Jack Lessenberry's Long History of Questionable Behavior with Women
May 17th, 2018, 1:00 AM
The authors, 2004 graduates of Wayne State University, are freelance writers and former students of Jack Lessenberry. This article is based on a seven-month project. Deadline Detroit contributor Ben Duell Fraser contributed.
Read more about the reporting process here. Lessenberry's full response is here, and a reaction roundup is here.
By Evelyn Aschenbrenner and Peg McNichol
Amber Hunt, an award-winning reporter and Wayne State journalism graduate, recalled her reaction as allegations about sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior of Miramax CEO Harvey Weinstein began to unfold.
"I wonder whether the Weinstein sweep will ensnare Lessenberry?" Hunt asked her husband.
Nearly 500 miles away, another award-winning journalist -- former Memphis Commercial Appeal reporter Diana Aitchison -- made an almost-identical remark to her husband. The two women never met, and nearly 20 years separates their experience.
Both Hunt and Aitchison were referring to Jack Lessenberry, one of Michigan's best-known journalists.
Lessenberry was a foreign correspondent and national editor at The Detroit News, assistant managing editor at the Memphis Commercial Appeal and editor-in-chief of Detroit Monthly and Corporate Detroit magazines. He's currently senior political analyst for Michigan Public Radio, a columnist for Metro Times, and host of a public affairs show on Toledo's Channel 30, where he's also the ombudsman and writing coach for that city's newspaper.
The Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists named him Journalist of the Year in 2002 and last year honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Lessenberry, 66, also heads the journalism faculty at Wayne State University, where he began as lecturer in 1993 and now oversees the communications department's internship program, which includes print and broadcast journalism, public relations and other specialized media programs. The veteran newsman's supersized influence can make or break a student's career, so many students are understandably reluctant to cross or alienate him.
Complaints by Colleagues and Students
Lessenberry, who is divorced since 2009 and lives with his partner Elizabeth Zerwekh in Huntington Woods, has a long and sometimes documented history of allegations that he misused his power and influence when dealing with female colleagues and students.
Deadline Detroit has chronicled a half-dozen allegations from women who say he acted inappropriately, made inappropriate remarks or repeatedly showed unwanted attention, earning him the nickname "Letchenberry," among some Wayne State University students. These claims from past newsroom colleagues and students involve actions from around 1990, when he was a manager at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, through 2009 as a WSU lecturer.
One accusation is that Lessenberry, while giving a female student a ride home, squeezed her thigh after saying that some people might do "anything" for a better grade. Another involves allegations Lessenberry repeatedly commented on a student's looks and once remarked on the size of her breasts.
In 1991, two years before coming to WSU, about a dozen female reporters and editors at the Memphis Commercial Appeal retained an attorney to protest the "sexually hostile working environment in the editorial department" they say he fostered. Among the allegations were unwanted advances and attention, unsolicited neck rubs and two instances when Lessenberry allegedly arrived unannounced at a reporter's home, the second time trying to kiss her in the doorway, but was pushed away.
"There has been no one else I've known of, and certainly no one in the newsroom for the 27 years and six months I was there, who created the havoc, the turmoil, the hatred, and sickness he did with women," recalled former copy editor and Commercial Appeal union leader Anita Houk in a recent interview.
Lessenberry admits to some missteps at the Commercial Appeal, but overall, says the accusations there and at Wayne State are untrue, including the alleged forced kissing.
After being forced out of the Commercial Appeal in 1991 after facing allegations of sexual harassment, he was hired by Wayne State University. Former female students allege that Lessenberry continued to engage in inappropriate behavior, including inappropriate remarks or showering women with unwanted attention.
Three people say they complained about alleged inappropriate behavior in 2005-07 to the head of the program, Ben Burns, on behalf of other female students. Two of those speaking to Burns were then-adjunct instructor M.L. Elrick, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009, and Amber Hunt, who went on to become part of a Pulitzer Prize team in Cincinnati in 2018.
Lessenberry remained on the job and eventually became head of the journalism area. Burns died in 2012.
In addition to the chronicled incidents, a current female WSU student who has taken Lessenberry's class, says he continues to make questionable comments to women in the class that make them uncomfortable.
