Untangling the McGrory-Sargent dispute

Lack of information makes it difficult to reach any conclusions

SHORTLY AFTER THANKSGIVING last year, amid the exploding #MeToo movement, the Boston Globe ran a blockbuster story about the husband of then-Senate president Stan Rosenberg allegedly sexually harassing at least four men who did business with or worked on Beacon Hill. It was the latest in a number of front-page stories chronicling sexual harassment allegations, current and historic, being thrown at famous and powerful men in all walks of life.

What most didn’t know at the time was the Globe was dealing with its own internal harassment problem when the paper quietly forced highly regarded State House reporter Jim O’Sullivan to resign amid revelations that he sent lurid messages to at least two women on Beacon Hill. That came months after he had sent similar messages to a young Globe worker, who complained to higher-ups about the unwanted sexual advances.

The story was exposed when WEEI talk show hosts Kirk Minihane and Gerry Callahan, longtime Globe antagonists, got hold of the information and went to town. Other media picked up the story, it went viral on social media, and the Globe was forced to rush out its own story in early December on sexual harassment in the media. The story purported to pull back the curtain on past incidents of harassment and inappropriate behavior at the Globe but it was a tortured recitation of facts.

In the wake of that story, former Globe intern and Boston.com editor and reporter Hilary Sargent began challenging the Globe on Twitter about the paper’s own harassment issues and what she said were intentional obfuscations in the story. She indicated her experiences at the Globe included being the recipient of some of that inappropriate behavior and invited officials at the paper to talk with her. None of them did.

In May, Sargent posted a screen grab of a sexually suggestive text she said was from Globe editor Brian McGrory, setting off a series of events that have rattled the Globe and raised questions about how institutions should respond to #MeToo allegations and how the press should cover them. It’s been a confusing situation, with the Globe filing suit against Sargent and McGrory’s attorney suggesting his client might sue her as well.

Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory

On Thursday, the Globe and Sargent appeared in court, and a judge told them to try to work their differences out privately and provide a status update by Friday afternoon. As the story continues to unfold, it’s helpful to examine what is and what isn’t known.

What prompted all this?

On May 20, Sargent posted the screen grab of a text she received from someone she did not initially identify but who she indicated had a position of power over her. The post came as she said she was watching a 60 Minutes segment on alleged sexual harassment by celebrity chef Mario Batali and restaurant owner Ken Friedman.

“Raise your hand if you’ve gotten a text like this from a powerful man who could fire you and derail your career in a second,” she wrote, accompanying a picture of a suggestive text sent by Friedman to an employee. Sargent’s post included an emoji of a woman with a raised hand.

Less than 10 minutes later, she posted a screenshot of a text conversation in which the person she was talking with about a writing assignment asked, “What do you generally wear when you write?” She responded: “Seriously?”

The next morning she tweeted out: “And yes, in case it isn’t clear, I mean @GlobeMcGrory texted this to me.”

#NotMe

Sargent’s allegations triggered a strong denial by McGrory and a lawsuit by the Globe. McGrory issued a memo to staff that touted his record in hiring women — and an acknowledgement of having dated Sargent “many years ago,” though not when they worked together.

In a meeting with Globe staff to talk about upcoming buyouts, McGrory started the session with a brief denial of the allegations but took no questions. He was adamant about what he had not done.

“I have never sexually harassed a man or a woman,” he said, according to a source.

McGrory’s lawyer, Martin Murphy, sent a strongly worded letter to Sargent indicating her charges were “actionable” and demanding she cease spreading the allegations.

The Globe filed suit in an attempt to force Sargent to turn over the text messages in question. The paper said Sargent was in violation of a separation agreement that requires her to cooperate with the paper in any investigations involving her employment. A spokeswoman insisted the Globe’s lawsuit was an effort to get “more, not less” information for a probe into her charges.

That investigation is being run by an attorney at the same firm that filed the suit on behalf of the Globe and whose original complaint stated that Sargent’s allegations are believed to be “false.” The lawyer in the suit didn’t say how the paper came to that conclusion without the aid of an investigation.

