He had hoped right up to the last minute that WBUR would offer him his job back. Tom Ashbrook says when he read the two independent investigations into his conduct as host of "On Point" he was relieved that accusations of sexual misconduct were dismissed. And he hoped that the other allegations could be dealt with through human resources. So, when he was told that was it, Ashbrook was crushed. He blamed no one — not the culture of public radio, not managers, not young people unaccustomed to the rough and tumble of the deadline news business. He is hurt, contrite to a point, and says he now sees the error of his ways. He hopes, someday, to work in radio again.
Emily Rooney: Tom, when these accusations, allegations, charges were first brought to your attention in December, in a formal way, what were you told?
Tom Ashbrook: I was told that there were a number of people at the station or who had been at the station who were unhappy ... very unhappy. And that they had put together a kind of list of complaints and that I was suspended.
ER: Did you see those complaints?
TA: I didn't see them right away, but I saw them soon thereafter. Yeah.
ER: Like what kinds of things?
TA: Oh, you know. It was ... I mean, they said sexual harassment, which was like, 'Oh my god are you kidding? That's just not me.' But they said too tough. They said ... I mean, they went hard ... was a bully and then really cranked it up, you know? I'm screaming and throwing things and using vulgar language in the workplace, and it was clearly a message from people who felt hurt, and I felt terrible about that.
ER: Do you deny that that happened?
TA: A lot of things got cranked up to what read to me like caricature, but I don't deny that people were hurt here. I wasn't ... I wasn't feeling how my behavior was landing. I wasn't really taking it on board. And what I thought of as just, you know, the rough and tumble of the news business ... I don't know if times have changed, or if people have changed, or I've changed, but it was perceived as more than rough and tumble, and that was a big sort of two-by-four upside to the head for me.
ER: We were told, and I think it was written in one of the Globe pieces, that people who were coming on board to come on your show were warned in a document form that you could be tough, that you could be critical, that you could be harsh. Is that true?
TA: I don't know. I didn’t ... that was all kind of invisible to me. I, of course, I knew I could be tough. I knew I could be critical. I could also be supportive and, you know, joyful. I mean, this whole exercise, while I don't shy away from any of it and the pain of the people who spoke up here, I feel really horribly about it. But, you know, if you look at the whole context, there are others who thrived as well. But yeah, I could be tough. I wanted a great show, and maybe I was inept sometimes in the way I pushed for that.
ER: Prior to December, had anyone in management ever pulled you aside in a very serious and formal way and said, ‘This has to end. We're hearing this, we’ve got complaints, exit interviews from producers and other people, tell us that ...' Did you ever hear that kind of strong language?
TA: There were ... I don't know about a formal way. I'm not sure exactly what that means.
ER: A reprimand?
TA: Not a formal reprimand. There were, over 16 years, there were a few serious conversations where people were saying they were unhappy and 'we've got some people who just think it’s too much.' And I heard that, and I would say, 'Can you help me out in this way or that way, maybe we need a staff changing here.' Or, I would say, 'Look, I'm trying to do a great show here, and it's not easy. Help me out.' At that level? A few times over the years ... I don't know, not that many ... but they were there. But I didn't understand it to be a problem of profound magnitude. I thought, 'Well, this is the hurley burley. This is deadline work, and this is striving for excellence.' Well, for some people, it felt like more than that, and I get that now and I feel their pain.
ER: You got swept into this right at the height of the #MeToo movement and some of the biggest names in our industry had also been swept up. You know, Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer. And at that time that you were suspended there were allegations of creepy sex talk and unwanted touching. That, you were exonerated of but, what were they talking about?
TA: I mean, creepy sex talk ... my memory of it, as I've tried to recreate it, because I saw another reference to it and in my memory, we were talking about ... it was one of the Vietnam War anniversaries. And, I spent a lot of time in Asia, and we were talking about how the war had made permanent changes to the culture of Southeast Asia. And, the whole Bangkok bar scene came up, and it could be pretty wild. And we talked about it like we talk about lots of things. It was completely open setting in the editorial bullpen there with everybody there. It was nothing ... I just assumed, look, we're talking about stuff in a free-flowing way because you never know what's going to add up to great material for the show or what makes the right background for it. I never thought of it as creepy. It wasn't anything like one-on-one, in the shadows. It was very open. But somebody felt ...
ER: It was a specific reference to sexual things that were going on in Bangkok?
