When Hamilton Fish became publisher and editorial director of the New Republic in February 2016, he faced a gargantuan task in turning around the storied publication, which was reeling from a series of abrupt ownership changes and mass staff turnover. But first, some spring cleaning: getting rid of the magazine’s human resources staff and shelving the employee handbook.
When Fish took over, Paul Biboud-Lubeck was the director of people and finance, serving as the human resources manager. He left in June, and Fish never hired a replacement. Meanwhile, Fish took the employee handbook off the web, telling staff that he was updating it. “The story was he was revising it. I guess he was revising it for two years,” said one New Republic staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely about their employer.
Fish had previously served as president of the Nation Institute, before departing in 2009. Esther Kaplan, editor of the institute’s Investigative Fund, confirmed to The Intercept that Fish departed in the wake of allegations of misconduct. When the news broke that he was joining the New Republic, some women there were warned that Fish could be demeaning and creepy, HuffPost reported, and there had even been an incident in which he had placed his hands around a female colleague’s neck. The neck-grabbing incident “did not happen as described,” Fish told HuffPost. “I know it sounds self-serving, but anyone who knows me knows I would never harm a woman or another person.”
Having heard the stories about Fish, some New Republic employees saw his failure to staff the HR department at his new stomping ground through that prism. They had a “sense that it was a perfect environment” for abuses against women, a former New Republic staffer told The Intercept, reflecting a widely held opinion among other current and former staffers interviewed for this article. Staffers, said the former employee, “had no power, no leverage to get him to stop, no one to tell what was happening to, and no reason to believe that they could speak out and still keep their jobs.”
It was reminiscent of the environment at the Nation Institute, in fact — where reported inappropriate behavior “all took place against a backdrop where there was no personnel handbook and no one in an HR role,” a source who was on staff during Fish’s tenure told HuffPost.
The New Republic’s newsroom had its own troubled history. For decades, literary editor Leon Wieseltier lorded over New Republic staffers. He often made sexually charged comments in the newsroom, former employees told Politico in October. Wieseltier, who left the New Republic in 2014 following a dispute with the magazine’s owner, said in a statement, “For my offenses against some of my colleagues in the past I offer a shaken apology and ask for their forgiveness.”
Last month, Fish resigned from the New Republic following complaints about his interactions with female employees, which the company had vowed to investigate.
Fish, in an email, told The Intercept that when he arrived at the New Republic, the magazine’s “immediate staffing priorities were to increase diversity and to advance women into leadership roles.” This meant hiring a new HR manager wouldn’t be a priority until “the next hiring phase.”
“We recognized that we needed a strong HR capacity, but we were also in the middle of trying to enlist new editorial staff people and we were scrambling for space in the budget to do so,” he said.
Fish said he gave the publication’s new editor, Eric Bates, the “mandate to recruit women and people of color to the magazine’s editorial staff and to promote them to senior positions” — an effort he said “was made challenging” in part by “the inherited reputation of the magazine as a men’s club.” Asked by The Intercept if Fish’s claim he told Bates to focus on hiring women and people of color was true, Bates declined to comment.
As for the employee handbook, Fish said, “far from eliminating the employee handbook, we decided early on that the existing handbook would remain in force while we tackled the tougher issues in the review process, section by section.”
For better or worse, the sexual abuse scandals engulfing companies both large and small have brought the role of human resources departments into sharp relief. Among the key purposes of human resources is to offer employees an avenue through which to air grievances about their working environment, as well as assist in seeking redress and solutions to problems. But such departments are no panacea — indeed, while HR professionals can appear to be supportive of victims or at least neutral in disputes between bosses and their staff, they can also become enablers of abuse by taking the side of the accused. This occurred most notoriously at the Weinstein Company, which allowed Harvey Weinstein to carry on his flagrant sexual exploitation of women for decades. At Vice, as the New York Times described recently in its exposé of the company’s culture of harassment, HR repeatedly encouraged victims to accept it as normal. (Nancy Ashbrooke, Vice’s former HR director, told the Times, “I support anyone who believes they have been mistreated and throughout my career, I have worked to help companies build respectful workplaces with no tolerance for inappropriate behavior.”)
However, the absence of any HR department at many small news outlets creates a unique vulnerability for employees, whose fates may rest entirely in the hands of their often charismatic leaders or founders. AlterNet, another left-leaning news organization, is a textbook example of that phenomenon.
