On January 17, Ross Levinsohn left Tribune Publishing, where he had been CEO of its digital arm. The little-noted move cappedhis year-and-a-half-long stint at the company.
Tribune has been at the center of some of the biggest trends in media, including the decline of traditional news outlets, the media-buying spree by billionaires, and the consolidation by companies in search of scale.
But those trends weren’t the only factors that shaped Levinsohn’s career there, first as CEO and publisher of one of the US’s most influential media outlets, the Los Angeles Times, which Tribune sold to the LA-based healthcare tycoon Patrick Soon-Shiong a year earlier.
Five months into his time leading the paper, Levinsohn was the subject of an article by NPR January 2018. Headlined “Accusations of Frat House Behavior Trail LA Times Publisher’s Career,” the article reviewed Levinsohn’s work record over 20 years, suggesting a pattern of questionable behavior by him toward women.
The story reported that Levinsohn had been named a defendant in two sexual-harassment claims stemming from stints he had at the ’90s-era search engine Alta Vista and Fox Interactive Media. It reported accusations that Levinsohn had used homophobic language and made sexist comments, including rating the “hotness” of female colleagues.
Reaction was swift. The day after the NPR story published, Levinsohn was put on unpaid leave. The Times’ newsroom union called for Levinsohn’s removal. Tribune Publishing launched an investigation of his past conduct.
Levinsohn eventually landed on his feet. Tribune cleared him of the accusations of inappropriate behavior described in the NPR story. After selling the LA Times to Soon-Shiong in February 2018, Tribune brought back Levinsohn as chief executive of Tribune’s digital arm. The court cases settled with no sexual-harassment findings against Levinsohn.
Now that he’s left Tribune Publishing, Levinsohn agreed with speak on the record for the first time since the NPR story was posted more than a year ago.
- In our interview, he attacks NPR as being biased and committing “character assassination” of him by misusing the #MeToo movement and publishing inaccuracies and half-truths.
- “It was a character assassination using the societally important #MeToo movement,” he said.
- He defended himself against allegations in the article, denying that he used homophobic language and saying he didn’t remember having said in a deposition that he’d used sexist language at work.
But there have been some inconsistencies between Levinsohn’s version of events and those of his associates, and they did not have evidence to confirm all their positions.
For example, a portion of the deposition transcript in one of the cases, from 2001, which was viewed by Business Insider, shows Levinsohn responded “yes” when asked if he ever discussed with any other employees during business hours while at work “whether or not a female employee of Alta Vista was hot” or whether another one had worked as a stripper.
People close to Levinsohn for weeks denied he had said the things detailed in the deposition, but when Business Insider presented him with evidence of the deposition portion in question, he didn’t directly deny having said those things.
David Folkenflik, the author of the NPR article, said he stands by his reporting, based on interviews with 26 sources, court documents, and financial filings, and he said the article was based simply on journalistic motives.
The #MeToo movement has brought down many powerful media and entertainment figures and ushered in an examination of workplace harassment and questionable behavior against women. It’s raised questions about whether men accused of #MeToo allegations can and should return to public life, and under what conditions. Publishers have been questioned for giving a voice to people who have been accused of doing bad things.
Some may no doubt be angry that we gave a platform to someone accused of problematic behavior. We decided to publish Levinsohn’s comments not to defend or apologize for him but to show how one accused person feels about going from being a powerful executive to having their past exposed and career threatened. It also gave a chance to ask him about some of the most significant accusations made against him in the NPR article.
Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Tanya Dua:What was your first reaction when you found out about NPR’s story?
Ross Levinsohn:That story paints me as somebody accused of sexual harassment. The facts and the findings in the lawsuits don’t support it. The #MeToo movement is a very important one. But this story came at the height of the #MeToo movement, and it weaponized the movement and used it against me to damage me. I think I’ve been a champion and an advocate for women.
Dua:In one of the lawsuits that named you, the defendant Amber Tribble alleged that when she asked you for a promotion, you pointed to a Fox Sports sideline reporter, who was a former pinup model, as a template for success, saying she “learned how to work her way to the top.” What did you mean?
Levinsohn:I was referring to an employee who was known for her drive and work ethic and achieved success as a reporter for Fox Sports and later as a host of several television series.
Dua:According to a portion of the deposition transcript in the other lawsuit that we viewed, you were asked if you ever discussed with any other employees during work “whether or not a female employee of Alta Vista was hot” and “Did you ever discuss with any male Alta Vista employee the idea that Chris was working as a stripper?” The transcript showed that in both cases you responded “yes.”
Levinsohn:I don’t remember saying this, but if I did say anything of this nature, it is unacceptable.
Dua:The article also references you “aggressively” kissing a woman “in open sight of others present,” including your own employees at a Billboard party in 2013 while you were running its parent company.
Levinsohn:The allegation is not true. I was not a kissing a woman, period. This person was with me during the night and she refuted it.
Dua:Would you tell us who that person was?
Levinsohn:I would have to ask her permission.
Dua:Sources close to you have said that you deny the accusations in the NPR story that while at the same company, you told a Hollywood Reporter executive in 2013 that you “would not stay” at the publication’s lunch honoring the entertainment business‘ most influential fashion stylists because he would have to be surrounded by gays — using a vulgar epithet for them. The sources didn’t provide any evidence to support these denials, though.
Levinsohn:I spent time at the event meeting with clients, honorees, and executives at the Soho House in West Hollywood, including being photographed with many in attendance. As an executive who has overseen nearly 20,000 employees in my career, and someone who understands human-resource policies, if there is ever a claim like this in a company, it must be investigated by the company. A claim of this nature was not brought to the company, I never made this comment, and it is not true.
If you look at my career history, I’ve had all types of people on my staffs, and supported everyone’s right to choose how they live their lives.
Dua:How has the story affected your life, personally and professionally?
Levinsohn:In today’s world, whether it was accurate or not, once it’s published, it remains out on the internet forever. The article damaged my career. It hurt me personally. It impacted my children and my family.
I don’t know what it means for the rest of my career. It’s a tough thing to just tell people. I could point out every single inaccuracy in the story, but that’s a hard thing for a future employer or a board or something to say, that’s fine.
Dua:Why address these accusations now?
Levinsohn:I wanted to keep my head down. The best thing you can do is to do your job. And that’s what I was doing for the last year. I’m no longer at the company. I thought it was the right time. I’m hopeful that as the truth emerges that it will help me. It’s been a couple of weeks since I left Tribune Publishing, so I’ve not gone out to look for, or interviewed for a job yet. But I’m hopeful that I can move forward in my career and continue to work.
Dua:Looking back, would you have done anything differently?
Levinsohn:The facts and the findings in the lawsuits don’t support the question. It certainly doesn’t sound like me to me.