Inside the climate of ‘workplace terror and bullying’ at the Washington Examiner, a conservative media outlet on the rise

Inside the climate of ‘workplace terror and bullying’ at the Washington Examiner, a conservative media outlet on the rise

The shock announcement came on Monday.

Hugo Gurdon, the editor in chief of the Washington Examiner, a conservative news organization based out of Washington, DC, summoned staffers into a conference room adjacent to the newsroom.

In the short meeting, Gurdon announced to staffers that the Examiner’s managing editor, Toby Harnden, was no longer with the company, according to people in the meeting. Gurdon did not offer much of an explanation, but he invited employees with concerns to meet with him in private. He then discouraged staff from speaking with the press about the matter.

The entire meeting lasted approximately five to 10 minutes. Later in the day, Harnden arrived at the office for his final visit. He packed up his belongings -— and then he was gone.

The series of events capped a tumultuous two-week period for the Examiner. Harnden’s exit came after an employee who had himself been fired in late January sent the Examiner’s leadership screenshots of text messages and secret audio recordings in which Harnden had made highly inappropriate comments, including sexist and homophobic remarks, about staffers.

Harnden, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, referred to one female writer as “Miss f**king tits and a**.” He mocked the weight of another female employee, referring to her as a “stupid b*tch” who was a “fat f**king waste of food.” And Harnden, the messages and recordings revealed, privately speculated about the sex lives of management and disclosed the salaries of senior staff to the fired employee.

This story is based on those text messages and audio recordings, which were obtained by CNN Business. The story is also based on additional emails obtained by CNN Business and interviews with more than a dozen current and former staffers, most of whom requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

To determine the authenticity of the audio recordings, CNN Business compared the audio to public interviews Harnden has given over the years. Additionally, people familiar with Harnden’s voice said the voice on the recordings sounded like him. “That was him, without a doubt,” said one person. “That is 100% Toby’s voice,” said another. And some people said they had heard Harnden previously make similar comments to those captured on the audio recordings and made in the text messages. Finally, when given repeated opportunities to dispute the authenticity of the messages, Harnden did not respond.

In an email sent to staff Friday morning, after facing questions from CNN Business about the Examiner’s workplace culture, Gurdon announced that the organization’s parent company was “enlisting a third-party to conduct a thorough investigation into the Washington Examiner’s culture, policies and actions to determine what, if any, additional steps are needed to ensure a safe and comfortable work environment for all of our employees.”

“I fully support this effort and hope you will join me in being transparent and forthright as the investigation is conducted, and that you will also join me in ensuring that all of us work in an environment about which we can be proud,” Gurdon wrote staff in his Friday email.

Over the course of the past two years, the Examiner has become a top conservative news website, regularly posting web traffic gains month after month. The outlet publishes some of the top conservative columnists, including Byron York, Michael Barone, Fred Barnes, and Timothy Carney. And President Donald Trump has tweeted many of the Examiner’s stories, and praised writers like York.

Howard Polskin, the president of The Righting, a website that monitors the web traffic of conservative media organizations, went as far as to say that the Examiner was one of the “major success stories in conservative media” in 2019.

Gurdon provided a short statement to CNN Business for this story, but declined to further comment on the record. The statement said, “We do not tolerate unprofessional behavior. Fostering a professional, humane, and effective work environment is our highest priority, and something we try to do at all times. We do not comment on individual personnel issues, but I can confirm that Toby no longer works at the Washington Examiner.”

But for many current and former Examiner employees, the remarks Harnden made were not terribly surprising. These people described a toxic work environment in which Harnden would verbally abuse staff. And, according to these current and former Examiner employees, Gurdon was aware of Harnden’s brutish managing style.

“In the best of times, working under Toby Harnden was stressful and chaotic,” said Reynolds Hutchins, a former senior web producer who had complained about Harnden to Gurdon when he left the Examiner for a position at another company in June 2019. “And at the worst of times, it was absolutely miserable.”