AlterNet never had anything resembling a human resources department, but it did have a “crying room” — the nickname women had given to their restroom at the Federal Street office in San Francisco. The progressive online outlet’s executive editor and founder, Don Hazen, submitted his resignation in December, after BuzzFeed News reported that five women have accused him of sexual harassment during their time working for the site. Hazen was particularly central to AlterNet because he had the personal relationships to maintain the site’s foundation funding, which makes up a considerable portion of its budget.
The allegations against Hazen include inappropriate touching, discussing and asking employees about their sex lives in the office, making unwanted advances, and showing co-workers explicit photos — including one of his erect penis.
The Intercept spoke to more than a dozen people with knowledge of Hazen’s actions, including 10 women who said Hazen harassed them by touching them inappropriately, bringing up their sex lives, or making unwanted advances. Most of the interviews were conducted before BuzzFeed published its article, but track closely with the allegations reported there. The sources described a toxic work environment, in which Hazen had sheer control, and staffers had little to no recourse available to report abuses. Most of them spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the information they were sharing.
“We take these allegations very seriously, and in turn, the Board of Directors of AlterNet’s parent organization, the Independent Media Institute, immediately placed Don on indefinite leave as we began to investigate these claims,” the board said in a statement. “As of today, Don submitted his resignation, which the board accepted, effective immediately. Don has had a long and distinguished career, and his stewardship of AlterNet has been dedicated and imaginative for more than two decades. We all regret his tenure ended this way, but we want to reassure our readers and the broader AlterNet community that we are deeply confident about the future of AlterNet and are dedicated to continuing to work for its stability and success.”
Kristen Gwynne, who says she was sexually harassed by Hazen during her time at AlterNet, including inappropriate touching and advances, told The Intercept that the board’s statement “infuriated” her.
“They kind of championed him and everything he’s done, and then they say ‘we regret that his tenure ended this way’ and that’s what infuriated me,” Gwynne said. “The fact that they regret his tenure ended this way and not that his tenure was characterized by persistent and egregious sexual harassment.”
The other regret the board could have expressed is for AlterNet itself. As the internet first grew in popularity, AlterNet was one of the largest news sites of the day. Many of the country’s most talented writers cycled through at one point or another, many leaving in disgust at the toxic workplace environment. There are, to be sure, relentless external forces at work against the success of a progressive news outlet, but one of the most damaging can come from within. In an alternate universe in which AlterNet had a strong and supportive workplace culture, one that nurtured rather than repelled the talent it was able to attract, the site today could have been a home for some of the best journalists covering gender, power, and injustice.
But that was not the AlterNet that was ultimately built. The board said in an earlier statement to BuzzFeed that no employee had submitted a complaint to them — which is part of the problem: Many former employees told The Intercept that Hazen handpicked friends of his to serve on the board, and staff had virtually no interaction with any of the board members.
Reached for comment, two members of AlterNet’s board did not respond to detailed questions from The Intercept. Instead, one of them said the Independent Media Institute would be issuing a new public statement, but it has yet to materialize.
Reached by phone last week, Hazen agreed to a phone interview for the following day, but did not specify a time. He put this reporter on hold for several minutes, eventually hanging up. Shortly thereafter, he responded to The Intercept’s request for comment in a message sent from his AlterNet email address. “Sorry for the call to be interrupted. As you probably know I have resigned from IMI -Alternet. So I am no longer in a position to speak for the organization,” he wrote. “I will pass on your interest to the board.” He did not respond to a detailed list of questions, except for one question about his approach to race in the newsroom.
In an interview with BuzzFeed, Hazen said, “In the atmosphere of lots of discussion about editorial topics like sex and drugs, I lost track of some boundaries I needed to keep. I had personal conversations with staff I should not have had, made comments I should not have made, and take responsibility for failure to recognize the implications of my position and age in supervising people at that period.” But in an earlier statement to BuzzFeed, he denied most of the allegations against him and said others had been mischaracterized.
Heather Gehlert, who was a managing editor at AlterNet from 2006 to 2009, said Hazen sexually harassed her, including, in one instance, trying “to rub my neck and back uninvited, without asking, without my consent, anything.” She never felt that going to the board about the harassment was an option because she was afraid that if she approached them, it “could mean some form of retaliation, including being fired.” In fact, she noted, she felt that she could be fired “for a lot less than going to the board,” reflecting an opinion shared by multiple former AlterNet staffers.
“It felt like there was this feedback loop and everything would ultimately lead back to him, and I couldn’t imagine any way of trying to go to them or make anything more of those kinds of issues without getting fired for it,” Gehlert said.
Sarah Jaffe, a freelance reporter who was on staff at AlterNet in New York from 2011 to 2012, said she doesn’t recall “ever getting a handbook or getting told where I should take complaints if I had any,” adding that board members “never interacted with any of us in a capacity of actually overseeing AlterNet.”