"He's made comments about my hair. Oh, you got such nice hair. It's seemingly innocent . . . but it lingers just a bit a too long.
"He puts everybody in awkward positions, but when you make comments about bodies or clothing or hairstyles . . . it's always about women."
"I have a friend . . . a bit younger. She had him. She wore a skirt one day, and he mentioned something about her legs. 'That's the last time I wear a skirt in his class, ever again' she told me."
Recollections of Discomfort
While the allegations fall far short of the ones that cost Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose their positions, they're significant enough that some of the women interviewed -- including Hunt and Aitchison -- immediately thought of Lessenberry when the #MeToo movement surfaced last fall and women began going public about allegations. So for the first time, they've agreed to speak out publicly.
"I'm not worried about fans of Jack's not liking what I say," says Hunt in an email. "First off, it's true. Can't be mad at me for saying the truth (well, you can, but I won't care about it). Second, I did everything I could do at the time by alerting Ben Burns and having a frank conversation about my concerns. Third, and this is the element that Jack never seemed to get: I'm already successful and his accolades or sabotage attempts won't work. He has no power over me. I'm more respected in the circles I care about than he is."
While not all the allegations involving Lessenberry may meet the legal standard of sexual harassment, at minimum they are all part of a pattern women described as "creepy" behavior that made females cringe and uncomfortable -- especially coming from a college instructor who can have a significant effect on their future. His behavior with female students had long been a topic of discussion in the journalism community.
Lessenberry points out that this article addresses alleged incidents at WSU and in Memphis that are nine years or older, and in some cases, nearly 30 years old.
In a series of detailed emails to Deadline Detroit editor Allan Lengel, Lessenberry denies the key claims against him. He also emphasized that events in Memphis and allegations at WSU are from years past. "You would be justified in publishing such a story about me if there were any charges filed against me, lawsuits, or anyone alleging I had sexually abused them, Or, even ongoing complaints about sexual harassment. There are not."
"I have admitted my mistakes at the Commercial Appeal nearly 30 years, ago, which caused my career there to be destroyed," Lessenberry said.
"I have since rebuilt my life, and am proudest of all the students, many of them women, who I have helped. I know you can't prove a negative, but I could easily name a hundred former and current students who will tell you this is garbage."
Attorney Cites 'the Power Imbalance'
Jessica Stender, senior counsel for Workplace Justice and Public Policy at Equal Rights Advocates, a national organization based in San Francisco, says: "It's totally appropriate to bring up past behavior" from 1991 if it continues after that.
"I don't think it's ever OK for a professor to make comments to a student about their looks or romantic life," she adds, noting that the power imbalance often makes it difficult or impossible for someone to tell a person to stop for fear of retribution.
"That kind of conduct, even if it may not rise to unlawful sexual harassment, can still have a detrimental effect and should not be tolerated."
It's unclear if Ben Burns, head of the journalism faculty, knew of the women's allegations in Memphis. Burns, who was executive editor of The Detroit News in the 1980s, worked with Lessenberry in that newsroom. WSU didn't officially institute faculty background checks until 2013.
Matthew Seeger, dean of the university's College of Fine, Performing, and Communication Arts, which includes the journalism program, says he was unaware of any allegations about inappropriate behavior involving Lessenberry.
Lee Wilkins, current chair of the Department of Communication, said in an email: "There is no information about this sort of behavior in Mr. Lessenberry's personnel file."
'Gentle, Kind and Protective,' WSU Grad Says
By all accounts, Lessenberry is a tough and demanding instructor. In an April 12 annual performance review memo, Wilkins says his teaching "continues to improve and your classes are known for their no-nonsense adherence to high standards...You continue to teach above load, to place an increasing number of students in internships, and to help graduating students obtain jobs." His 2017 salary was $62,246, a university database shows.
Some former female students effusively praise Lessenberry and argue that his practice of touching women or commenting about their looks is not harassment.
Andrea Crisman, a WSU journalism grad who worked at the Free Press from 2008-14, considers Lessenberry a trusted mentor and describes him as "gentle, kind, and protective."
"He was hard on people if they didn't apply themselves," recalled Crisman. "I remember him saying he'd rather have people hate his guts than get fired on their first day in the newsroom. The newsroom is not a pretty place. It's real harsh. You have screaming editors with deadlines."
