DIRTY TOXIC CULTURE
‘Unsafe and Just Plain Dirty’: Women Accuse Vice of ‘Toxic’ Sexual-Harassment Culture
The Daily Beast talked to more than a dozen former and current employees about the culture for women inside Vice Media. They spoke of harassing behavior and company indifference.
In the summer of 2015, Phoebe Barghouty was 23 years old and had a new master’s degree in journalism from Stanford—but little other experience—when she landed what most of her peers would consider a dream job: associate producer at Vice’s Los Angeles bureau.
Though her job hadn’t technically started yet, her boss, then-Editor in Chief Jason Mojica, invited her to join the team at the L.A. Press Club Awards. After accepting an award for public service in journalism, the team from Vice—including Mojica and Kaj Larsen, the bureau chief who had hired Barghouty—celebrated with drinks. By the end of the night, Barghouty says a very drunk Larsen had brought up sex (musing about his chances with a group of “black girls” at the bar), asked her for a ride home, then passed out in her car.
“I had not even started work and he was being so inappropriate,” she remembers.
Things just got weirder.
Barghouty says within her first few weeks on the job, Larsen was asking her to meet him at his home in Venice Beach. She thought it was strange, but he was her boss so she complied. As she waited outside his house, she texted a friend her location—“like how you tell a friend before a Tinder date in case you get murdered”—when a shirtless Larsen walked up and told her to come wait inside his bungalow while he took a shower.
She felt uncomfortable. Was she being too prudish, overly offended? She thought, “My family is Muslim. Maybe this is just how people are in L.A.?”
The unusual interactions continued. Barghouty says Larsen would touch her at work—on the small of the back, on her bare thigh—in ways that he didn’t touch the other employees. And she wasn’t producing much journalism. Instead, Larsen, a former Navy SEAL turned journalist, had her do things like accompany him to parties in the Hollywood Hills. At one party, Larsen demonstrated headsets, telling the group that he would be the first person to report in virtual reality from a war zone. Larsen told her he was “grooming her,” but Barghouty felt instead like she was being shown off as arm candy.
The Daily Beast spoke with more than a dozen former and current Vice employees in recent weeks about the culture for women inside Vice Media—and they painted a picture of harassing behavior and company indifference. (Neither Larsen nor Barghouty are still with the company.)
Larsen did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Vice issued a statement to The Daily Beast that read: “The nature of Vice’s content runs the gamut, from travelogues and news series to more provocative programming like our shows exploring drug culture, Weediquette and Bong Appétit. A non-traditional workplace agreement is often used by companies to certify employees’ comfort with content that could be considered edgy. However, it does not in any way sanction conduct that is disrespectful or biased, and we will investigate all allegations of such behavior, including any incidents where employees purportedly attempted to justify their conduct through the agreement. We have immediately begun reviewing this matter.”
Months into her new job, Barghouty says she went to a human-resources representative to voice her concern about the touching and the parties. “When it comes to talent, we can’t really tell them what to do,” Barghouty said she recalls being told. “They bring in the money and attention and you just have to deal with it.” (The representative disputes this account.)
And so she did, until after a fall editorial meeting with the East Coast office in which she says she asked the producers on the other end of the call to quiet down so she could finish a pitch. Following the call—which went well, she thought—she says Larsen held her by the arm and said, “If you’re going to get anywhere with Vice guys, you’re going to have to be a lot sweeter.”
These events were corroborated by a member of Vice’s Los Angeles team at the time and internal emails reviewed by The Daily Beast.
“It felt like a threat,” Barghouty says. “The way he looked at me, the way he grabbed my arm. I remember feeling scared.”
“And I didn’t want my career to be built on how sweet I am to the men at Vice.”
When a new manager reached out to Barghouty and a second female employee, asking what they thought Vice could do to turn the L.A. office around, they emailed him a bulleted list of their concerns.
“As it stands we don’t think anything will change, but we’d like to AT LEAST have these things on the record,” they wrote. Their list included Larsen’s sexist comments, the parties, and a general lack of opportunity. And, they added, “Phoebe doesn’t like it when Kaj touches her at all. AT ALL.”
