Many readers of The Boston Globe may not have heard that editor Brian McGrory had been accused of sexual harassment until they picked up today’s paper and cast their eyes to the bottom of page one. In fact, the story has been building since Sunday, when Hilary Sargent, a former top editor at the Globe’s free website, Boston.com, tweeted a text exchange she said she had with McGrory in which he asked what she wears when she writes. Sargent’s tweet was the most explosive development in a situation that extends back to December.
For those of you who haven’t been following the story closely, or who are only learning about it now, I’ve put together a list of some of the key moments thus far. But, as they say, stay tuned.
1. The Globe botches its coverage of sexual harassment at the paper. A Globe article on the burgeoning #MeToo movement within the local media last December failed to identify political reporter Jim O’Sullivan, who had left the paper for misconduct — including, reportedly, sexually harassing women on Beacon Hill. The story also did not identify several other former Globe employees who had been accused of sexual harassment.
After an uproar, McGrory reversed himself and issued a statement in which he identified O’Sullivan and took responsibility for making a “mistake” and for failing “to grasp the need for transparency by this organization,” though he did not apologize. During and after the O’Sullivan imbroglio, Sargent — who was an intern at the Globe in the late 1990s and then was hired to help run Boston.com in 2014 (she is also a former WGBH News staff member) — began tweeting about her own experiences with sexual harassment at the paper. She offered little in the way of detail, but repeatedly urged the Globe to dig more deeply into its own culture.
2. Sargent tweets that McGrory responded inappropriately to a text message she had sent him. On Sunday, Sargent’s long-simmering complaints got more detailed when she tweeted out the image of a text exchange she said she’d had with McGrory in which she asked for writing advice and he responded: “Got it. What do you generally wear when you write?” Sargent: “Seriously?” The response: “Well, not entirely.” Sargent explained why she had tweeted out the exchange this way: “If you’ve ever been sent a sext-type text from someone who was powerful enough that you felt you couldn’t do anything (other than panic/shake your head/cry), you’re not alone. The more we tweet these, the less they’ll send them. #MeToo.”
3. The media slowly begin to pick up on the story. The website Turtleboy Sports republished Sargent’s tweet and, on WEEI Radio (93.7 FM), longtime Globe antagonists Kirk Minihane and Gerry Callahan alluded to it as well. But the story got its first full airing Tuesday evening on WGBH News’ “Greater Boston,” when Adam Reilly, Emily Rooney, and I tried to make sense of what was going on. We urged the Globe to make a thorough accounting of what had happened and to report what action would be taken.
“Sargent has not made clear the timing of the text message from McGrory,” wrote Rooney in summing up our discussion. “We do not know if it was after she left the Globe in February of 2016 or while she worked there. Nor do we know the context of this one text, what was said before or after, or whether they regularly shared this kind of banter in text message exchanges.”
Neither the Globe nor Sargent would comment on the specifics, although both sides did issue statements. “We are aware of Hilary Sargeant’s [sic] tweets. We have no comment at this time,” said Globe spokeswoman Jane Bowman. Sargent’s statement said in full:
Women deserve to be treated professionally and taken seriously. It is crucial that individuals in leadership positions are held to the same high standard of conduct that the Globe would expect of any individuals in leadership positions at other similarly powerful institutions. Those in leadership positions at media organizations have significant influence over how the issue of sexual harassment is covered, and the coverage they oversee should never be tainted or colored by their own missteps and misdeeds.
4. The Globe reacts with two statements, a story — and a threat to sue Sargent. At 1:47 p.m. on Wednesday, Globe employees received a statement from managing director Linda Pizzuti Henry and president Vinay Mehra. The statement acknowledged the controversy but didn’t go much further. The key passage:
We discussed the issue with Brian in an attempt to understand both the nature of any exchanges between the two parties and also whether or not these exchanges occurred during her employment. We also reached out to Ms. Sargent, the former employee, to ascertain the timing and context of the text in question. At this time it is still unclear when these exchanges took place. We expect to have resolution on this matter soon but did not want to wait another day to connect with you directly.
At about 8:15 p.m., amid whispers that a front-page story was on the way, McGrory himself issued a statement in which he said he could not remember sending the “what do you generally wear” text to Sargent and saying that he and Sargent had “dated many years ago. We did not work together at the time, and we’ve remained friendly over the years.” He added that “months after Hilary left boston.com, we would sometimes exchange text messages that included the kind of personal banter of two people very familiar with each other. I regret that very much for reasons that go far beyond the Globe.”
There is much to ponder in McGrory’s statement, and I urge you to read it in full. But the message he clearly wants to get across is this: “I can’t believe I have to write these words, but I have never harassed Hilary Sargent or any other women at the Globe or anywhere else — ever. I don’t believe I have ever acted inappropriately with anyone at this company.”
Finally, after 10 p.m., the Globe posted a story on its website reported by Mark Arsenault that also appears on page one in today’s paper. (McGrory’s statement is republished as well.) The story contains a jarring piece of news: The Globe either plans to sue or is threatening to sue Sargent in Superior Court. “That suit,” Arsenault writes, “would seek to compel Sargent under the terms of her 2016 separation agreement from the organization to provide the newspaper more information about the text in question, such as the date, and ask for unspecified damages.” It was a highly aggressive move, to say the least, and seems questionable from a public-relations point of view.
Arsenault also quoted an email from Sargent in which she strongly pushed back on McGrory’s statement that he had never harassed anyone: “If Brian McGrory truly does not believe he has ever acted inappropriately with anyone at The Boston Globe, then he and I have a remarkably different understanding of what is — and is not — appropriate.”
5. Sargent publicly responds. Shortly after Arsenault’s story was published, Sargent tweeted: “For approximately six months I have reached out to the @BostonGlobe asking to discuss with them the extent to which sexual harassment has been an issue - long ago and not so long ago. My offer still stands. I have not refused to assist in their ‘investigation.’”
This morning she added: “With the @BostonGlobe threatening a lawsuit, I will only say this. This isn’t about one text. This isn’t about just him. And this isn’t about just me. I’m horrified that the newspaper that purports to shine a ‘Spotlight’ is doing everything in their power to do just the opposite.”
And there matters stand — for now.
6. McGrory strikes back. On Thursday evening, we recorded a special webcast of “Beat the Press” to discuss the latest. No sooner had we finished than we learned of another bombshell: a private attorney for McGrory had written a letter threatening to sue Sargent for libel, claiming that she had made “false and defamatory statements” about McGrory.
The lawyer, Martin Murphy of the Boston firm Foley Hoag, writes that Sargent has omitted context from her accusations that “falsely cast Mr. McGrory as a person who used his position to sexually harass Ms. Sargent, and falsely portrayed him as part of that group of men who have, in fact, used their positions to sexually harass and assault women. Ms. Sargent’s false and defamatory statements are and continue to be actionable, and they have already caused harm to Mr. McGrory.”