“I was hired by Don. I was, you know, told what my job was by Don. I was overseen by Don. I would get belligerent 2 a.m. emails from Don,” Jaffe said. “I didn’t have anybody else. When anybody else was given oversight, it was constantly overruled by Don.”
While Jaffe is not convinced that an HR manager — who, at the end of the day, would also have reported to Hazen — would have been able to do much, she acknowledged that if there had been an HR position, “at least somebody would have raised some hell at some point” by reporting mistreatment.
But Jaffe argues that the only way for workers to obtain real power is to have a union representative or shop steward “who is on the worker’s side.” In a place like AlterNet, where one person has almost total control over everything, other than workers “having actual power” through a union, Jaffe said, she’s not sure of anything else that “could’ve actually stopped” Hazen.
At the Nation Institute, a union drive was partially motivated by precisely that concern, said Esther Kaplan. “We unionized the place almost as a desperation move to create some structures — not just harassment, but annual reviews, how to request raises. Everything was personal and depended on what your personal relationship was to the CEO, so that created all kinds of management issues,” Kaplan said. A sexual harassment policy was enshrined in the first union contract five years ago.
“I think that’s part of what’s interesting with what’s happening right now is it’s showing that, right now, what we have in place to deal with workplace sexual harassment is completely insufficient,” Gwynne said.
“The criminal justice system is not equipped to handle it, labor regulations don’t seem to be up to par to handle it. And it’s bizarre now that suddenly, it’s like we’re in the court of public opinion and that’s doing the better job,” she added.
Thirteen former AlterNet employees told The Intercept the abusive management wasn’t just sexual in nature, as Hazen would constantly berate staffers. And Terrell Jermaine Starr, who worked at AlterNet from July 2014 to October 2015 and is now a senior reporter at The Root, said Hazen made “racially insensitive” and inappropriate comments.
“In our society, white people unknowingly say things that are racially insensitive to people of color,” Hazen told The Intercept. “That said, I never consciously or intentionally said anything insensitive to Terrell Starr.”
Starr said he was dealing with depression during his time at AlterNet. Though he initially tried to be discreet about his mental health, having no one else to turn to, he was eventually forced to tell Hazen why he needed to leave work for therapy sessions.
“I felt very uncomfortable talking to him about it, because one, I didn’t know him like that, for real, and two, who else could I go to?” Starr said. “I didn’t know that there was anyone in the organization where I could say, ‘I need this and I need that.’ That was never explained to me, so I felt like I had no other choice but to tell Don.”
Often, HR departments help employees navigate issues related to their physical and mental health, including advising them on how to broach the topic with their bosses. Starr said his experience at AlterNet was starkly different from that at his previous job, where he was told “no one who I worked with at the editorial department had to know why I was gone for two days, for any reason. The HR department told the managers what was going on because I was protected under HIPAA.”
Hazen told BuzzFeed that AlterNet had no formal human resources office because the company was so small. Regardless of size, companies are not required by law to have HR departments. Having a formal, written sexual harassment policy isn’t legally required either, though most companies have one anyway.
“This is not just about Don Hazen. This is not just about any individual abuser,” said Heather Gehlert. “It’s about wider systems in our workplaces and broader cultural norms that allow this type of behavior to continue for years and, in some cases, decades.”
In the wake of Fish’s departure from the New Republic and the Nation Institute, both institutions took steps that belie the notion that cash-strapped organizations can’t afford to put structures in place to guard against harassment or abuse. The New Republic’s new editor, J.J. Gould, has made building such a system a high priority, staffers there say, and the site is now hiring for a full-time HR position. The handbook, disappeared by Fish, has been found and re-activated.
And at the Nation Institute, a handbook that Fish was endlessly working on but never implemented has been substantially revised and distributed. The handbooks at both organizations specify multiple avenues for filing complaints.
“Obviously structures aren’t magic,” Kaplan said. To figure out what kinds of procedures to put in place in the wake of Fish’s departure, Kaplan said, “we did a lot of asking around — and [we found that] you need multiple lines of report. If you set up a sexual harassment reporting policy where there’s one choke point, — the HR person, CEO, the deputy — if that person is perceived as tight with the perpetrator, nobody will report. Multiple avenues to report is critical.”
Under the new system, she said, complaints can be filed to the CEO, the board’s executive committee, or a direct supervisor. The key is to actually implement a policy. Under Fish, she said, “In theory there was a process to create guidelines, but it was never put into place.”
Correction: January 5, 2018, 11:39 a.m.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to AlterNet’s Federal Street office in San Francisco as being in New York.