In conclusion, they wrote, “hostility due to sexism, racism, religionism, ageism, idk-what-ism makes us feel not only uncomfortable, but unsafe and just plain dirty.”
“And yes,” they added, “we’ve both already talked to HR about those uncomfortable comments and situations.”
(UPDATE: That manager is no longer with the company.)
Vice founders Gavin McInnes and Shane Smith have been open about the fact that the Vice brand was built, at least in part, on the objectification of women. In the ’90s-era magazine (mostly written by McInnes), naked women graced the covers and sexual exploitation filled its pages via fact-free articles and features like its “Dos & Don’ts,” in which writers critiqued the style of somewhat anonymous subjects (a black bar covered their eyes) with captions like: “OK she may be hot but do you really want to fuck someone that dresses like this?” (According to McInnes, Vice was sued for calling one of the feature’s subjects “a slut.”)
But the brand expanded quickly. The once humble hipster bible has turned into a major media player by answering the prayers of old-guard media companies vying for millennials—an audience Vice executives claim to have cornered. Today, Vice is valued at $5.7 billion, thanks to major investments from Disney and 21st Century Fox. Meanwhile, the men in charge claim to have grown up alongside their company, evolving from “ignorant, disrespectful and juvenile boors” to leaders of an empire, and purging the most noxious—namely McInnes—from their ranks.
Last year, at the launch of a new Viceland show headed by women’s activist and journalist Gloria Steinem, Smith told The New York Times that he believed the universe had given him his two daughters “to help me understand the world better.”
“We’re not going to revise history—that’s where we came from, but over the past two decades Vice has evolved into a very different company today,” a Vice spokesperson told the New York Post in a report on a 2003 book in which Smith and McGinnes bragged about having group sex with advertisers in the office.
While that transformation may be true in terms of reach and wealth, several former employees told The Daily Beast the company is far from the woke media giant it claims to be—especially in its dealings with the women it employs. In a post-Harvey Weinstein world, where allegations of sexual harassment and assault have ended the careers of powerful journalists like Mark Halperin and Leon Wieseltier, insiders say the spotlight may soon be turning on Vice.
Most of the former and current Vice employees told The Daily Beast they were contractually barred from speaking on the record as a condition of their employment or the non-disclosure agreement they signed to receive their severance pay or a legal settlement.
New hires at Vice also sign a “Non-Traditional Workplace Agreement,” an infamous internal document that requires employees with no experience at Vice to agree as a condition of employment to not be generally offended by anything that goes on there.
It reads in part: “Although it is possible that some of the text, images and information I will be exposed to the course of my employment with Vice may be considered by some to be offensive, indecent, violent or disturbing, I do not find such text, images or information or the workplace environment at Vice to be offensive, indecent, violent or disturbing.”
Employees told The Daily Beast that the agreement is invoked by managers as a joking disclaimer before bad behavior.
Upon first meeting then-Editor in Chief Jason Mojica at the L.A. Press Club awards, Barghouty says he inquired, “Have you signed the non-traditional workplace agreement?” before asking how “flexible” she was. (Mojica denied this account to The Daily Beast.)
Another former employee who worked for the company for two years and asked not to be named because of an NDA, said, “When older men, senior reporters, or managers would hook up with young female reporter after young female reporter, [my manager] would kind of a shrug and say, ‘Well, non-traditional workplace environment.’”
Barghouty touched on that theme, as well. “The culture [at Vice] was that if you sleep with your boss, or with your producer, you’ll get more opportunities. That was real,” she says. “Women who were intimate with their superiors did better than women who weren’t. It created a toxic environment, where men could be abusive, and some women were manipulated into thinking that acquiescing to that abuse was the only way to advance.”
In response to BuzzFeed’s article on the “Shitty Media Men” list, a spreadsheet secretly circulated among female journalists alleging misconduct by their male colleagues that ranged from creepy behavior to sexual harassment and rape, a few former Vice employees seemingly broke their NDAs and took to Twitter to say #METOO about their erstwhile colleagues and managers.
