Ellen Rocco has been at North Country Public Radio since 1980 and its station manager since 1985. That’s to say, she has been in public radio nearly as long as Garrison Keillor.
She doesn’t know Garrison Keillor well. She spent the better part of an evening with him when he broadcast an episode of The Prairie Home Companion from Potsdam in 1998, and she interviewed him on the air for NCPR’s Readers & Writers show in 2002. Other than that, they may have exchanged a few words at large gatherings.
Rocco never heard any rumors concerning sexual misconduct, so the news that Minnesota Public Radio severed ties with Keillor this week over “inappropriate behavior” caught her, like everyone else, by surprise.
“He did not have a reputation of being a man you would not want to be in a room alone with,” she said in an interview with the Adirondack Explorer.
She has mixed feelings about Keillor’s firing. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say she doesn’t know what to think, given the lack of information.
What she does know is that she would not have fired Keillor if his version of the events—the only version we have—is accurate.
On Wednesday, MPR issued a statement that it was severing contracts with Keillor over “inappropriate behavior with an individual who worked with him.” It canceled his program The Writer’s Almanac, which aired on NCPR and many other stations. MPR did not provide details of the behavior. Indeed, MPR did not even say it was sexual in nature.
Keillor, however, sent an email to the Minneapolis Star Tribune in which he described the incident in question. “I put my hand on a woman’s bare back,” he said. “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.”
“If his version in fact is all that happened,” Rocco said, “I would absolutely not fire someone for that.”
But she added: “The problem is we don’t know what the other side is.”
So far, the woman has not stepped forward, and MPR–where Garrison Keillor got his start and whose decision to drop him upset many people–has not released more information. Without additional facts, the public may be left in a quandary.
“Unless the actual parties want further clarification, I don’t think it’s our job to pursue clarification. It’s up to them,” Rocco said.
“If he feels he’s been unjustly treated, it’s up to him to raise the red flag,” she said of Keillor. Likewise, if the woman feels Keillor’s account is inaccurate, “she needs to tell us that.”
Rocco applauds the women who have come forward in recent weeks to accuse powerful men and celebrities of sexual harassment and sexual abuse. However, she fears that some men may be unfairly targeted.
“Roy Moore—throw him in jail and throw away the key,” she said. She also thinks Representative John Conyers Jr., the Michigan Democrat, should go, given the multiple accusations against him. But probably not Al Franken, the Democratic senator from Minnesota.
“We have to be careful not to lump all these people together,” she said.
National Public Radio had its own scandal a month ago when Michael Oreskes, its senior vice president for news, faced allegations of sexual harassment.
Rocco happened to speak with Oreskes on the day the story broke. “I told him if the accusations are true you have to issue an apology and resign,” she said.
As it turned out, Oreskes resigned the next day.