Yet, even women who fared well under Lessenberry said they're concerned they garnered high grades because of their attractiveness. One prominent local television reporter who was a student of Lessenberry's and attended WSU from 2007-09, says he repeatedly made comments over the years about her looks and once remarked that her breasts looked "big" while reviewing a videotape of her work.
"It sucks when you work so hard and you have to question your grade because someone is constantly telling you how attractive you are," says the reporter, who declined to let her name be used out of fear of retaliation.
'You Know in Your Gut'
The reporter says Lessenberry "wasn't a perv all the time," but he once offered her a beer in his office from his mini fridge, a violation of WSU's rules requiring instructors to maintain and uphold "a scholarly" atmosphere. She said she accepted the beer even though he did not drink one.
"Being alone with him. . . . you know in your gut. You just know he's being creepy," she says.
Lessenberry says the account of serving beer is a "lie," maintaining that he hates the smell and taste of beer and offering alcohol to minors violates WSU policy.
As for commenting on breasts, Lessenberry said: "I have never talked to a woman about her breasts unless I was, well, living with them. I have no idea who this is, and I may well have complimented her on her looks in a nonsexual way and have learned not to do that."
The television reporter was outraged when told of Lessenberry's response.
"A lie? Wow. Gross," she wrote in a text message. "Him having a beer and giving it to me has nothing to do with him not drinking. He had it available and offered it. Even recommended it. I am really too disgusted by that egotistical and obviously calculated response. There's no reason to make up anything or lie about any of this. I'm too disgusted to say anything further."
A Ride Home After Night Class
Penny Bowler, a former WSU student, recalls Lessenberry once offering her ride home to Ferndale in the fall of 2006 or 2007 after a night class and inquiring whether she had a boyfriend. "Good," she said he responded when she said she didn't. He later said, "some of my students will do anything to get an A" and reached over and squeezed her thigh, she recounts.
Lessenberry's response: "I remember her, and her asking me to give her a ride home. I cannot imagine that I squeezed her thigh."
Former student Kristina Tuck recalls attending Lessenberry's "Survey of Mass Communication," an introductory course, in 2005. After the first lecture, Tuck said Lessenberry invited her to his office and told her she was going to be very successful.
"I thought, well, this is a very odd observation to be making one day after a lecture class where I've done no written work before," Tuck said. She said Lessenberry also volunteered: "I just want you to know, I can help you."
"All our interactions ended with, 'come to my office,' including once on a Saturday," Tuck said. She became wary and referred to Lessenberry as "Pervenberry" among her friends. She told a friend about her interactions, who shared the emails with Deadline Detroit.
"To be clear, Lessenberry is a problem -- but I really started to have reservations about working in Detroit when it became clear just how many journalists, many of whom are also gatekeepers, indicated that they were aware of his behavior," says Tuck. "How many women could have been protected from harassment had every man not defaulted into inaction?"
Lessenberry said he remembers Tuck "only vaguely," and that if he invited her to his office on a Saturday, it was because "that is where I have all my resources, internship and job contacts, etc."
In another incident, a former student, who did not want to be identified out of fear of retaliation, said she went to Lessenberry to talk to him about journalism upon the advice of her boyfriend.
During their first meeting, Lessenberry said her boyfriend "has great taste in women" and kissed her hand. She said that made her very uncomfortable coming from a person of authority.
Lessenberry responded that "I do not recall kissing the hand of anyone I did not know. I do not comment on women's legs or breasts, and I never have. But I suppose that if you have someone with an agenda tell people that I am a bad person and encourage them to make things up under the protection of anonymity, some of them evidently will."
'What Does Unwelcome Mean?'
Grand Rapids attorney Robert Alvarez tells Deadline Detroit that the parameters of sexual harassment can vary.
"You can't have an objective scale. It really all depends on the victim whether, you know, whether they see it as offensive. Sexual harassment is the unwelcome advance. What does unwelcome mean? To each person that's different."
Allegations of inappropriate comments and behavior prompted the three people to complain in 2005-07 to Ben Burns.
