The publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times voluntarily took unpaid leave on Friday, one day after a slew of misconduct allegations against him surfaced, prompting members of his own newsroom to call for his firing.
Ross Levinsohn, the paper's publisher and CEO since August, agreed to the unpaid leave, according to a memo distributed internally to Times employees. Tronc, the Times' parent company, also hired an outside firm to investigate the allegations, which were reported by NPR on Thursday.
"I want to reemphasize to all you that the company takes any allegations of inappropriate behavior by its employees very seriously," Tribune Publishing CEO Justin Dearborn said in his memo. He added that "we will not hesitate to take further action, if appropriate, once the review is completed."
The allegations include referring to gay members of the fashion industry as "fags" and creating "a frat house environment" while working as an executive at another company.
The allegations prompted an immediate and furious response from Levinsohn's newsroom, with the Los Angeles Times Guild organizing committee — made up of dozens of employees at the paper — saying it was "appalled by the findings in the NPR story."
"Ross Levinsohn should resign or be fired immediately," the unionizing committee said in a statement. "A man who sexually harasses women, engages in 'slut-shaming' and refers to gay men as 'fags' is not fit to lead our newspaper."
The committee also demanded an investigation "to examine how Levinsohn was hired given his documented history of misconduct," and that parent company Tronc "be held accountable for their failure to properly vet" him.
One reporter, who agreed to talk on the condition that they not be identified, told BuzzFeed News the reaction in the newsroom to the NPR article was instant shock.
“People were gasping. People were cursing,” the reporter said. “It’s extraordinarily troubling.”
In recent months, amid an intense campaign to unionize, much of the concern and scrutiny among newsroom employees had been on Tronc leadership’s proposed business plans and how they would affect news operations. (On Friday, the guild announced that the newsroom voted to unionize by a landslide vote of 248 to 44.)
But the allegations listed in the NPR article, particularly at a time when the media is fully engaged in covering the great reckoning regarding sexual misconduct and abuse of power across multiple industries, added “an extra level of concern,” the reporter said.
As the LA Times continues to cover one of the biggest news stories to grip an industry in its own backyard — Hollywood — the paper will now itself be subject to scrutiny, the reporter pointed out. And given that editors and executives at other media companies have been forced out under similar allegations and revelations, the anticipation of what will ultimately happen to Levinsohn is high.
“If Tronc keeps him, there will be a lot of serious questions they’ll have to answer because we’re already asking them,” the reporter said.
Employees at the Times also started a petition Thursday afternoon stating that Levinsohn "has lost credibility as the leader of one of the country’s top newspapers" and that he "he has to go — without a cent more of company money."
The petition adds that Levinsohn recently unveiled an "outlandish strategy that, if executed, would destroy The Los Angeles Times."
The allegations against Levinsohn span decades, though one comment in particular that roiled Times staffers Thursday allegedly was made in 2013. Levinsohn reportedly cut his appearance at an industry event in the Los Angeles area short, allegedly telling an executive for the Hollywood Reporter that he didn't want to "hang out with with a bunch of ladies and fags."
Numerous Times journalists criticized the alleged remark on Twitter Thursday and demanded action from company executives.
Other incidents detailed in the NPR story include Levinsohn allegedly hiring bikini-clad models to attend a sales event in France, publicly kissing a woman who was not his wife at a company party, and having multiple parties in the Hamptons broken up by police.
The first sexual harassment lawsuit against him and other defendants was litigated in 2001, when he was an executive at internet search company Alta Vista. According to NPR, Levinsohn said under oath that he had discussed the "hotness" of female employees and made other sexually charged comments.
Celia Francis, who also was an Alta Vista executive at the time, reportedly testified in the case that Levinsohn created "a frat house environment" at the company.
Levinsohn was reportedly again among the defendants listed in a harassment lawsuit in 2006, this time while working as an executive senior vice president for News Corp. In that complaint, a producer alleged that sexual harassment was common at the company under Levinsohn and other top leaders.
Tronc learned of the allegations this week and has launched an investigation into Levinsohn's behavior, company spokeswoman Lauren Pulte told BuzzFeed News in a statement.
"We are immediately launching an investigation so that we have a better understanding of what's occurred," Pulte said. "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."
Several hours after the NPR story was published, Tronc sent Times employees an email stating that the company "is taking the allegations seriously" and promising to "take appropriate action."
Jason Wells contributed reporting.