TA: Yeah. Yeah. But it was like ... I mean that was one of the long legacies of the R-and-R era of American servicemen in Southeast Asia. I looked at it as just we were sort of talking about different facets of this. Somebody else took it differently. I ... that surprises me, but there you go.
ER: When you were given notice this week that you were terminated, what did they tell you?
TA: That was very, just very straightforward. They said that ... I mean there wasn't that much conversation. It was, like, 'We don't see how to go forward, and we’ve decided sayonara.'
ER: They enlisted the services of two independent companies ... both did this. And they said, the companies said, that the findings were extremely consistent. That, you know ... That it was an 'abusive work environment' and that you ‘consistently overstepped reasonable lines and created a dysfunctional workplace in the process.’ How would you respond to that?
TA: Well I mean, that’s all .... That’s very heavy to take on board, you know? And I feel terrible reading that. I mean, I've seen the full reports and the one on workplace environment has strong positive elements as well that don't get coverage. That's the way that goes. But [gesturing to Emily's notes] this is there, and I think it goes back to the same thing: What I saw as hard changing and tough sometimes or demanding, others experienced in a different way, and I wasn't attuned enough to how they were feeling, and I'm ... really sorry about that. I'm really sorry for the feelings and the pain that was felt there. I said to 'BUR throughout and BU, 'Look, it may have taken a two-by-four, but I get it, and I want to work on this, and I want to straighten this out, and this is fixable.' They didn't want to go there.
ER: I mean, you weren't all that contrite, really at all, in your note that you sent out.
TA: Oh, my first-day statement?
TA: Well those are kind of ... I don't know if you've ever had to do that. You’re like, you know, I walk out of the room and 5 minutes later you got to say something, and you're just banging something out. I don't know if that was a perfect statement. It's what I got in the first few minutes I had to put it together.
ER: But you still feel it was unfair?
TA: I feel that firing me was unfair. I mean, the sexual part was deeply considered and said I didn't break the rules here. And the other part looked to me like well within the capacity of an HR effort to work out. And my willingness and readiness were very, very clear. And, you know, I'm really proud what we built in this show and really proud of the efforts of a lot of my teammates over many years, and I hated to see the curtain pulled on all that. So I thought that firing was not necessary. They had somebody who ... I may be a dope sometimes, but I'm not a complete dope, and things change, ways change. I'm ready to change, too. More than ready. And the work is important, and I really want to keep doing it. So, what I found unfair was just ... 'let’s bring the ax down and be done with this.'
ER: This is a little trickier question, but you really earned your stripes in a commercial news environment, and NPR, WBUR is not that at all. Is there a difference do you think in expectations and levels of sensitivities about how you comport yourself in a public radio environment as opposed to a commercial television or newspaper?
TA: Yeah. I thought a lot about it. Maybe. Maybe there is to some degree. I mean, I was a cub reporter at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and let me tell you, it was ... it was rough and tumble. And yeah, commercial media can ... old-time newspapers can be more that, certainly, more that way. There probably is a different expectation in public radio. And it's funny because part of what I was always trying to do was break through that. Public broadcasting ... there can be a complacency sometimes or a kind of smoothing of the world. But the world's not smooth right now. So, I wanted to bring the edge, the edginess, of the world as it is to the air. Maybe I brought too much of that edge to the newsroom as well, or to my gang more than some of them expected coming into this realm. And I wish I had been more attuned to that, and Lord knows I'm attuned to it now.
ER: Well, continuing on that theme, is there also different expectations now and sensitivities in age levels of people. I mean, we grew up in a time when, as you say, the rough and tumble, and you just took it. You didn't fight back. Maybe that was wrong. I probably should have spoken up at times that I didn't. But now we're seeing, especially younger people, it doesn’t have to be just women, but there's a level of intolerance for that kind of behavior that wasn't there before.
TA: I mean there may be. The world always changes. So, if expectations around that change, the way people come up has changed ... It’s possible that that’s the case, but to me that's not a reason to say, ‘Oh forget it, I'm not paying attention to that’ or ‘That's some generational thing I don't care about.’ No, it's just the world we live in. These are our fellow citizens and colleagues, so if they have different expectations, and you're in a position like mine, you need to pay attention. You need to pay attention, and evolve with that. And I've got some high-speed evolution going on right now.
ER: What do you think management should have done differently?
