(CNN Money) — There are storm clouds encircling Vice Media.
As allegations of sexual misconduct pile up in the worlds of media, entertainment and politics, the Brooklyn-based company — a multimedia juggernaut eying an IPO — appears to be staring down an inevitable reckoning.
Last week may have offered a preview of what’s to come. A piece published by the Daily Beast examined Vice’s “sexual-harassment culture,” and implicated a high-profile producer at the company.
That story led to a suspension for Jason Mojica, Vice’s lead filmmaker and former editor-in-chief, who was said to have dismissed complaints about sexual harassment and to have made inappropriate comments. Reached by CNNMoney, Mojica declined to comment.
The Daily Beast’s reporting only heightened the sense of dread consuming Vice’s journalists.
Conversations with 10 employees in the company’s television and digital departments — a mix of reporters, correspondents and editors — revealed a sinking sense of morale at Vice’s Williamsburg headquarters. There is an assumption that the claims in the Daily Beast story will not be the last. Many of those same Vice employees said the company’s leadership has exacerbated an already-tense situation. And some female staff members lamented how awkward it’s made the current news cycle.
“It feels stupid to be reporting on harassment and assault when we all feel embarrassed by how Vice is handling this,” one reporter said.
The company’s actions following the Daily Beast’s story last Wednesday did little to alleviate the anxiety among staff.
Members of Vice’s editorial union responded forcefully to the story, issuing a statement saying they “have been vocal in our concerns about gender equity and ensuring our workplace is an environment in which everyone feels safe, respected, and valued, and will continue to demand that the company recognize and respond to these concerns in full.”
But the response from Vice leadership made matters even worse, according to multiple employees who spoke to CNNMoney.
The internal frustration reached a fever pitch on Friday, when Vice held its latest “state of the union,” highlighted by a 45-minute pre-recorded video package featuring co-founders Shane Smith and Suroosh Alvi, along with other executives. Appearing with other employees, they discussed various matters and concerns, but sexual harassment and misconduct were left unaddressed.
Coming on the heels of the Daily Beast story — and facing the specter of perhaps more damning exposés — the video, shot months in advance, left many at Vice infuriated.
Some employees left the Brooklyn office in disgust, according to multiple sources.
“Even for Vice,” one editor told CNNMoney, “the whole thing was astoundingly tone-deaf.”
In a dramatic moment first reported by The Daily Beast and confirmed to CNNMoney by someone who witnessed it, one Vice employee stood up during the video and asked forcefully when the video was going to address sexual harassment. The audience gathered applauded.
Smith, Vice’s CEO, tried to smooth things over in an email to staff later on Friday.
“My apologies for the Friday evening note, but I wanted to address some of the feedback we have been getting on today’s State of the Union,” Smith said. “While we attempted to cover a wide range of issues impacting the company, I’m sorry that we missed the mark, especially when it came to clearly addressing issues around sexual harassment at VICE.”
“I’d like to make it abundantly clear here and now: the behavior outlined in the recent Daily Beast article is unacceptable, and the fact that anything like this could happen at VICE is my and my senior management’s responsibility,” he continued. “VICE does not tolerate sexual harassment, abusive behavior, assault or retaliation, and just as we have in connection with the allegations in the Daily Beast, we will investigate and discipline inappropriate behavior of any kind. We will continue to investigate all allegations brought to the company’s attention, enlisting outside independent counsel when necessary.”
On Monday, Smith met with several managers and editors to go over their concerns. According to multiple employees familiar with those conversations, Smith was confronted with questions about the company’s response to the Daily Beast story. One source said that Smith was accompanied in some of the meetings by the attorney Roberta Kaplan, who was tapped to lead Vice’s all-female advisory board that the company announced last week. (The panel also includes feminist icon Gloria Steinem.)
But nobody inside Vice expects the Daily Beast story to be the last probe into the company’s sinister past.
A headline last week at The Awl captured the ominous anticipation: “Where’s The Vice Story?”
The question has been the subject of intense gossip in New York City media circles for weeks, but it isn’t the only one being asked by journalists and executives.
There is another Vice story coming, everyone is certain, and it will detail the company’s history of misogyny. But few seem to know exactly what’s in it. And that includes Vice employees.
“People are very concerned about what’s coming next,” said one reporter.
Another reporter put it a bit differently: “People just want the asteroid to hit already.”
The story — whatever it says — could represent a significant impediment for one of media’s most ambitious upstarts.
Vice has had a meteoric rise since its launch in the mid-1990s as an irreverent magazine.
Today, the company boasts several digital properties, its own television channel and a nightly news program on HBO (which, like CNN, Is owned by Time Warner). In June, Vice fetched another $450 million investment, boosting its reported valuation to more than $5.5 billion. Smith has talked about his plans for “world domination” and to turn the company into “the next CNN.” He has made little secret of Vice’s intention to go public.
But amid all that success, Vice has cultivated a reputation for a misogynistic, “bro-ish” work environment.
In a statement provided to CNNMoney, a Vice spokesperson said the company is committed to improving its workplace culture.
“23 years ago, VICE was founded as a punk magazine that published an unvarnished look at the subversive culture that the founders, the magazine’s contributors and readers were part of,” the statement said. “Since then, the company has transformed into a global media company that operates in dozens of countries and is home to thousands of journalists, producers and content creators.
“However, the company’s evolution has fallen short when it comes to our workplace culture. We acknowledge this failing, which is why we have committed ourselves to making every necessary change to create an inclusive workplace where all our employees can flourish, while being safe and respected.
“Our focus right now is listening to our employees and addressing their needs,” the spokesperson continued. “These changes do not happen overnight, and we have undertaken a number of significant steps over the past year. These include: achieving pay parity by 2018, hiring a new global Head of HR, tightening standards and practices, updating reporting processes for any inappropriate behavior, restructuring and diversifying the company’s board of directors, implementing sensitivity training in the workplace, and forming an advisory board to work with management and employees to evaluate company culture and make any necessary changes. We are also actively investigating all allegations of inappropriate conduct that are brought to our attention.”
The assumption, both within Vice and throughout the broader media landscape, has been that the next story will be published by the New York Times.
HuffPost’s Ashley Feinberg reported Tuesday night that Times reporter Emily Steel, who broke major news this year on settlements paid to women who accused Bill O’Reilly of sexual misconduct, has contacted at least one former Vice employee.
A former Vice producer, who was not the source mentioned in HuffPost’s story, told CNNMoney that she and several other women met with Steel in the spring, when her reporting on the story was still in its infancy.
A spokesperson for the Times said the paper does “not comment on what may or may not appear in future editions.” In an email, Steel said, “I can’t discuss my reporting.”
Until she can, Vice employees are forced to wait uneasily.
“I’d say everyone is frustrated with how the company failed and continues to fail to respond appropriately to the Daily Beast story last week,” the editor said. “Given the rumors of what the New York Times story contains, there is overwhelming dread as well. I’ve said to people that the mood is ‘pitch black’ and I think that’s accurate.”
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