Dec. 23, 2017
By Emily Steel
One woman said she was riding a Ferris wheel at Coney Island after a company event when a co-worker suddenly took her hand and put it on his crotch.
Another said she felt pressured into a sexual relationship with an executive and was fired after she rejected him.
A third said that a co-worker grabbed her face and tried to kiss her, and she used her umbrella to fend him off.
These women did not work among older men at a hidebound company. They worked at Vice, an insurgent force in news and entertainment known for edgy content that aims for millennial audiences on HBO and its own TV network.
But as Vice Media has built itself from a fringe Canadian magazine into a nearly $6 billion global media company, its boundary-pushing culture created a workplace that was degrading and uncomfortable for women, current and former employees say.
An investigation by The New York Times has found four settlements involving allegations of sexual harassment or defamation against Vice employees, including its current president.
In addition, more than two dozen other women, most in their 20s and early 30s, said they had experienced or witnessed sexual misconduct at the company — unwanted kisses, groping, lewd remarks and propositions for sex.
The settlements and the many episodes of harassment the women described depict a top-down ethos of male entitlement at Vice, where women said they felt like just another party favor at an organization where partying often was an extension of the job.
What stands out about the women’s accounts — in the wake of a public reckoning over sexual assault and harassment by mostly older men — is that the allegations involve men in their 20s, 30s and 40s who came of age long after workplace harassment was not only taboo but outlawed.
“The misogyny might look different than you would have expected it to in the 1950s, but it was still there, it was still ingrained,” said Kayla Ruble, a journalist who worked at Vice from 2014 to 2016. “This is a wakeup call.”During the interview, Murs asked Ms. Hopper if he could have sex with her. She said no and included that answer in her article. But before the article was published, the magazine changed her response to yes and printed it under the headline, “I Got Laid But Murs Didn’t.” Mortified, Ms. Hopper hired lawyers.
Vice and its co-founder and chief executive, Shane Smith, have long been open about the company’s provocative atmosphere. But Vice is now struggling to reconcile its past — famous for coverage of streetwear, drugs and sex, as well as its raucous parties — with its emergence as a global media company backed by corporate giants like Disney and Fox.
In a statement provided to The Times, Mr. Smith and another co-founder, Suroosh Alvi, said “from the top down, we have failed as a company to create a safe and inclusive workplace where everyone, especially women, can feel respected and thrive.”
They said that a “boys club” culture at Vice had “fostered inappropriate behavior that permeated throughout the company.” The company distributed a longer version of the statement to its employees on Saturday.
The company said it has been taking steps to transform itself in recent months as the national debate over sexual harassment reshapes workplaces, and as it became aware that The Times and other news outlets were working on articles about the experiences of women at Vice.
Vice has formed a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board, which includes the feminist icon Gloria Steinem and is led by the lawyer Roberta Kaplan; hired a new head of human resources; and terminated three employees for what it called behavior inconsistent with its values. It also forbade romantic relationships between supervisors and their employees — which several current and former employees said were not uncommon and led to many problems.
The settlement involving Vice’s president, Andrew Creighton, was struck in 2016, when Mr. Creighton, 45, paid $135,000 to a former employee who claimed that she was fired after she rejected an intimate relationship with him, according to people briefed on the matter and documents viewed by The Times. The woman declined to comment and asked that she not to be identified to protect her privacy.
Earlier this year, the company settled for an unknown amount with Martina Veltroni, a former employee who claimed that her supervisor retaliated against her after they had a sexual relationship, among other allegations, according to people briefed on the agreement and documents viewed by The Times. The supervisor, Jason Mojica, the former head of Vice News, was fired late last month. Ms. Veltroni declined to comment.
And last January, Vice reached a $24,000 settlement with Joanna Fuertes-Knight, a former journalist in its London office, who said she had been the victim of sexual harassment, racial and gender discrimination and bullying, according to documents viewed by The Times. Among Ms. Fuertes-Knight’s claims were that a Vice producer, Rhys James, had made racist and sexist statements to her, including asking about the color of her nipples and whether she slept with black men. Ms. Fuertes-Knight, who is of mixed race, is bound by a confidentiality agreement and declined to comment.
