Thursday, June 19, 2008

KPFA: Hanrahan vs. Bernstein, et al

Speeding along I-10 toward Los Angeles to visit KPFK in mid-February 2006 as Pacifica Radio’s Executive Director I received my first briefing on the case of Noelle Hanrahan v. The Pacifica Foundation; KPFA; Jim Bennett; Dennis Bernstein; and DOES 1-20, inclusive. Filed in California Superior Court, the lawsuit accused Pacifica, and specifically Bernstein, of gender and sexual harassment, discrimination, abuse, retaliation, and unlawful termination. A large San Francisco-based law firm, Howard Rice Nemerovki Canady Falk and Rabkin, had been hired to defend Pacifica and possibly settle prior to a trial. Frank Birchfield, who was handling the case, rang my cell phone to bring me up to date.

Hanrahan, who made a name for herself by chronicling the controversial death penalty case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, became a part-time associate producer for Flashpoints in December 2000. Less than a year later relations with the famously cranky Bernstein turned sour. As far as KPFA’s management was concerned, it was just a clash of personalities. But Hanrahan called it harassment and claimed that Bernstein had threatened to force her out unless she agreed to “do what I tell you to do.” Bernstein claimed that Hanrahan was the one being “verbally abusive” and objected when she described herself as “senior producer” and “co-host” of the show.

Both complained to Jim Bennett, who was GM at the time. “I am an award winning, qualified host and producer and I have produced the entire show on many occasions,” Hanrahan wrote. “I will not be bullied and sexually harassed.” Bennett investigated and decided there was no merit to her complaints.

At one point Bernstein discussed their ongoing conflict on the air. In response, Bennett reamed him out and suspended him for ten days without pay. A mediator attempted to negotiate a truce by getting Bernstein to cede 20 minutes of airtime during each hour for Hanrahan to produce her own segments. At the end of the show the credits would say that Flashpoints was produced “by Dennis Bernstein with Noelle Hanrahan.” But the conflict wouldn’t go away. In the months that followed some employees claimed Hanrahan became increasingly difficult, abused them, and wanted Bernstein’s job.

In early 2002 she filed another complaint. This time Hanrahan charged that Bernstein had “demeaned” her and “engaged in an abusive conversation.” Bennett investigated again. Most staffers considered her the disruptive party. There was more mediation, but both antagonists insisted that it was the other who refused to communicate or play fair. Hanrahan claimed that a campaign of gender and sexual harassment was underway but didn’t offer specifics. Finally, in February, she was removed from the Flashpoints team and offered another on-air position.

Before a deal could be struck, however, an angry argument between Hanrahan and another member of the Flashpoints group broke out in a hallway. This time she was disciplined – with a mandatory, paid vacation. According to court documents filed by Pacifica, she used the time to publicize her grievances, including a flyer with what management considered “false and defamatory statements.” If she wanted to return to work, they told her, she would have to stop, retract any false statements, participate in conflict resolution, and consider the offer to work on another show. She rejected the terms and remained on paid leave for the next six months.

On September 15, KPFA said goodbye to Noelle Hanrahan – almost. Though removing her from the payroll, the station decided to continue health insurance coverage and provide childcare reimbursements for the next two and half years. When the coverage ended she decided to sue.

Now the case was heating up. Unless a settlement was reached both sides would begin taking depositions, a costly process. In order to win Hanrahan might only have to prove one of her many charges. The harassment accusation was unlikely to persuade, Birchfield felt, but the paper trail was sketchy and her attorneys might be able to establish that KPFA’s management was negligent in handling her complaints. His preliminary conversations with Bennett and his assistant Phil Osegueda suggested that, after almost three years, they didn’t remember some of what had transpired. Thus, their depositions might provide ammunition for the other side.

The good news was that Hanrahan sounded willing to settle. But her terms might not be possible to meet. She wanted $250,000, plus reinstatement and assurances that she would never have to deal with Bernstein and Bennett again. Was her return to KPFA a possibility, and how much might the board be willing to offer to have the case settled? I hadn’t discussed the matter with anyone yet and it would take a few weeks to find out.

“The sooner the better,” Birchfield explained. A settlement conference was being arranged for early March and it would be advantageous to know where the organization stood before that happened. With a 22-member board, including eight new members, that was much easier said than done.

Next Week: KPFK & the Struggle for the Network

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