May-December romance

Sargent, in her original tweets, didn’t mention that she and McGrory had been romantically involved. In his response memo to staff, McGrory said he had a dating relationship with Sargent that began after she left the Globe “many years ago.” In her affidavit, Sargent said the two had an “on and off” dating relationship for brief periods between 1999 and 2004.

Sargent also said in her affidavit that she was a co-op and intern at the Globe from June 1998 to August 1999. She did not say when in 1999 her relationship with McGrory began and whether it was before or after she left her intern position. At the time, she was a 20-year-old college student and McGrory was a prominent columnist in his late 30s.

The Globe ID for Hilary Sargent when she was an intern at the paper between June 1998 and August 1999.

McGrory says the two remained friends and continued to have “friendly banter” over the years. He said he was stunned by Sargent’s allegations against him.

Sargent worked at Boston.com from January 2014 to February 2016, when she left and signed a separation agreement. During the 2014-2016 stint, she was disciplined for an incident in which she publicly belittled a Harvard professor who she wrote about in a story over a dispute at a Chinese restaurant. She was put on suspension after she posted a picture of a t-shirt she said she planned to sell that mocked the professor. She was later demoted from her position as deputy editor of the site and returned to being a reporter prior to her departure.

McGrory said Sargent did not report to him when she worked at Boston.com, even indirectly. “We were on mutually friendly terms, and I do not believe I ever wrote, spoke, or acted in a disrespectful way to her,” he said.

McGrory also said he had nothing to do with her hiring at Boston.com, although Sargent, in her affidavit, called McGrory’s claim “patently false.” She offered no evidence, although she said the Globe could easily validate her claim.

It doesn’t appear that the romantic relationship between McGrory and Sargent was anything but consensual.

Is this a workplace issue?

One of the big questions surrounding Sargent’s original screen grab was whether the text exchange occurred when she and McGrory were working together at the Globe.

The screen grab did not include any dates or names and Sargent did not release any more context for the exchange. In her original series of tweets, Sargent seemed to imply that the exchange occurred when she and McGrory were working together.

“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,” Sargent tweeted. “The more we tweet these, the less they’ll send them.” She included #MeToo on the message.

In her June 5 affidavit, Sargent said she couldn’t recall whether the text exchange occurred when she was working with McGrory, but a document submitted by her attorney said it likely happened after she left Boston.com. She indicated in her affidavit that the timing didn’t matter, saying the exchange she highlighted in her tweets was “merely an example of the nature of messages McGrory sent me during the time I was employed at the Globe which I believe are inappropriate and sexually suggestive.”

She has so far not released any messages, emails, or texts to back up her assertions.

The electronic paper trail

The Globe said in a court filing that it has interviewed McGrory multiple times and reviewed every available document, email, and text message as part of its investigation into the editor’s behavior. “All that the Globe has sought from Sargent, and all it seeks now, is to hear her side of that story,” the paper said in the filing.

Similarly, McGrory’s attorney, Murphy, said his client had given the Globe “full access to his phone, computers, texts, and email.” He added: “Those communications confirm exactly what he has said from the start. He has never sexually harassed anyone, Ms. Sargent included. And he has never acted disrespectfully to Ms. Sargent, whom he once dated when she did not work at the Globe.”

Sargent, however, has intimated that she has many texts and emails in her possession that support her view that McGrory and others at the Globe engaged in inappropriate and sexually suggestive behavior.

Sargent has said she hasn’t been able to reproduce, with time stamps, the screen grab she originally posted on Twitter. Neither the Globe nor McGrory’s attorney have indicated whether they were able to locate the text exchange, although they both said they had full access to McGrory’s electronic devices. McGrory said he doesn’t recall the exchange.

Sargent wanted to cooperate

For more than six months, Sargent has been posting tweets about what she says is a longtime and pervasive atmosphere of sexual harassment, misconduct, and inappropriate behavior at the region’s most influential news outlet, especially when it comes to young women working there as co-op students or interns.