The Examiner’s history 

The Examiner was founded in 2005 as a daily newspaper serving the Washington, DC, area. It is operated by Clarity Media Group, which is owned by the billionaire Philip Anschutz. While it had — and continues to have — a conservative bent, the newspaper became known in its early days for excelling in coverage of local news.

But in 2013, the Examiner announced a “major shift” in its business model. The outlet said that it would become a digital news organization and reduce its print schedule to once a week. Additionally, the Examiner said at the time, its weekly print copy would be “focused on political news and thought leadership.”

That shift in business strategy set the stage for Gurdon’s hiring in 2014. Gurdon was poached from The Hill, another DC-based publication that has both a print publication and website. While at The Hill, Gurdon helped steer the outlet in a digital direction. He was brought aboard the Examiner initially as the outlet’s editorial director.

Gurdon, according to current and former employees, brought with him a style similar to that of The Hill, which is known for publishing a high volume of politics stories quickly, sometimes to the detriment of their quality, in a bid to score web traffic.

In 2018, Gurdon hired Harnden as the Examiner’s managing editor. Previous to the Examiner, Harnden had served as the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times of London, and executive editor of the US version of the Daily Mail. He also authored two books, one of which won the Orwell Prize.

One of Harnden’s most significant — and eyebrow raising — moves was his hire for breaking news editor: Jon Nicosia.

Nicosia has a colorful history in media. He previously served as the managing editor of Mediaite, an outlet largely known for posting clips of cable news segments online, and of the Independent Journal Review, which was at one point a millennial-focused conservative news website.

While at Mediaite, Nicosia revealed in a first-person 2014 essay that he was a former felon who had been “convicted of multiple counts of bank fraud and larceny” for which he “served five years in state prison.” He said that he had reformed his ways and adopted a new name under which to cover media.

At the Examiner, Nicosia appeared to be a hardworking employee, current and former employees said. Under his leadership, website traffic grew. And while some have characterized him as a bit strange, current and former employees said he was also very cordial.

“He was one of the nicest guys,” one current employee told CNN Business.

During Nicosia’s 10-month tenure at the Examiner, former employees said he appeared to have developed a close relationship with Harnden. Harnden would confide in Nicosia, keep him abreast of his plans for the outlet, and complain to him in brazen terms about events and personnel inside the office, according to the audio recordings and text messages obtained by CNN Business.

But, despite his relationship with Harnden, and his role helping traffic grow, Nicosia’s standing within the Examiner changed when he shared a video in Slack late last month.

‘I’m afraid … your employment needs to come to an end’

Nicosia was called into Gurdon’s office on January 31. During a brief meeting, in which Harnden was also present, Gurdon informed Nicosia that Clarity Media Group executives in Denver had determined he needed to be fired.

The reason? A video he shared the day before in a private Examiner breaking news channel on Slack, a popular instant message application used by companies to allow employees to communicate with each other. The video, seen by CNN Business, appeared to show members of the armed forces on a base gathered around a sex toy as one performed a sexually suggestive act on it.

“I’m afraid Denver has decided that your employment needs to come to an end immediately,” Gurdon said, according to an audio recording of the meeting made by Nicosia and obtained by CNN Business. “It is my duty to tell you that, but it’s a clear abuse of company policy on [inaudible] communications.”

“It’s not got anything to do with — it’s not because of the work you do,” Gurdon added in the meeting.

Nicosia objected in the meeting to having his employment terminated over the video, telling Gurdon that he shared it in the Slack channel because he thought it might go viral online, stir up a controversy, and become a news story. The video ultimately ended up receiving more than 6,500 retweets and 25,000 likes on Twitter.

“That was a news story floating around,” Nicosia said in the meeting. “A bunch of Marines doing inappropriate things is a news story. I didn’t put it in there to make a comment as a gay man. It’s just that what was in it was something that I would have probably even pitched.”

“I think this is so wrong on multiple levels that I can’t say,” Nicosia added of his firing, according to the audio.