Natasha Lennard, formerly of Vice, led the charge, tweeting: “It’s only by virtue of certain silos of media starting the Shitty Media Men list that the list isn’t yet scarlet with names from @Vice.”
A month later she clarified: “I wasn’t sexually harassed at Vice. Many of my female colleagues were. I was, however, treated appallingly. Chastised for wage transparency & consistently degraded... I was expected to be in the office two days after a suicide attempt for which I was hospitalized. I’ve never worked for a more disgusting, shameless man than Jason Mojica. He should’ve been fired, but instead was moved around the company.”
Mojica stepped down from his post in 2016, ostensibly to helm international news coverage on Vice’s HBO show. In 2017, he moved again, this time to the company’s feature documentary division.
The lateral moves of top brass also extended to Vice’s women’s site, Broadly. That same year, Broadly founder Tracie Egan Morrissey stepped down from her role as editor in chief after her employees orchestrated a kind of coup, complaining to HR and their union that she berated them and used inappropriate language, including allegedly telling them in one instance to fake enthusiasm for their jobs like they faked orgasms with their boyfriends.
Following a recent report that a columnist for Broadly had sexually assaulted four women, a Vice spokesperson released a statement to Jezebel that said in part, “Vice does not tolerate assault of any kind, or behavior that is disrespectful or offensive to any group or demonstrates bias or bigotry…”
In a subsequent tweet, Lennard responded to the statement, “I suppose it’s true. Vice doesn’t /tolerate/ these things. It enables, promotes and protects them.”
Lennard, who did not respond to requests for comment, left Vice in 2015 for Fusion, and on the way out, told Capital New York of Vice, “I think the kind of hierarchical structure, the sort of famed ‘boys club’ situation, is not shifting itself in pace with its grand promises of being the site of cultural production for our generation.”
By winter 2015, Barghouty says her complaints about Larsen had reached Nancy Ashbrooke, Vice’s global director of human resources, who had claimed months earlier in a statement to the Columbia Journalism Review that sexual harassment wasn’t an issue for the company.
“We haven’t had any cases of sexual harassment to deal with,” Ashbrooke wrote. (Ashbrooke was vice president of human resources at Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax Films from 1991 to 2000, according to her LinkedIn page, a time when the now-disgraced producer was paying out hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal settlements to squash allegations of sexual harassment and unwanted sexual contact by employees and actresses.)
Ashbrooke, who is no longer with Vice, did not return multiple requests for comment.
Soon, Jason Mojica was calling Barghouty to talk to her about Larsen. She says she told Mojica her concerns. She didn’t want to be in a room alone with Larsen.
“The thing about working in this industry,” Barghouty remembers Mojica telling her, “is that we have people going into war zones and the only people willing to do that are sociopaths. And you just have to deal with that because that’s the only kind of person who can get that story.” (In 2016, Smith explained, “[Vice is] essentially a cult, and thus a nightmare for most status quo managers.)
(UPDATE: Mojica refutes the substance and timing of this call, telling The Daily Beast Barghouty’s recollection was incorrect and inconsistent with his attitudes, and that she had in fact "conflated two conversations on two different topics, months apart.")
After this story was initially published, a Vice spokesperson reached out to The Daily Beast and noted, “Vice has an employee handbook that spells out in no uncertain terms that we do not tolerate harassment, abusive behavior, assault or retaliation and that all accusations of this nature will be subject to an investigation and, as necessary, action will be taken.”
For the next few months, until she left in a round of layoffs in summer 2016, Barghouty says Larsen just stopped speaking to her altogether. He wouldn’t even look in her direction, an awkward, if effective, solution. A coworker from the time confirmed the account.
Talking about her year at Vice now, Barghouty says she knows there are “worse stories” out there, and women are getting ready to tell them. “There’s really an endless list,” she says. “Mine barely scratches the surface.”