Mother Jones magazine’s editor and chief executive acknowledged on Thursday that they investigated Washington bureau chief David Corn for inappropriate workplace behavior three years ago, warning him about touching female staffers and insensitive descriptions of sexual violence, and would now probe the allegations further in light of two emails written by former staffers in 2014 and 2015 and obtained by POLITICO.
One of the emails, written in 2015 by a former staffer outlining concerns she had heard from other women in the Washington office, said Corn, now 58, made “rape jokes,” “regularly gave [several women] unwelcome shoulder rubs and engaged in uninvited touching of their legs, arms, backs, and waists,” and “made inappropriate comments about women’s sexuality and anatomy.” The other email, from 2014, was by a former female staffer who claimed that Corn “came up behind me and put his hands and arms around my body in a way that felt sexual and domineering.”
CEO Monika Bauerlein and editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery said they had not seen these emails, which were shared several years ago between colleagues and union representatives. But the magazine’s leaders acknowledged dealing with allegations of inappropriate touching and comments around the time the emails were written, and said they believe Corn has stopped those behaviors.
Corn, in a statement to POLITICO, said that neither his comments nor his touching of colleagues was in any way sexual.
“I am an exuberant person and have been known to pat male and female colleagues on the shoulder or slap them on the back, but always in a collegial or celebratory way,” he said. “I have never touched any work colleague in a sexual manner. Once concerns were raised about this type of contact, I have been mindful to avoid it to prevent any misperception. If anyone ever perceived any of this as ‘sexual’ or ‘domineering,’ I am sorry—that was never my intent.”
“Sexual violence is not funny, and I have never joked about it, or about women’s sexuality and anatomy,” Corn wrote.
Bauerlein and Jeffrey emphasized in a statement to POLITICO that they would look into the allegations in the emails and that “now that they’ve come to us, we are going to take them seriously and investigate.”
“What we heard about in the past were concerns about nonsexual touching (patting on the shoulder, slapping on the back, poking in the arm),” Bauerlein and Jeffery said. “At no time did anyone claim that any kind of sexual touching occurred. In fact, the people who raised concerns about touching told us that they did not consider it sexual, but simply didn’t want any physical contact at all.”
Corn is Mother Jones’ most high-profile employee, with regular appearances on MSNBC. He’s the author, with Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff, of “Hubris,” a 2007 book on the Bush administration’s selling of the Iraq war, and is writing a forthcoming book with Isikoff on the investigation into whether President Donald Trump or his allies colluded with Russia during the 2016 election. Corn also won the prestigious Polk Award in 2013 for breaking the “47 percent video,” in which former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said nearly half of Americans were dependent on the government.
The accusations against Corn have surfaced amid a wave of sexual harassment allegations involving high-profile men in the news business, including star political journalist Mark Halperin, now-former top NPR editor Michael Oreskes, former New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier and New Republic publisher Hamilton Fish. Wieseltier, Fish and Corn were recently accused of harassment on “Shitty Media Men,” an anonymously written list featuring women’s claims against more than 70 men that’s been circulating among journalists.
Bauerlein and Jeffery drew distinction between the allegations against Corn and other high-profile male journalists, writing that “while anything that makes someone uncomfortable is important to deal with, nothing that was brought to us was anywhere near the kinds of behaviors we have been reading about taking place elsewhere in the past few weeks.” The allegations against Corn, they said, “deserved to be addressed” but his behavior was determined to not be “misconduct.”
POLITICO has spoken to around a dozen current and former Mother Jones staffers, who worked in both the Washington and San Francisco offices, and most of whom described their experiences at the magazine on the condition of anonymity.
The allegations that some female former staffers made against Corn do not rise to the level of those made against Halperin, who has been accused by several female colleagues of pressing his genitals against their bodies and masturbating behind his desk in the presence of one — or even Oreskes and Wieseltier, who have been accused of unwanted kissing on the mouth. But several former Mother Jones staffers described the Washington office culture as uncomfortable for women and said the magazine’s leaders in its San Francisco headquarters were slow to act on the situation.
