New York (CNN Business)The shock announcement came on Monday.
Hugo Gurdon, the editor in chief of the Washington Examiner, a conservative news organization based out of Washington, DC, summoned staffers into a conference room adjacent to the newsroom.
In the short meeting, Gurdon announced to staffers that the Examiner’s managing editor, Toby Harnden, was no longer with the company, according to people in the meeting. Gurdon did not offer much of an explanation, but he invited employees with concerns to meet with him in private. He then discouraged staff from speaking with the press about the matter.
The entire meeting lasted approximately five to 10 minutes. Later in the day, Harnden arrived at the office for his final visit. He packed up his belongings — and then he was gone.
The series of events capped a tumultuous two-week period for the Examiner. Harnden’s exit came after an employee who had himself been fired in late January sent the Examiner’s leadership screenshots of text messages and secret audio recordings in which Harnden had made highly inappropriate comments, including sexist and homophobic remarks, about staffers.
Harnden, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, referred to one female writer as “Miss fking tits and a.” He mocked the weight of another female employee, referring to her as a “stupid b*tch” who was a “fat fking waste of food.” And Harnden, the messages and recordings revealed, privately speculated about the sex lives of management and disclosed the salaries of senior staff to the fired employee.
This story is based on those text messages and audio recordings, which were obtained by CNN Business. The story is also based on additional emails obtained by CNN Business and interviews with more than a dozen current and former staffers, most of whom requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
To determine the authenticity of the audio recordings, CNN Business compared the audio to public interviews Harnden has given over the years. Additionally, people familiar with Harnden’s voice said the voice on the recordings sounded like him. “That was him, without a doubt,” said one person. “That is 100% Toby’s voice,” said another. And some people said they had heard Harnden previously make similar comments to those captured on the audio recordings and made in the text messages. Finally, when given repeated opportunities to dispute the authenticity of the messages, Harnden did not respond.
In an email sent to staff Friday morning, after facing questions from CNN Business about the Examiner’s workplace culture, Gurdon announced that the organization’s parent company was “enlisting a third-party to conduct a thorough investigation into the Washington Examiner’s culture, policies and actions to determine what, if any, additional steps are needed to ensure a safe and comfortable work environment for all of our employees.”
“I fully support this effort and hope you will join me in being transparent and forthright as the investigation is conducted, and that you will also join me in ensuring that all of us work in an environment about which we can be proud,” Gurdon wrote staff in his Friday email.
Over the course of the past two years, the Examiner has become a top conservative news website, regularly posting web traffic gains month after month. The outlet publishes some of the top conservative columnists, including Byron York, Michael Barone, Fred Barnes, and Timothy Carney. And President Donald Trump has tweeted many of the Examiner’s stories, and praised writers like York.
Howard Polskin, the president of The Righting, a website that monitors the web traffic of conservative media organizations, went as far as to say that the Examiner was one of the “major success stories in conservative media” in 2019.
Gurdon provided a short statement to CNN Business for this story, but declined to further comment on the record. The statement said, “We do not tolerate unprofessional behavior. Fostering a professional, humane, and effective work environment is our highest priority, and something we try to do at all times. We do not comment on individual personnel issues, but I can confirm that Toby no longer works at the Washington Examiner.”
But for many current and former Examiner employees, the remarks Harnden made were not terribly surprising. These people described a toxic work environment in which Harnden would verbally abuse staff. And, according to these current and former Examiner employees, Gurdon was aware of Harnden’s brutish managing style.
“In the best of times, working under Toby Harnden was stressful and chaotic,” said Reynolds Hutchins, a former senior web producer who had complained about Harnden to Gurdon when he left the Examiner for a position at another company in June 2019. “And at the worst of times, it was absolutely miserable.”
The Examiner was founded in 2005 as a daily newspaper serving the Washington, DC, area. It is operated by Clarity Media Group, which is owned by the billionaire Philip Anschutz. While it had — and continues to have — a conservative bent, the newspaper became known in its early days for excelling in coverage of local news.
But in 2013, the Examiner announced a “major shift” in its business model. The outlet said that it would become a digital news organization and reduce its print schedule to once a week. Additionally, the Examiner said at the time, its weekly print copy would be “focused on political news and thought leadership.”
That shift in business strategy set the stage for Gurdon’s hiring in 2014. Gurdon was poached from The Hill, another DC-based publication that has both a print publication and website. While at The Hill, Gurdon helped steer the outlet in a digital direction. He was brought aboard the Examiner initially as the outlet’s editorial director.
Gurdon, according to current and former employees, brought with him a style similar to that of The Hill, which is known for publishing a high volume of politics stories quickly, sometimes to the detriment of their quality, in a bid to score web traffic.
In 2018, Gurdon hired Harnden as the Examiner’s managing editor. Previous to the Examiner, Harnden had served as the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times of London, and executive editor of the US version of the Daily Mail. He also authored two books, one of which won the Orwell Prize.
One of Harnden’s most significant — and eyebrow raising — moves was his hire for breaking news editor: Jon Nicosia.
Nicosia has a colorful history in media. He previously served as the managing editor of Mediaite, an outlet largely known for posting clips of cable news segments online, and of the Independent Journal Review, which was at one point a millennial-focused conservative news website.
While at Mediaite, Nicosia revealed in a first-person 2014 essay that he was a former felon who had been “convicted of multiple counts of bank fraud and larceny” for which he “served five years in state prison.” He said that he had reformed his ways and adopted a new name under which to cover media.
At the Examiner, Nicosia appeared to be a hardworking employee, current and former employees said. Under his leadership, website traffic grew. And while some have characterized him as a bit strange, current and former employees said he was also very cordial.
“He was one of the nicest guys,” one current employee told CNN Business.
During Nicosia’s 10-month tenure at the Examiner, former employees said he appeared to have developed a close relationship with Harnden. Harnden would confide in Nicosia, keep him abreast of his plans for the outlet, and complain to him in brazen terms about events and personnel inside the office, according to the audio recordings and text messages obtained by CNN Business.
But, despite his relationship with Harnden, and his role helping traffic grow, Nicosia’s standing within the Examiner changed when he shared a video in Slack late last month.
Nicosia was called into Gurdon’s office on January 31. During a brief meeting, in which Harnden was also present, Gurdon informed Nicosia that Clarity Media Group executives in Denver had determined he needed to be fired.
The reason? A video he shared the day before in a private Examiner breaking news channel on Slack, a popular instant message application used by companies to allow employees to communicate with each other. The video, seen by CNN Business, appeared to show members of the armed forces on a base gathered around a sex toy as one performed a sexually suggestive act on it.
“I’m afraid Denver has decided that your employment needs to come to an end immediately,” Gurdon said, according to an audio recording of the meeting made by Nicosia and obtained by CNN Business. “It is my duty to tell you that, but it’s a clear abuse of company policy on [inaudible] communications.”
“It’s not got anything to do with — it’s not because of the work you do,” Gurdon added in the meeting.
Nicosia objected in the meeting to having his employment terminated over the video, telling Gurdon that he shared it in the Slack channel because he thought it might go viral online, stir up a controversy, and become a news story. The video ultimately ended up receiving more than 6,500 retweets and 25,000 likes on Twitter.
“That was a news story floating around,” Nicosia said in the meeting. “A bunch of Marines doing inappropriate things is a news story. I didn’t put it in there to make a comment as a gay man. I