Mr. James was put on leave in late November, according to a Vice spokesman. In the settlement agreement, both Vice and Mr. James denied any liability. Mr. James did not respond to messages sent seeking comment.
A fourth settlement, struck in 2003, involved claims that Vice defamed a female writer by publishing that she had agreed to have sex with a rapper whom she had interviewed, when she had not.
In response to questions about the settlements, a Vice spokesman said that the company had made “few settlements” over its 23-year history and that no Vice employee had been involved in more than one. “In some cases, it’s clear that the company and our managers made mistakes,” the company said. “In others, we disagree with the way in which the underlying facts have been characterized.”
Details about the settlements and the culture of the company are based on interviews with more than 100 current and former Vice employees. As word spread within the media industry that The Times was reporting on Vice, more than a dozen women and men contacted The Times with accounts that they said were humiliating and emotionally traumatic. Several broke confidentiality agreements to speak on the record, but many spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing those agreements and fear of reprisal.
The Times also examined more than 100 pages of legal documents, emails, text messages and other filings related to Vice’s operations, the settlements and allegations of harassment.
In their statement, Mr. Smith and Mr. Alvi said the problems “happened on our watch and ultimately we let far too many people down. We are truly sorry for this.” They also expressed “extreme regret for our role in perpetuating sexism in the media industry and society in general.”
The Early Years: A Cowboy Culture
A brash maverick and consummate salesman, Mr. Smith, 48, transformed Vice from a free magazine in Montreal into a global company with roughly 3,000 employees, a television network, a digital footprint, a film-production company as well as a daily news show and documentary program on HBO.
Along the way Mr. Smith regularly mocked traditional media companies as stodgy and uncreative. But in recent years he set about courting conglomerates like the Walt Disney Company and 21st Century Fox, which were eager to profit on Vice’s cachet with millennial audiences. The latest round of investment gave the company a valuation of more than $5.7 billion.
Behind that ascent, however, is a more disturbing aspect of Vice’s operations. People involved with Vice during its early days described a punk-rock, male-dominated atmosphere in which attempts to shock sometimes crossed a line.
In a 2012 interview with the Financial Times, Mr. Smith recalled his earlier days with Vice. “I would be at the party and would just want to get wasted, take coke and have sex with girls in the bathroom,” he said.
In 2003 Vice reached a $25,000 settlement with the freelance writer Jessica Hopper. The deal involved defamation claims tied to an interview she did with the rapper Murs that was published in the February 2003 issue of the magazine, according to a copy of the agreement viewed by The Times. During the interview, Murs asked Ms. Hopper if he could have sex with her. She said no and included that answer in her article.
But before the article was published, the magazine changed her response to yes and printed it under the headline, “I Got Laid But Murs Didn’t.” Mortified, Ms. Hopper hired lawyers. The two sides struck a settlement that, in addition to a payout, required Vice to print a retraction and a formal apology.
“People marveled at their ability to make their own rules and blindly disregard everyone else’s,” Ms. Hopper said in an interview. She declined to comment on the existence of a settlement.
“The editor of the piece at that time has not been with the company in a decade,” Vice said in a statement. “Ms. Hopper was right to call us on our conduct at the time, and we are still ashamed of it.’’
Mr. Smith, who had long celebrated a life of hard-partying excess, married a woman in 2009 who had worked at Vice and started wearing suits to the office, current and former employees said. But they also suggested that he oversaw a company where issues of sexual misconduct and harassment festered.
In their statement, Mr. Smith and Mr. Alvi admitted that dysfunction and mismanagement from the company’s early days “were allowed to flourish unchecked.”
Women said that they felt that rejecting sexual advances from bosses could result in reassignment or lost work, and that when they reported problems, executives downplayed the allegations. Some said that while they considered taking legal action, they thought they lacked the financial resources to sue and feared that Vice would retaliate.
“There is a toxic environment where men can say the most disgusting things, joke about sex openly, and overall a toxic environment where women are treated far inferior than men,” said Sandra Miller, who worked as head of branded production at Vice from 2014 to 2016.
She said that as a 50-year-old woman she did not face harassment but witnessed “the complicity of accepting that behavior, covering up for it, and having even the most progressive people look the other way.”