TA: I don't really want to beat up on management. I wish somehow over time, there had been a more effective conversation. There were some. A couple of conversations. But I wish it had been more effective. Maybe, I don’t know, get my attention more vigorously. I mean, I always had stellar reviews and all that. Or maybe just engage that conversation in a more ongoing way. Maybe look at the structure ... the workflow of the show ... like were there places where created tension on deadline with a show coming up that could have been eased or smoothed out? Could we have had another copy editor or something that would ... you know how it is when copy lands on your desk and you’re about to read it on the air? That can be one of those moments. There may have been more structural things. I wish there had been more effective conversation about it. I wish I had been more open, too. But that's always a ... that’s always a kind of a dance you know? And I would just wish it would have been more effective over time.
ER: I think it’s always hard to see yourself as other people perceive you, and I'm wondering if you see yourself in the criticism, that you created unreasonable expectations, and then even when people met your unreasonable demands, you squashed them down …
TA: Well, I don't know about that.
ER: … or you changed plans at the last minute.
TA: Well that happens in the news business. You change plans. But your question is …
ER: Do you, did you see yourself in the criticism?
TA: I could understand what they were talking about there. You know, of course, I like to see myself in much more full, you know? I'm a guy with lots of friends and family and joy and warmth in my life, and all of that that I worked very hard to bring to the air and share with a lot of people around the country in a way that I always hoped would be useful for the country. But when you’re in that channel, and you're coming up to that prep, and you want to create that perfect environment to have that great conversation ... you have smart public broadcasting listeners out there ready to listen to it. You know, I can let my expectations and my demands get pretty high because I wanted to serve it up just right. There's got to be another way to do that and to elicit that excellence, and I'm totally open to that.
ER: But a lot of people are questioning, now, if management had been advising you ... why aren't they also complicit in this? It's been raised now with Matt Lauer and others — and Matt Lauer being a completely different circumstance, but — and do you think they by letting you go, they think that they're going to escape any possible repercussions for themselves?
TA: I really don't know. I'll let other people judge that. I ... I ... all of this has really gotten my attention. That's all I can say. And its brought me into some really deep self-reflection and thinking about how everything unfolds and how the work unfolds. Others are going to have to think about management. That's above my pay grade. I wish that they had had the confidence to say, ‘Come on. let's work this out. Lets really get in and work this out.’ That would have been awesome. But, I think it was fixable, and I'm sorry that that work wasn’t done.
ER: You were very popular, and if you look at your twitter responses, it's ... I haven't seen a negative one yet.
TA: I’m sure there are.
ER: It's quite remarkable because usually Twitter is full of trolls, not people complimentary to you. So, in other words, they cut off ... I mean, they let someone go who was very integral to the success of WBUR. What does that say?
TA: I think the challenge of working this through looked like too much. I was, maybe late in the day, but nevertheless, prepared to do that and, you know, I've definitely gone through a lot of thinking about that and how to look at that going forward. I think they just didn't want to take on that challenge. And these days, you know, it’s scary if you're in management. You can get whacked either way. Keep the guy, people come down on you like a ton of bricks. You don't keep the guy, people say, ‘Wait, we love him. Why is he gone?’ So, it's a tricky situation to be in. I wish we had stuck with it and worked it out. I really do. I love this work. I adore it, and I don't feel at all finished with it. And those people who look for that perspective that the show had brought and that voice ... I don't want to leave them in the lurch. So, I wish it could have been worked out.
ER: Do you plan to pursue it any further? Would you litigate?
TA: Oh, that I don't know. That’s my, you know, for the first time in my life, I have an attorney. I never wanted to have an attorney. They said to me when we first sat down, 'You may want to get an attorney' ... so, I don't know where ... what's up with that.
ER: And you hope to land back in a radio situation?
TA: I ... you know, I was in newspapering for a long time and came into radio right after 9/11 when it was emergency coverage and it was sort of trial by fire, just thrown right into the deep end. And within about five minutes, I knew I loved this. I really love this, and I still do. I am deeply in love with radio and broadcasting and you know this podcast age — audio is so powerful, and the need for sort of even keel reasonable conversation that digs deep on what's going on in our society right now is so acute that I don't want to give it up. So, one way or another, I hope to find a way.
ER: Anything else you want to say?
TA: It's been great, and it's not over.
ER: Tom, thank you.
TA: Thank you.
WGBH News reached out to WBUR for comment, but the station declined to respond to Ashbrook's interview.