Washington Post Scolds Richard Cohen for Crude Talk With Female Aide

In its editorials on the Monica Lewinsky matter, The Washington Post has repeatedly urged President Bill Clinton to explain his relationship with the young White House intern, calling his silence “harmful, not just shifty.” Such sentiments have been echoed by Post columnist Richard Cohen, who has suggested that Mr. Clinton should “‘fess up and move on.” But when Mr. Cohen himself was accused of engaging in “inappropriate behavior” toward Devon Spurgeon, a 23-year-old editorial aide at the paper, Post management went into its own form of crisis mode: Staff members are forbidden to discuss the matter, the participants in the dispute have been frozen out by superiors, and Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. is refusing to comment. The episode has increased tensions between the sexes at the paper, Post staff members have said, and has exposed a rift between a salty old guard and younger colleagues grappling with the complicated issues of interoffice gender politics.

Ms. Spurgeon, described by colleagues as intelligent and a dead ringer for Post Style section alumna Sally Quinn in her youth, was hired as an editorial aide in 1996. Ambitious and eager, she earned the respect of political columnist David Broder, who mentored her. She spent a year in Washington before joining the seven-person New York bureau in July 1997. Mr. Cohen, on the other hand, has been at The Post for nearly 30 years. He worked his way up through the ranks as a reporter and was made a columnist in 1976, becoming in the process the epitome of a well-connected insider journalist. He is a close friend of the paper’s reigning power couple, hallowed editor at large Ben Bradlee and Ms. Quinn, and pals around with media elites like New Yorker writer Ken Auletta and writers Nora Ephron and Nicholas Pileggi. He had been working one day a week in the New York bureau for years, and moved to the city full-time in September 1997 to be closer to his wife.

Staff members said Ms. Spurgeon and Mr. Cohen clashed soon after his arrival in New York. Ms. Spurgeon’s post was quasi-clerical; she was given spot news assignments but was also expected to monitor the office fax machine and telephones. She made no secret of her journalistic ambitions, fellow staff members said, to the occasional detriment of her lesser duties. This, they said, seemed to annoy Mr. Cohen enough that he upbraided her from time to time, making reference to his connections to Post higher-ups in Washington in a way that Ms. Spurgeon read as an implicit threat to her job security.

Despite his displeasure with Ms. Spurgeon’s job performance, Mr. Cohen seems to have sought out her opinion on matters relevant to his column. After reading a Lewinsky-related article that referred to oral sex as “casual sex,” Mr. Cohen engaged Ms. Spurgeon in a discussion on the subject that other staff members found offensive. Staff members said that Mr. Cohen sometimes used foul language in the office and that he remarked on Ms. Spurgeon’s appearance, telling her she “looked good in black,” according to a Post staff member. On another occasion, the staff member said, Mr. Cohen asked Ms. Spurgeon to “stand up and turn around.”

Mr. Cohen has denied to friends that he made that last comment and said that the other comments on Ms. Spurgeon’s appearance were made innocently. Speaking to Off the Record, Mr. Cohen would only say, “It was a personality dispute at an office, but it had nothing to do with sexual harassment as the term applies today.”

Mr. Cohen’s defenders said discussions of oral sex are unavoidable in newsrooms these days because of the allegations swirling around President Clinton. And they add that while Mr. Cohen may cuss heartily, he does so only in the tradition of his trade. “Anyone who has worked in a newsroom knows these are not sedate places,” said Mr. Auletta. “There is a wise-guy element of journalism that doesn’t get into what we write, but we bluster.… That’s the way journalists talk.”

Tensions between Mr. Cohen and Ms. Spurgeon escalated in late March, eventually culminating in a peculiar circumstance: For three weeks, the 57-year-old columnist gave his 23-year-old colleague the silent treatment. Staff members in the New York bureau expressed their concern to bureau chief Blaine Harden, who in turn contacted assistant managing editor Karen DeYoung in Washington. Ms. DeYoung took the matter to Mr. Downie, who went into crisis mode.

Staff members contend Post management mishandled the situation from the outset. While Mr. Cohen was interviewed about the matter in New York with a lawyer present, Ms. Spurgeon was flown to Washington and interviewed alone by Post attorneys and personnel officers. Senior management met in Mr. Downie’s office to discuss a course of action and concluded that Mr. Cohen and Ms. Spurgeon should be separated during the inquiry. Reasoning that Mr. Cohen was a columnist and needed to work in the office, management put Ms. Spurgeon on paid leave, sending her home for two weeks. The move outraged some employees, who felt it gave the impression that “she was the screwy one,” according to one Post reporter. The move also seemed to violate the paper’s own sexual harassment guidelines, which insure that no report of alleged harassment will “cause further embarrassment” to the complainant.

While Ms. Spurgeon awaited word of her fate, Post sources said, Mr. Cohen’s friends mounted a defense of their colleague, using a familiar tactic-they trashed the young reporter. Because she had cried on occasion in the office, Ms. Spurgeon was depicted as unstable by critics in calls to Post management. Ms. Spurgeon’s sympathizers said she was upset about her mother, who is stricken with cancer, and they called the comments a cheap shot. An item in The Washington Times reported that Mr. Cohen’s friend Sally Quinn was behind the campaign to discredit Ms. Spurgeon, a charge Ms. Quinn vehemently denied. “I never made a single phone call to people at the Post on behalf of Dick,” Ms. Quinn said. “I’ve stayed out of it because I don’t think my involvement would help anybody.”