The workplace problems were particularly disappointing, many women said, because they had viewed Vice as their dream opportunity. The company didn’t pay well, some said, but it was the definition of cool for those who wanted to create entertainment and journalism on the cutting edge. The company bestowed select staff members rings that spell V-I-C-E — considered the ultimate prize.
People worked long hours and partied together afterward. And that’s where the lines often blurred. Multiple women said that after a night of drinking, they wound up fending off touching, kissing and other advances from their superiors.
Two women told The Times about episodes involving Mike Germano, Vice’s chief digital officer who founded Carrot Creative, the digital ad agency that Vice acquired in 2013. Amanda Rue, a former strategist, said that at Carrot’s holiday party in 2012 Mr. Germano told her that he hadn’t wanted to hire her because he wanted to have sex with her.
Gabrielle Schaefer, who worked closely with Mr. Germano as director of communications at Carrot, said he made her feel uncomfortable during a work event at a bar one night in 2014 when he pulled her onto his lap. After Ms. Schaefer reported the incident to human resources, she said, she felt that she fell out of favor at the company and eventually left.
“Carrot has been repeatedly recognized as one of the industry’s best places to work, and I do not believe that these allegations reflect the company’s culture — or the way we treat each other,” Mr. Germano said in a statement. “With regards to the incident with Ms. Schaefer, I agreed at that time it was inappropriate, I apologized, and it was resolved with the help of HR.” He said that days later Ms. Schaefer joined his family for dinner and that they “continued to work together amicably.”
In the settlement involving Mr. Creighton, the woman claimed she felt pressured to submit to advances he made during a series of work meetings from 2013 to 2015, according to people familiar with the matter and letters sent between lawyers for the woman and Vice.
In a letter to the woman’s lawyer, Vice denied the allegations and said the woman had initiated and pursued a sexual relationship with Mr. Creighton. The company said in the letter that her termination was based on poor performance.
The dispute was settled in December 2016 after the woman filed a complaint with the United States Equal Opportunity Commission. (She withdrew her complaint as a condition of the agreement.)
In a statement, Mr. Creighton said that he and the woman were “close friends for several years before she joined Vice,” and that they were “occasionally intimate” once she began working there. He said he was not involved in the decision to let her go.
“I apologize for the situation, and it has caused much thought in my responsibilities of care for my colleagues, and I will hold myself and others accountable in constructing a respectful workplace environment.”
Agreements Encourage Silence
Executives erected a wall of silence around the company. Employees were required to sign a confidentiality agreement when they joined Vice, stating that during and after their employment they would not publicly disparage the company, according to a copy viewed by The Times.
Until recently, Vice also required employees to sign a nontraditional workplace agreement acknowledging that they would be exposed to explicit, potentially disturbing material but that they did not find such content or “the workplace environment” to be offensive or disturbing.
Some employees said that they took the agreement to mean that they could not complain about issues of harassment.
Vice said the agreement “was always meant to address content — it had nothing to do with conduct,” and that when it learned the language was causing confusion, it eliminated the agreement.
In the months before the Columbia Journalism Review published an article in 2015 about the culture at Vice, and was looking into the treatment of women at the company, lawyers for Vice warned at least one former employee, Murray Waas, who had worked as an investigations editor, about “his strict confidentiality obligations’’ and of the financial penalties he could face for talking to another media outlet.
“I am sure he knows Vice will pursue all of its remedies aggressively,” Michael Delikat, a partner at the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, said in an email sent to Mr. Waas’s lawyer, a copy of which was viewed by The Times.
In a statement, Vice said, “NDA’s have been a standard part of settlements in all cases in all industries for years and years,’’ adding, “This is not a letter we would send today.”
Asked whether the company would release current and former employees who had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment from their confidentiality agreements, the company said: “Like many other companies and policymakers, we are watching developments and considering the issue.”
When the Columbia Journalism Review published its article, it included a quote from Nancy Ashbrooke, the former human resources director at Vice, stating that since she joined the company in 2014 sexual harassment had “not been an issue.” (Ms. Ashbrooke worked as vice president of human resources at Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax Films from 1991 to 2000.) Current and former employees disputed Ms. Ashbrooke’s statement.
