazine outing John Hockenberry, the longtime former host of the WNYC show The Takeaway. Kim reveals that Hockenberry sent her inappropriate messages, and her own experience led her on a reporting mission that uncovered the stories of several of Hockenberry's female colleagues. They reported unwanted forced kissing, hotel room invites, inappropriate messages, and bullying behavior. Kim also noted that three women of color co-hosts all left the show during Hockenberry's tenure, and two of them went on record with stories of hostile behavior.

Well, on Monday, Suki Kim appeared on The Takeaway and called out the show and WNYC.

SUKI KIM: I just don't understand how you could've not seen if you had been here for a decade where almost everyone I talked to were aware of an abuse happening around Hockenberry on either level. And also, considering three co-hosts, women of color had all left after filing complaints, which essentially shut down the younger women. They couldn't complain because really powerful women complained, and they were let go, really, by the management, who did not protect any of those women.

But the fact that three women were let go back to back after filing complaints, which almost everybody knew. And also the fact the show is about diversity, which is led by a white man, really, John Hockenberry, where all the women of color were, somehow they had to leave the show, and it's still ... you're a white man hosting the show, and you didn't get fired.


SUKI KIM: You didn't have to leave the show-


SUKI KIM: ... for a decade.

AARON MATÉ: That's Suki Kim appearing on The Takeaway. John Hockenberry left the show earlier this year after his contract was not renewed. And just today, WNYC announced the suspensions of two more long-time hosts, Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz, over allegations of inappropriate conduct.

Well, earlier, I spoke to Suki Kim about all this. She is an investigative journalist, novelist, author of the best seller, 'Without You, There is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North America's Elite.' And her latest piece for New York Magazine is "Public-Radio Icon John Hockenberry Accused of Harassing Female Colleagues." I began by asking Suki Kim to tell her own story with John Hockenberry.

SUKI KIM: I was a guest in December 2014, and about a year later, he began emailing me requesting meetings for brainstorming, and he just kept sending those emails. I met with him. There wasn't really anything. He wouldn't explain what brainstorming for. Then, his emails quickly turned quite inappropriate, and he just kept sending those sexually suggestive emails to me for another, over a year, really. Until finally, I just brought those emails to the management at Takeaway WNYC.

AARON MATÉ: When did you bring these emails to them? When was this?

SUKI KIM: It was earlier this year in February. The reason I did that was because I was at the same time just getting asked to comment on my topic, which is North Korea, by the producers of his show separately, and I couldn't go on the show because if the host is sending me these really inappropriate emails, how can I go on those shows to talk about my work? So it was really disrupting my work, which is what sexual harassment really is. I couldn't do my job, basically.

Then, of course, I began to then wonder what is going on in that office? Because I have been on different shows at WNYC and his show several times, and it's all a lot of young women under 40. Having seen so many young women there working daily with him, I did question, and I began the investigation to see what had gone on there. It's been a decade-long show. Of course, through my investigation, it became pretty apparent that harassment was happening on all levels.

AARON MATÉ: Yeah, you uncover a lot. People speak of being invited to hotel rooms, a lot of sexually suggestive comments, quips about people's weight, forced kissing. Can you summarize for us briefly what stood out to you in what you found from the women you spoke to?

SUKI KIM: The abuse is actually on two levels. If you talk to younger women who were both generally sort of low-level, mid-level producers or freelancers or interns, they were getting sexually suggestive comments, lots of late-night Gchats, and he also, there's forceful kissing. But then, like all the women ... And there are not that many powerful women. He's kind of, it's a one-man show. There's really nobody else powerful on that show. But once upon a time, there was.

Takeaway was founded in 2008 on a funding, actually, to promote diversity. And that diversity, a lot of it is about gender and racial diversity. So that show hired co-hosts, female women of color. From 2008 to 2012, three different women of color co-hosts had come on, and each one complained, again, at the management about Hockenberry, and each one, then, their contracts were not renewed or they were basically, they had to leave the show.

That level, what they went through, and I did talk to those women, and they ... He was sort of yelling at them in public, and impossible for them to do their work, and just sort of on-air bullying happened a lot, which even I think the listeners started noticing. But each one woman was let go until 2012, Hockenberry was alone hosting a show on diversity by himself.

AARON MATÉ: Right. That was such a striking moment in that clip we played before when you appeared on The Takeaway this week, and you called out The Takeaway for claiming to be a show about diversity that has driven out its three female-of-color co-hosts. And on top of having a white, longtime co-host in John Hockenberry, you also noted, as we heard, that his replacement, Todd Zwillich, is also a white man.

SUKI KIM: Also, I mean, Todd Zwillich has been a fill-in host for a decade. So he's been around, and he lasted. The other women didn't last. So I think it's pretty apparent why he was able to stay and he also, then, became a replacement host. So when I talk about harassment, it's actually on ... Basically, harassment at a job place is basically someone bothering you so you can't work, right? But when that person is your superior, it could either happen sexually or it happens professional. So there, also there's a racial component, clearly. So it's actually a work environment where women just were not allowed to work.

AARON MATÉ: Let me put to you the response today from Laura Walker, the CEO of WNYC. She spoke on the record today for the first time about this on her own radio station speaking to WNYC's Brian Lehrer. This is what she said.

BRIAN LEHRER: In the case of temporary co-host Farai Chideya, she says she spoke to you after Hockenberry said she shouldn't want to stay as a "diversity hire" and told her to go lose weight. If you confirmed he said those things, why wasn't that a firing offense? And what action was taken?

LAURA WALKER: Again, I can't comment on what action was taken, but it was taken seriously, and we did take some action. Look, every day for the last several weeks, I have asked myself whether we took enough action and whether we should really look at our protocols. I apologize to Farai, to Kristen, to the women who came forward. I have a huge amount of admiration and respect for these women for coming forward at this time, and I apologize that our protocols were not there and our policies were not there.

AARON MATÉ: That's Laura Walker, the CEO of WNYC. Suki Kim, your thoughts on what she says here.

SUKI KIM: Completely dishonest. She said she has nothing but respect. Well, if she respected them so much, why did she either not renew their contract or let them go and let them be abused? Some of these women made complaints repeatedly to the management, which was not at all listened to. The management did not protect any women. They only protected Hockenberry. So for her to turn around now saying that she has respect for these women, I mean, clearly not. So I think the lying of the management is just continuing.

AARON MATÉ: Do you have any hope that things are going to change, both at WNYC and in the broader media culture that's been exposed so starkly in just the past few months?

SUKI KIM: I don't know. I mean, it's just a very strange time. But at least we can talk about these things, and there are some accountability we're seeing, but how much is it still enabled? Is it just for this moment only? Are human beings just so horrible so they only try to fix something once they are fearful of getting caught? I mean, that's sort of what's happening with WNYC. It's a public radio. It's about trust of people. And yet it's only when New York Magazine runs an article, suddenly they're frantically trying to fix something that's been going on for a decade, where women are constantly being sacrificed, being derailed, being pushed out of their jobs, being violated sexually.

AARON MATÉ: We'll leave it there. Suki Kim, investigative journalist, novelist, author of the best seller 'Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea's Elite.' Her latest piece for New York Magazine is called "Public-Radio Icon John Hockenberry Accused of Harassing Female Colleagues." And that's the piece that has set off this "Me, too" moment at WNYC, leading to all of this accountability that we're seeing now. So, Suki, we commend you for your reporting, and thank you for joining us.

SUKI KIM: Thank you.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.


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