Some former staffers said they believed that a progressive magazine that closely covers sexual harassment and assault, and is led by women, should’ve responded more aggressively to women’s concerns. One former staffer recalled discussing Corn’s behavior in an exit interview with human resources staffers and believed she wasn’t the first because they appeared unsurprised. Concerns about the Washington workplace culture persisted for at least nine months, according to interviews and documentation obtained by POLITICO.
Bauerlein and Jeffery defended management’s response. “When concerns about the DC bureau were brought up in 2014, we immediately investigated,” they wrote. “Both of us personally interviewed staff in the bureau more than once. We addressed the concerns with David, counseling him and directing him to avoid specific conduct. We followed up to ensure that the situation had improved.”
In addition to touching, Bauerlein and Jeffery said some concerns raised in the past were about “insensitive discussion of difficult issues in the news, including sexual violence, in a way that could have been offensive or triggering to some.” However, they said, “what was described to us did not constitute joking about sexual violence, much less ‘rape jokes.’ ”
The allegation that Corn made “rape jokes” came in the 2015 email that compiled incidents reported to the magazine’s union from women in the Washington office. “Several expressed concern about the ‘gleeful’ tone of these remarks and David’s seeming indifference to the discomfort they created,” it read. “In the summer and fall of 2014, some women staffers reported that they had quit pitching stories involving rape because David’s reactions made them so uncomfortable.”
The woman who outlined her own experiences in the 2014 email claimed Corn put his arms around her from behind “in front of several DC staffers, and I felt humiliated and undermined.” The former staffer also alleged that Corn hovered around some female staffers “in a way that they say feels disturbing and distracting from their work.”
“We also directed all managers and staff to make sure they respect everyone’s sensitivities regarding physical boundaries, and that they address charged news stories such as sexual violence with particular care,” Bauerlein and Jeffery wrote to POLITICO. “In addition to our existing policies on workplace environment (including regular trainings on sexual harassment), we put in place further internal procedures to ensure that everyone has multiple paths to report any workplace concerns.”
For his part, Corn asserted that “throughout my ten years at Mother Jones, I have strived to build a bureau where reporters and editors can do great work in a collegial, supportive, and enjoyable environment.
“At a time when rape—and the actions of politicians and celebrities such as Todd Akin and Bill Cosby—was much in the news, I made comments and asked questions about the terrible behavior of the perpetrators, and I said that stories about these issues were of great interest to our readers. I was later told that the way in which I made these comments was seen as insensitive by some, and I’m sorry I didn’t realize that in the moment. I sought to make sure that it didn’t happen again and that my male colleagues would be mindful as well.”
Current Mother Jones staffers, including those working on behalf of the union, indicated that concerns about Corn’s behavior seem to have abated.
“We are unable to divulge confidential interactions the union had with or on behalf of members,” Hannah Levintova, a Washington-based reporter and union co-chair, told POLITICO. “The union took this very seriously, and it is our understanding that management did as well.”
Daniel Schulman, who has worked at Mother Jones for more than a decade and is currently deputy Washington bureau chief, said that “the organization puts its employees and their families first” and in his experience Mother Jones “is not the type of place where complaints are swept under the rug.”
“When complaints about the atmosphere in the D.C. bureau were brought to the attention of the management, they were addressed directly with the D.C. bureau chief,” Schulman added. “He subsequently made an effort to correct the issues that were brought to his attention. Based on my knowledge, the process was handled as it should have been. Complaints were raised and they were addressed directly.”
Senior editor Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, who has worked in journalism for three decades, and at Mother Jones since early 2015, told POLITICO she didn’t personally witness Corn touching any women, though she said her understanding was that such behavior, while perhaps considered a “violation of space,” was not “in any way sexual in nature.”
She said Corn now appears “quite scrupulous about keeping physical distance because he realized it was in danger of being misinterpreted.”
“I’ve seen terrible behavior by men in journalism,” she added, “and I have not seen it at Mother Jones.”
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