MPR says Garrison Keillor wasn't fired for simply touching 'a woman's bare back'
For weeks, Garrison Keillor's initial belief that he was "fired" from Minnesota Public Radio last November for simply touching "a woman's bare back" hung in the air, tempting his biggest fans with the hope that perhaps the creator of "A Prairie Home Companion" had been wrongly accused.
Minnesota Public Radio only said at the time that it decided to terminate its contracts with Keillor after investigating an allegation of "inappropriate behavior with an individual who worked with him."
On Tuesday, MPR sent a lengthy letter to its members explaining, for the first time, the allegations against Keillor.
"In the allegations she provided to MPR, she did not allege that Garrison touched her back, but did claim that he engaged in other unwanted sexual touching," MPR president Jon McTaggart said in the letter. He later said that "the woman's attorney presented us with a 12-page letter detailing many of the alleged incidents, including excerpts of emails and written messages, requests for sexual contact and explicit descriptions of sexual communications and touching."
MPR cut ties with Keillor in the midst of a reckoning for men in powerful positions facing accusations of sexual abuse, harassment or other inappropriate behavior, following the New York Times and New Yorker's reporting on Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
MPR previously said that it hired an outside firm to conduct an investigation into Keillor's alleged behavior. We know now, from MPR's statement, that investigators looked into "dozens" of allegations of "sexually inappropriate incidents." The complaint came from a woman whom MPR did not name, saying only that she "worked for Garrison on A Prairie Home Companion."
In an email to the Washington Post on Tuesday night, Keillor said, "there is simply no story here. If this is harassment, then every friendship must be abusive."
"The woman and I were friends from before her employment to the end of it," Keillor wrote. "We exchanged scores of emails about our children, travels, ordinary lives, and she signed many of hers 'I love you.'" Later, he wrote, "When I retired, she asked for a job recommendation and I wrote a big booming one for her and she got the job."
In response to a question about his initial decision to say he was fired for touching a woman's bare back, which at this point MPR has denied, Keillor said, "My touching her bare shoulder once was the only physical contact between her and me that could be considered harassing. It was a blue blouse, split up the back, and I put my hand on her back, to reassure her that her work was okay, and my hand slid up inside the blouse a few inches and touched her bare shoulder. I apologized for this in an email and she said, 'I forgave you for that, don't think about it.'"
Keillor went on: "What is interesting to me is the fact that, back in October when the complaint was made, the president of MPR, where I've worked for almost fifty years, did not call me up and ask me to sit down and talk about this. They were never interested in hearing my story. Instead of calling me, they called in a troupe of lawyers, and that's why we are where we are. "
Separately from the statement by the organization's management, journalists at MPR News published a lengthy article on Tuesday, based on interviews with more than 60 people who worked with Keillor in some capacity, that outlined what it was allegedly like for women to work for him. The article describes "a years long pattern of behavior that left several women who worked for Keillor feeling mistreated, sexualized or belittled."
For instance, MPR News reported that Keillor "wrote and publicly posted in his bookstore an off-color limerick about a young woman who worked there and the effect she had on his state of arousal" in 2012. Others described a "harmful" power dynamic in Keillor's consensual relationships with women who worked with him. Their reporters also interviewed Patricia McFadden, who sued MPR in 1999 for age and sex discrimination, accusing the organization of firing her at Keillor's behest and replacing her with a younger woman. McFadden's attorney told MPR News that the lawsuit was settled out of court.
In a statement to MPR News, he said "I don't think MPR News can report fairly on MPR management's chaotic and disastrous actions."
"I'll be able to tell my side of the story at length, in my own words, in due course, and that's sufficient for me," Keillor added.
Keillor himself first emailed reporters on Nov. 29 to say he was "fired" from MPR, just hours after "Today" show host Matt Lauer was fired for inappropriate sexual behavior.
Keillor had already retired from "A Prairie Home Companion," passing on hosting duties to Chris Thile. But in the wake of the allegations against him, MPR decided to rename the show to "Live From Here." MPR will no longer rebroadcast Keillor-hosted episodes of the long-running program, and they ended an agreement to broadcast and distribute Keillor's "The Writer's Almanac."
In the days that followed, The Washington Post syndicate posted an editor's note at the top of Keillor's most recent weekly column for it - a defense of former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who also faced allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior - saying that "we do not intend to publish his columns in the future." And several of Keillor's public appearances were canceled, including one scheduled for the Kennedy Center.
At the time, MPR offered only a terse explanation for the termination, but Keillor opted to share more detail. In an email to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Keillor said that he believed he was fired after he put his "hand on a woman's bare back."
Keillor continued: "I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches. She recoiled. I apologized. I sent her an email of apology later and she replied that she had forgiven me and not to think about it. We were friends. We continued to be friendly right up until her lawyer called."
MPR declined at the time to confirm whether this was the incident that prompted its investigation, only saying a few days later that the organization had received "a formal complaint from an individual that includes multiple allegations related to Garrison's behavior."
With little to go on from MPR itself, many of Keillor's biggest fans decided to believe the radio host's implied denial that he did anything wrong. Fans canceled their MPR memberships in protest. When an MPR news host opened the airwaves to listeners one day after the accusation went public, several took the opportunity to criticize the station's decision to sever ties with Keillor. One said the host was "convicted without a trial." Another said she would end her membership because she believed MPR was guilty of "turning (Keillor) into a criminal."
It's not just fans who struggled to reconcile Keillor's folksy public image with allegations that indicated all might not be as it seemed on "A Prairie Home Companion." In MPR News's latest article, multiple women who used to work with him said they were baffled by the allegations of inappropriate behavior that didn't match the aloof, shy, employer they knew.
McTaggart's letter to MPR listeners reflects the extent of the anger the organization faced for its decision to cut ties with Keillor. It's formatted as a Q&A, where the questions include, "Has MPR unfairly tarnished Garrison Keillor's reputation?"
Here's part of McTaggart's answer:
"I discussed our request for a careful transition with Garrison, personally, on the phone the evening of November 28. The next morning, Garrison emailed the media claiming he was "fired" by MPR. Since then, Garrison has posted statements to social media and provided information to reporters that have not been fully accurate and have suggested that MPR did not handle these matters thoughtfully.
"The irony is that while MPR has been careful to protect Garrison's privacy and not hurry any decisions, others have rushed to judge and criticize MPR's actions without knowing the facts."
Author Information: Abby Ohlheiser is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.