In 2007, Hunt, who was several years older than her classmates, says that after letting Lessenberry know she was put off by his comment that she looked better without her glasses, he subsequently ridiculed her achievements in class. At the time, she was working at the Detroit Free Press and had more than seven years of professional experience. Upon learning that students secretly referred to Lessenberry as "Letchenberry," Hunt met with Burns, then head of the journalism area, to protest what she regarded as inappropriate behavior with female students.
A second complaint came in 2005 from Evelyn Aschenbrenner, a co-author of this article, alleging that Lessenberry retaliated because she told him she wasn't comfortable with him touching her, albeit not in a sexual way.
Aschenbrenner learned that Lessenberry urged that she not be hired when she applied for a job at the Berkley Mirror in 2005 when Lessenberry was an executive at the newspaper's parent company. The editor, Sue Davis, hired her anyway, and later told her that Lessenberry, for some reason, mentioned the touching incident when he recommended she not be hired. Sue Davis confirmed this.
'Other Anonymous Allegations'
M.L. Elrick, an adjunct instructor at WSU at the time, confirmed that he urged Aschenbrenner to speak to Burns. And he confirms that he too approached Burns in 2005 regarding Aschenbrenner's situation, as well as reports he heard that Lessenberry was lavishing some female students with unwelcome attention.
Burns acknowledged in an April 13, 2005 email to Aschenbrenner: "Evelyn, some other anonymous allegations have surfaced and I would like to chat with you by phone before I meet with Jack and the department chair tomorrow afternoon." She said she talked to Burns by phone about her situation and her concerns regarding Lessenberry's inappropriate bahavior with women.
Ten days after the message, Burns followed up in an email, saying: "We had a talk with Jack in regards to his intimidating students and he has agreed to try and temper his language with them. I am taking over direction of the internship program so that should no longer be a factor."
Lessenberry continued overseeing the internship program.
Lessenberry questions the motive, objectivity and integrity of Aschenbrenner and Peg McNichol, the co-author of this story, and also a former Lessenberry student.
"You are allowing two women who blame me for their career failures to write something sliming me, "Lessenberry said. "That is not journalism."
Aschenbrenner is a former reporter with the Berkley Mirror. She teaches English in Wrocław, Poland, where she's lived for four years. She is the author of "A History of Wayne State University in Photographs," being republished in a second edition this fall.
McNichol is an award-winning journalist who currently is a morning news radio anchor in Holland, Mich., and a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists. Her freelance work has appeared in many Detroit-area publications.
Some women are offended that Lessenberry minimizes the allegations because of the passage of time.
"I am fascinated and amused that Lessenberry thinks that I, and dozens of my colleagues who, all these years later, have nothing to gain from revisiting this sorry saga of our past professional lives would lie," says Houk, formerly of the Commercial Appeal, who says she was not sexually harassed but was a union official representing women who say they were. "To what purpose? What would be the upside for us?
"Our revelations now are the result of inner strength that springs from the hope that Jack Lessenberry finally would be stopped from damaging others. The damage to us has been done."
Mentoring with a Twist
In his years as a teacher and prominent figure in the journalism community, Lesssenberry has taken pride in being a mentor to students and helping them get jobs. Then there was this -- a mentoring situation with a different twist involving someone who was never his student or employee.
His interaction is another example of taking advantage of his role, according to the WSU law school grad -- now a lawyer -- who looked to Lessenberry for professional mentoring, only to feel betrayed.
The woman, who asked not to be identified, was 30 when she met Lessenberry in 2015 while walking her parent's dog in Huntington Woods and he offered to give her career counseling. He was in his mid-60s. They subsequently met on multiple occasions over time.
In a July 14, 2015 email, Lessenberry wrote to her: "It would make me very happy if I can help you in anyway, or introduce you to anyone you might want to meet. By any chance would you be willing to have lunch with me Weds July 22 or Thurs July 23? Johnny's would be great! Your pet journalist."
"He would make comments about my appearance, and saying I'm a very attractive young woman, and asking me about my love life. I answered those questions with a smile on my face because I looked to him as a person who I needed to get ahead in my career," the woman said, noting that she never gave Lessenberry even a hint of a possible sexual interest.
A Bold Blurt During Lunch
One day in the summer of 2016, during a lunch meeting at Sala Thai restaurant in Eastern Market, in the midst of a conversation about politics and current events, the woman said Lessenberry blurted out: "I would very much like to make love to you." The woman says she ignored the comment, but decided to not see him again.