Harnden chimed in to say he was “sorry” it had come to this, but that his and Gurdon’s hands were “tied.”

Nicosia told CNN Business on Wednesday that he believed he was fired because he “wasn’t going along” with Harnden anymore.

“I was pushing back about his policies,” Nicosia said. “He was treating people poorly. He was treating young people as though they weren’t learning. He was treating people like they had been in the business for 25 years.”

Nicosia said after he was fired he went home and thought about his firing. He said he was “more stunned than stewing.”

But, Nicosia said, he grew upset when he was contacted by Betsy Rothstein, a reporter at The Daily Caller, who was inquiring about his firing. That’s when Nicosia said he drafted an email to Gurdon and CC’d Ryan McKibben, the Clarity Media Group executive to whom Gurdon reports.

In that email, Nicosia revealed that he had been recording various private conversations he had while at the Examiner, and had captured Harnden making a number of inappropriate comments. He wrote in the email that Harnden had “fostered and created an environment of sexism, retribution, and fear.”

When asked why he recorded Harnden, Nicosia told CNN Business he had done it for his own “protection.” He said he saw a “pattern” of abuse and predicted Harden might eventually turn on him.

“Once I saw the stuff he was saying about people behind their backs, it began to dawn on me that he could be doing the same thing to me,” Nicosia said. “And I’m far more vulnerable.”

‘Tyrannical’

Nicosia’s email to Gurdon and McKibben contained a cache of audio recordings and text message screen shots that seemed to support the allegations made about the abusive work environment cultivated by Harnden.

One audio recording revealed that Harnden had referred to a young female employee as “Miss f**king tits and a**.” When the audio was turned over to Examiner leadership, the employee to whom Harnden had been referring was given a heads-up “that the company was handling undisclosed disparaging remarks” about her in case they went public, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter.

In a text message to Nicosia, Harnden unloaded on another employee over her appearance.

“F**king sour, stupid b*tch,” the text message said. “F**k her. If she hasn’t quit within a week, I will tell Hugo she needs to be canned. No, [redacted] you fat f**king waste of food, some people heave pride in their work and want their organization to improve. Others are lazy, useless whiners who just leech off the people who do work hard.”

Another audio recording made by Nicosia captured Harnden speculating about the sex lives of those in management. And yet another piece of audio recorded by Nicosia captured Harnden disclosing information about the salaries of senior employees to Nicosia.

The text messages exchanged with Nicosia also showed Harden discussing plans to get rid of certain employees. He boasted that there would be a “hall of ghosts.”

“We’ll be like, Remember [redacted]? What about miserable [redacted.] Jesus, f**king [redacted]. And That little p***y [redacted.]”

But Harnden’s behavior was not just limited to what was captured in the audio recordings and text messages. Current and former employees described an abusive work environment in which Harnden regularly unloaded on employees. These current and former employees described Harnden as a manager who particularly targeted marginalized employees.

“He had an aggressive attitude toward almost anyone in the office,” Hutchins told CNN Business. “Particularly, anyone who was a women, person of color, or who was gay.”

Hutchins said that with women, Harnden would largely home in on their physical appearances. Hutchins, who is gay, said Harnden would characterize gay men as “p***ies who victimized themselves.”

When he quit, Hutchins wrote Gurdon a lengthy email, which was seen by CNN Business, documenting the hostile work environment under Harnden. Hutchins told CNN Business that “at the time” he believed it “was going to affect some change,” but later realized it didn’t have an impact.

Other current and former employees who spoke to CNN Business supported the claim that Harnden went after women.

“I think he was triggered by female employees in general,” one former staffer said. “It certainly seemed like he would … he was hard on everybody, but females who weren’t afraid to stand up to him, or who he couldn’t control, he was bothered by that.”

Another former employee said there “were a lot of situations where women who worked there were yelled at.”

In one particular instance, recounted to CNN Business by two people familiar with the events, Harnden was said to have been upset by an opinion piece written by a female commentary writer. Harnden, according to the two people familiar with the events, stunned staffers when he publicly scolded her in the newsroom for the opinion piece.