Kate Goss, a former project manager at Vice, said that in the summer of 2015 she reported an incident that occurred after a work event to her bosses and human resources. She said that on the Ferris wheel at Coney Island a creative director put her hand in his crotch without her consent. Ms. Goss said Ms. Ashbrooke told her there needed to be multiple incidents in order for her to take action against the other employee.
Ms. Goss discussed the incident with a co-worker at the time, which The Times confirmed.
Abby Ellis, a former Vice journalist, said that in 2013 Mr. Mojica, the former head of Vice News, tried to kiss her against her will. She said that she yelled at him and hit him with an umbrella multiple times. She said that she faced other unwanted advances from Mr. Mojica after the incident.
Ms. Ellis said that after the episode she felt that their relationship soured and that she was missing out on newsroom opportunities, so she reported it to Ms. Ashbrooke. Ms. Ashbrooke responded by telling Ms. Ellis that because she was an attractive woman she would face similar behavior throughout her career. Ms. Ellis discussed the episode with several co-workers at the time, which The Times confirmed.
“As women, we get harassed everywhere and we don’t feel compelled to report it because it’s not considered a reportable offense,” Ms. Ellis said. “We’re expected to put up with it; it’s the cost of doing business.”
Mr. Mojica said that he remembered “misreading a moment and foolishly trying to kiss Abby” but that the episode had a “very different tone.” He added, “I was quickly rebuffed, and I immediately apologized.” He said he thought the incident had “no impact” on their professional relationship.
Two years later, Helen Donahue, a former employee, reported to Ms. Ashbrooke that Mr. Mojica had grabbed her breasts and buttocks at a company holiday party. Ms. Donahue said that Ms. Ashbrooke told her that the incident was not sexual harassment but rather someone making a move on her.
“She said I should just forget about it and laugh it off,” Ms. Donahue said.
Mr. Mojica said that while he recalled talking to Ms. Donahue at the party, he did not “remember doing anything of the sort.”
Ms. Ashbrooke, who left the company in recent months, said in a statement: “As a woman and HR professional, I support anyone who believes they have been mistreated and throughout my career, I have worked to help companies build respectful workplaces with no tolerance for inappropriate behavior.”
The settlement involving Mr. Mojica came after lawyers for Martina Veltroni sent a letter to Vice outlining her claims that her relationship with Mr. Mojica derailed her career at Vice, according to letters sent between lawyers for the woman and Vice.
In a letter to Ms. Veltroni’s lawyers, Vice denied the allegations against Mr. Mojica and said that Ms. Veltroni was trying to “recast her consensual and desired sexual relationship with her former supervisor” into a claim of harassment.
Mr. Mojica said that he had “never retaliated against” Ms. Veltroni and that he was not involved in the discussions with Ms. Veltroni’s lawyer or the resulting agreement.
On Nov. 30, after a report appeared in The Daily Beast on Vice’s culture, and aware that The Times was investigating its workplace, Vice announced that it had terminated three employees, including Mr. Mojica, for “behavior that is inconsistent with our policies, our values, and the way in which we believe colleagues should work together.”
Mr. Mojica said he was not given a reason for his termination.
Efforts at Reform
Vice said that it has updated its sexual harassment policies, clarified sexual harassment reporting procedures and created an employee hotline. The company also said that it has made a commitment to reaching gender pay parity by the end of 2018, expanded maternity and paternity benefits, and introduced mandatory respect and sensitivity training for all employees.
The company’s new human resources director, Susan Tohyama, has retained an outside investigator “to conduct investigations into current or historical workplace issues that are brought to our attention.”
Vice’s recent efforts at reform have had some stumbles, though. In mid-November top managers conducted a “state of the union” session with employees that did not include any mention of sexual harassment, an issue that was roiling workplaces around the country.
Many employees said they found the session tone deaf, prompting Mr. Smith to send a note to the staff that night saying that “we missed the mark, especially when it came to clearly addressing issues around sexual harassment at Vice.”
“Yes, we can change the world,” he wrote, “but first we have to start at home.”
Doris Burke and Kitty Bennett contributed research