What wasn’t known before her recent legal battles with the Globe was that Sargent also sent private messages to Globe owner John Henry and Globe president Vinay Mehra urging them to talk with her about her knowledge and experiences as a young intern and later as a female reporter and editor. Her note to Mehra included a reference to the paper’s investigative Spotlight Team and its reporting on clergy sex abuse. She pushed Mehra to apply the same standards to scrutiny of what has taken place in-house.

“I read the memo you sent this week regarding sexual harassment, and I’m reaching out to urge you to speak with former employees as well as current ones,” Sargent wrote to Mehra on Nov. 8. “Sexual harassment within the Globe isn’t a new thing, nor is it just an old thing. It’s both… There are many of us who are no longer at the Globe but who care deeply about the paper, and who have been deeply hurt by what happened to us when we worked there.”

“I implore you to be inquisitive and open, and to reach out to those whose lives have been affected by what has been a longstanding and rampant problem at the Globe,” she wrote.

After the O’Sullivan story surfaced and the Globe’s early December story that failed to identify him and appeared to downplay other incidents at the paper, she wrote a note to Henry that was personal in nature and referenced her supervision of a young employee, apparently female, who seems to have been known to the owner of the newspaper.

“As I’ve said so many times before, I’m not on a mission to do anything aside from ensure that what happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone else,” she wrote to Henry, whom she addressed as “John.” “I enthusiastically agreed to take on [name redacted] as an intern — at least in part because I thought I could make sure she didn’t have the same experience I had.”

Sargent said in her affidavit that neither Mehra nor Henry responded and no one from the Globe  contacted her until the paper’s attorney called the day after her tweets about McGrory — six months later.

Victim treatment

When the Globe ran its story on Bryon Hefner, Stan Rosenberg’s husband, allegedly sexually assaulting other men, the alleged victims were granted anonymity and a presumption that they were telling the truth.

In December, the Globe published a story about NPR host and former Globe national editor Tom Ashbrook being suspended from his successful radio program “On Point” over unspecified allegations. When word surfaced that staffers on the program described an abusive work environment, the paper published several stories and columns about the allegations.

A day after the first Ashbrook story, the Globe ran a report that local union official Tyrek Lee had been suspended and tied the suspension to the sweeping movement across the country to address sexual harassment.

But when Sargent began tweeting her allegations and sending out her messages last year about sexual harassment at the Globe, the paper did not reach out to her. When she posted a screenshot of what she said was an unwanted sexually suggestive message from McGrory, the newspaper filed suit in a bid to compel her to provide additional information. The Globe’s motives were to gather information the paper says it needs to complete its investigation of Sargent’s allegations, but the optics were strange.

The difficulty of reporting on such matters was underscored by McGrory in a note to Globe readers on December 22. The note came in the wake of the Globe’s controversial story earlier that month on news organizations facing their own sexual misconduct issues involving O’Sullivan, the former State House reporter. That story said a Globe reporter was pressured to resign after misconduct accusations were made against him, but didn’t name the reporter. McGrory said in his note that, in retrospect, withholding O’Sullivan’s name had been a mistake.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

“All harassment stories, and we’ve done many, are challenging to report and complicated to write. Victims are understandably raw and often reluctant to speak,” McGrory wrote. “The bottom line is that we believed we were taking a principled position and applying our journalistic standards evenly, including to ourselves. Some here still believe that, while others don’t. Even as we were debating, norms of coverage, and even the broader definition of harassment, were changing. I got too caught up on nuance and failed to grasp the need for transparency by this organization in this unprecedented reckoning. It was my mistake….Please know that we’ve learned vital lessons about holding ourselves to a higher standard, lessons that I pledge will be vigorously applied to our coverage of these and many other issues going forward.”

With the paper’s editor now himself a subject of that coverage, McGrory has recused himself from any oversight of the reporting on the controversy involving Sargent.