It was particularly surprising, the people familiar with the matter said, because Harnden did not oversee the opinion desk and, thus, the commentary writer did not report to him.

The matter was later brought to the attention of Gurdon, according to a third person with knowledge of the matter, who was said to have investigated the incident and dealt with it. It’s unclear how the matter was addressed, and the person whom Harnden scolded did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Another habit of Harnden that bothered staffers was his stealth editing of stories after they had been published. Current and former staffers said that Harnden would regularly edit stories without notifying the reporters whose bylines were on the pieces. Harnden, the staffers said, would play up the drama in their stories in ways that would make them feel uncomfortable having their byline attached to the article.

“We would write the story, it would go through one of the editors, the editors would edit it and approve it for placement, and it would get placed,” explained one former staffer. “And then overnight … Harnden would go into the already published story, completely rewrite it from top to bottom, adding all this sensationalist stuff — details I was very uncomfortable with.”

Current and former staffers told CNN Business that Gurdon was well aware of the way Harnden managed the newsroom. Hutchins and another former staffer said they both complained to him as they exited. One current employee described how Harnden would rip into employees during editor meetings with Gurdon present.

“Toby would pounce on a reporter through the reporter’s editor,” explained the current employee. “He just blasts some reporter for being too slow, not productive, incapable. And then the editor just sits there and says, ‘OK, I’ll talk to them.'”

“And then Toby would rip, ‘That’s not an excuse!’ And it was just tyrannical — unfortunately real stuff,” the current employee continued. “And after a while the editor stops defending the reporter and asks, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And then Toby switches gears and starts ranting about journalism, insulting people — you name it. Toby is mouthing off. And Hugo is just sitting there listening to this.”

Some of the current and former employees said they believed Harnden’s behavior was tolerated because of the traffic boom. The Righting noted in January that the year-over-year visitors to the Examiner “rose 42% in November 2019, making it the 11th straight month of traffic increases.”

“It’s safe to say that it was clicks at any cost in terms of getting traffic,” said one former Examiner employee. “The problem with that is that there was a rough atmosphere associated with it.”

“The higher-ups tolerated a really poisonous environment if the website got traffic,” the former employee added.

‘Let’s not be distracted by this disappointing situation’ 

The complaints about Harnden have continued into this week. In a Monday email obtained by CNN Business, an employee wrote to Gurdon and McKibben, saying Harnden “created a climate of nonstop workplace terror and bullying.”

Some editors were called into Gurdon’s office to discuss the recent events. According to one person, Gurdon encouraged staffers to “say nice things” if members of the press reach out to them.

McKibben, the Clarity Media Group executive who oversees the Examiner, said in a Friday statement to CNN Business, “Over the last two weeks, we received reports about unacceptable behavior allegedly engaged in by two Washington Examiner staffers. We immediately investigated those  allegations. The staffers that were the subjects of those reports are no longer employed by the Washington Examiner.”

“The actions and behavior of those two former employees do not reflect the culture that we demand at the Washington Examiner,” McKibben added. “We are initiating an internal investigation through an independent third party to determine what, if any, additional actions are needed to ensure that our culture, policies and actions appropriately support all of our employees.”

In his email on Friday to staff, Gurdon said, “What we are going through now is regrettable but temporary, but our commitment to the future is long term. Part of that future is my personal commitment to each of you that we will not allow any of our employees to be subjected to unacceptable, unsupportive, or unprofessional behavior.”

Gurdon reiterated that if employees were to “witness or experience any behavior you find unacceptable,” to notify him or Kathy Schaffhauser, the Examiner’s chief financial officer who employees said duels as the de-facto human resources person.

“We have created something special here at the Washington Examiner,” Gurdon concluded. “Our work is industry leading. That is a direct result of the hard work, dedication and talent that each of you bring to work every day. Let’s not be distracted by this disappointing situation, and keep moving forward to new heights.”

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