WASHINGTON POST’S OFFICE SHUFFLE
Here’s one story out of the Washington Post’s New York bureau that won’t make it into the paper: It’s about columnist Richard Cohen and why he’s just moved his office from the twelfth floor of the paper’s New York bureau to the twenty-second floor of the Newsweek building. The New York-bureau chief, Blaine Harden, passed along to management a complaint against Cohen made by Devon Spurgeon, a 23-year-old female special correspondent in the bureau. One Post insider says Harden and others in the bureau witnessed several instances in which Cohen made inappropriately sexual remarks to the young assistant. Management took the situation seriously enough to fly to New York to talk with Cohen on April 3, the insider continues, while Spurgeon was asked to take a paid leave of absence during the negotiations. Eventually, management decided that Cohen’s office would be moved. Cohen vehemently denies the charges. “There was, for want of a better term, a personality conflict,” he explains. “It didn’t involve sexual harassment -- it didn’t involve sex, it didn’t involve harassment -- and no disciplinary action was taken.” Neither a Washington Post spokeswoman nor deputy managing editor Milton Coleman would comment on personnel matters, and neither Harden, Spurgeon, nor managing editor Robert Kaiser returned calls.
Staff members said Ms. Spurgeon and Mr. Cohen clashed soon after his arrival in New York. Ms. Spurgeon's post was quasi-clerical; she was given spot news assignments but was also expected to monitor the office fax machine and telephones. She made no secret of her journalistic ambitions, fellow staff members said, to the occasional detriment of her lesser duties. This, they said, seemed to annoy Mr. Cohen enough that he upbraided her from time to time, making reference to his connections to Post higher-ups in Washington in a way that Ms. Spurgeon read as an implicit threat to her job security.
Despite his displeasure with Ms. Spurgeon's job performance, Mr. Cohen seems to have sought out her opinion on matters relevant to his column. After reading a Lewinsky-related article that referred to oral sex as "casual sex," Mr. Cohen engaged Ms. Spurgeon in a discussion on the subject that other staff members found offensive. Staff members said that Mr. Cohen sometimes used foul language in the office and that he remarked on Ms. Spurgeon's appearance, telling her she "looked good in black," according to a Post staff member. On another occasion, the staff member said, Mr. Cohen asked Ms. Spurgeon to "stand up and turn around."
Mr. Cohen has denied to friends that he made that last comment and said that the other comments on Ms. Spurgeon's appearance were made innocently. Speaking to Off the Record, Mr. Cohen would only say, "It was a personality dispute at an office, but it had nothing to do with sexual harassment as the term applies today."
Mr. Cohen's defenders said discussions of oral sex are unavoidable in newsrooms these days because of the allegations swirling around President Clinton. And they add that while Mr. Cohen may cuss heartily, he does so only in the tradition of his trade. "Anyone who has worked in a newsroom knows these are not sedate places," said Mr. Auletta. "There is a wise-guy element of journalism that doesn't get into what we write, but we bluster.… That's the way journalists talk."
Tensions between Mr. Cohen and Ms. Spurgeon escalated in late March, eventually culminating in a peculiar circumstance: For three weeks, the 57-year-old columnist gave his 23-year-old colleague the silent treatment. Staff members in the New York bureau expressed their concern to bureau chief Blaine Harden, who in turn contacted assistant managing editor Karen DeYoung in Washington. Ms. DeYoung took the matter to Mr. Downie, who went into crisis mode.
While Ms. Spurgeon awaited word of her fate, Post sources said, Mr. Cohen's friends mounted a defense of their colleague, using a familiar tactic-they trashed the young reporter. Because she had cried on occasion in the office, Ms. Spurgeon was depicted as unstable by critics in calls to Post management. Ms. Spurgeon's sympathizers said she was upset about her mother, who is stricken with cancer, and they called the comments a cheap shot. An item in The Washington Times reported that Mr. Cohen's friend Sally Quinn was behind the campaign to discredit Ms. Spurgeon, a charge Ms. Quinn vehemently denied. "I never made a single phone call to people at the Post on behalf of Dick," Ms. Quinn said. "I've stayed out of it because I don't think my involvement would help anybody."
Devon Spurgeon is a 23-year-old reporter with movie-star looks and a nose for news.
Richard Cohen is an aging columnist who calls Ben Bradlee, Sally Quinn, and Bob Woodward his best buddies.
Cohen’s crude conversations poisoned his working relationship with the young reporter in the Post’s New York bureau. It also put the Post’s handling of sexual-harassment complaints on public display.
And after pushing reporters to go after Bill Clinton for hiding behind his lawyers in the Monica Lewinsky affair, executive editor Len Downie consulted with Post general counsel Mary Ann Werner and now offers only “on comment” through aides.
Cohen moved from Washington to the New York bureau last year. By all accounts, Cohen expected Spurgeon to cater to his office needs — and get his dry cleaning. She wanted to report stories.
“It’s not that she didn’t like him,” says one bureau reporter, “it’s just that she didn’t have time for him.”
But Cohen had time to engage Spurgeon in conversations that made her feel uncomfortable and threatened. She took her concerns to the other reporters, who agreed that Cohen had crossed a line. Around April 1, they asked bureau chief Harden to file an official report with Downie.
“This is not a ‘he said, she said,’” according to one reporter. “It’s ‘they said.’”
The Post dispatched deputy managing editor Milton Coleman to New York on April 3 and 6. He rented a room in the Essex Hotel and interviewed Cohen, Harden, and reporters Bob O’Harrow, Dale Russakoff, and Sharon Walsh. Cohen hired an attorney. Spurgeon went it alone.
Among the allegations reported to Coleman: Cohen asked Spurgeon to come into his office and close the door, then queried her about her generation’s view of oral sex. Also at issue: a conversation where Cohen said it’s too bad Bill Clinton is the only one who can grope in his office and get away with it. He also is said to have intimidated her with references to his connections with top Post editors, such as Tom Wilkinson, who can hire and fire.
No one said Cohen touched her or hit on her. Still, when Coleman asked the reporters if they considered Cohen’s comments sexual harassment, three said yes.