"It's so unbelievable to me that he would say that," the woman said. "The possibility of me responding and saying, 'Oh, yes Jack, let's go sleep together. Sure. Let's do this quid pro quo.' Never in a million years."
At the time, she told her mother about the encounter. Her mother, in an interview, confirmed that.
Lessenberry says he recalls trying to help the woman, but never came on to her or said he wanted to make love to her. He also questioned the relevance of the story, noting that she was never a student and he met her outside the university.
Allegations that Lessenberry retaliated against women who rejected his advances were pervasive when Lessenberry worked at the Commercial Appeal.
In a 1991 letter, attorney Dan Norwood, representing about a dozen female employees, sent a letter to management saying:
"As a result of Mr. Lessenberry's abuse of authority to serve his own unprofessional and illegal sexual objectives, women in the editorial department have been ridiculed and reprimanded without good cause, denied promotions, forced to resign or been pressed in low-status assignments. Such illegal actions aimed at creating an atmosphere of intimidation and fear to accomplish his personal objectives have created a hostile working environment in the editorial department."
The newspaper responded in a May 24, 1991 letter that it had investigated and found Lessenberry made "some comments and jokes which some employees may have found inappropriate" but no instances of inappropriate conduct or any reprisals against women who may have rejected his alleged advances. The paper also stated that Lessenberry was reminded of the sexual harassment policy and warned not to make any sexual remarks, innuendos or any conduct that would constitute sexual harassment.
The newspaper also instituted a series of actions, including sexual harassment training for managers and supervisors.
Wine, Videos and Persistence
Diana Aitchison, a former Commercial Appeal reporter, said Lessenberry once showed up unannounced at her apartment with a bottle of wine and a video collection of "The Avengers," a television series she once told him was her favorite. Aitchison said she let Lessenberry in, saying he was in management and wanted to be polite. They watched a show and had a glass of wine and he left. But when he showed up unannounced a second time at the back entrance and tried to kiss her at the doorway, she says she pushed him away.
"(Lessenberry) was really pissed off," she said. "I mean, he was really pissed off."
Soon after, Aitchison said colleagues were telling her to "watch her back" because Lessenberry was trashing her writing and reporting in news meetings. Two former colleagues at the paper confirm that she told them at the time of Lessenberry showing up at her apartment.
Lessenberry recalled finding Aitchison attractive, but disputed her allegations.
"I remember her. This was about 1990, and I think we did talk about The Avengers. But I never kissed her, tried to kiss her, went out with her, or was in her home at any time," he said.
Former Commercial Appeal reporter Laura Coleman Noeth says Lessenberry routinely made references about her looks and other inappropriate comments. She recalled once sending Lessenberry an internal message saying she had filed a story and he replied: "Well I'd kiss you, but you'd file a grievance." Coleman Noeth said she responded: "I'd rather have a raise."
She also recalled one day: "I was walking past his desk, and he said very loudly, 'Laura won't go out with me because she's lost weight.'"
She said she felt humiliated by the comment. Noeth also said he wrote comments to her through the computer messaging system in the newsroom. Two colleagues confirm being told about the email. In addition, the comments about her looks were confirmed by reporters who overheard them in the newsroom.
Lessenberry remarked that "I have never said anything like that in my life. I do recall her as being very heavy. I never dated nor wanted to date her."
Lessenberry left the Commercial Appeal in 1991 at the behest of editor Lionel Linder, whom he had worked with at The Detroit News. Linder was killed in a car crash in December 1992.
The reasons why some women didn't come forward to complain at the time vary.
The broadcast student at Wayne State, who is now a local TV reporter, explains:
"Hard to say. I've dealt with people like him my whole life. I think I'm just used to it. Sad. I think I just thought . . .I'd graduate and wouldn't have to deal with him anymore. Perhaps I felt, at the time, he wasn't worth the fight. He would soon be in my rearview."
In an email, Lessenberry, says he's "heartsick . . . [if] I made some women feel apprehensive when I was younger and stupider than I am now. But ask yourself -- are these allegations by a couple of scarcely unbiased women (reporters) a legitimate news story?"
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