Post management recently concluded that Ms. Spurgeon suffered a “hostile working environment” but not sexual harassment, and later changed the finding to conclude that Mr. Cohen had committed “inappropriate behavior.” Mr. Cohen was moved from the New York bureau’s 12th-floor office at 251 West 57th Street to Newsweek ‘s offices 10 floors higher.

Sources close to Mr. Cohen and Ms. Spurgeon said neither is particularly pleased with the outcome. Mr. Cohen feels he has been the victim of a witch-hunt atmosphere. “It’s not like he groped someone,” said Mr. Auletta. “He’s being accused of saying things that are insensitive. Well, grow up.… This is Dick Cohen being Dick Cohen, and politically correct people being wusses.” Mr. Auletta expressed concern that recent press reports about the dispute might taint his friend’s reputation. “If you accuse someone of being a sexual harasser or a racist or an anti-Semite, the reporting never catches up with the story,” he said. “The charges are always so damaging.” Colleagues said both Mr. Cohen and Ms. Spurgeon feel the Post management’s public silence on the matter has prolonged the ordeal and only damaged them further.

Ms. Spurgeon’s defenders-who point out that she didn’t initiate the complaint and say she has turned down the constant entreaties of attorneys hoping to take on her case-said she has been let down by a Post management cowed by legal concerns. By sending her on leave, they contend, management has sent a message that there will be a subtle form of punishment for those who make even legitimate complaints. Other observers said Ms. Spurgeon might have endured Mr. Cohen’s remarks, however boorish, had they not been accompanied by the implicitly threatening job criticisms.

Ms. Spurgeon has taken a four-week leave of absence, and refused to comment on the matter. However, at her request, the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild has been monitoring the paper’s handling of the matter. Post sources said that from management’s perspective, the matter is closed.

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The great cruise-ship ad scandal at The New Yorker just won’t subside. Now, the American Society of Magazine Editors is getting involved.

Last week, Off the Record reported that seven New Yorker writers and editors were heading out for weeklong jaunts aboard the Crystal Cruises ship Symphony as part of a “value-added” package that New Yorker president Thomas Florio put together to entice the cruise line to buy ads in his magazine. The deal seemed to violate A.S.M.E.’s special advertising guidelines, but Mr. Florio claimed that he had obtained A.S.M.E.’s approval. At the time, an A.S.M.E. spokesman declined to comment.

Now, A.S.M.E. has come out swinging. Outgoing A.S.M.E. president Frank Lalli, a senior editor at Time Inc., told Off the Record that he objected to the cruise ship ads all along and that Mr. Florio knew it. “We were very, very clear to Tom that the ads as he described them were a violation of both the letter and spirit of the guidelines,” Mr. Lalli said. A.S.M.E. is so miffed that Mr. Florio went ahead with the ads that the trade group will be filing a letter of protest with the Publishers Information Bureau-an industry monitoring service that audits magazine advertising sales-asking that the six pages of Crystal Cruises ads not be counted in the group’s tally of New Yorker ad page sales. “He knew that was going to happen,” Mr. Lalli said. A.S.M.E. is also preparing a letter of rebuke for another Condé Nast title, Bon Appétit, which organized a “food cruise” with Crystal Cruises three years ago, Mr. Lalli said. To help A.S.M.E. keep on top of the “value-added” advertising craze, Mr. Lalli said the organization is considering hiring additional staff to police magazines for untoward ad deals. Mr. Florio refused to comment.

Meanwhile, Victor Navasky, publisher of The Nation, wants his readers to know that his magazine’s “first annual seminar cruise”-which will feature former Senator George McGovern, Nation editor in chief Katrina vanden Heuvel and Nation writers Molly Ivins, Christopher Hitchens and Katha Pollitt, among others-was not organized as part of any advertising deal. “There are no advertising tie-ins,” Mr. Navasky said. “The only funny business on the cruise will be Calvin Trillin’s seminar.” The Nation cruise will take place aboard a regular Holland American Line cruise ship — not, as rumored, aboard a small green gunboat.

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One thing is sure about life at the Daily News: Somebody is always on the way out. This month, the honoree is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jim Mulvaney. Mr. Mulvaney lasted barely eight months as deputy managing editor before he became the victim of a campaign by News editor in chief Debby Krenek and managing editor Arthur Browne to scrub away any lingering fingerprints left at paper by former editor in chief Pete Hamill.

After 15 years at Newsday and three at The Orange County Register -where he won a Pulitzer for exposing fraud at a fertility clinic at the University of California at Irvine-Mr. Mulvaney was brought aboard by Mr. Hamill to shore up the paper’s investigative reporting. The relocation was particularly traumatic, his friends said, because his 10-year-old son suffers from autism. Mr. Mulvaney headed the “I-team,” as the investigative squad is known, in its six-part asthma series and he headed a feature series on the rebirth of New York City. But when Mr. Hamill left, Mr. Mulvaney’s days were numbered. Staff members said he got the cold shoulder from Mr. Browne, renowned for his rough office politics. “I came to the Daily News to join Pete Hamill, to reinvent the paper and bring it into the next millennium,” Mr. Mulvaney said. “After Pete’s departure, I slowly discovered that the people in charge were stuck in the 50′s.”

Ms. Krenek and Mr. Browne did not return calls for comment.