I felt trapped and scared: Al Giordano’s predatory behavior and the men who continue to support him.
In February of 2018, former students and employees of journalist Al Giordano started going public about the sexual harassment, labor exploitation, and intimidation Giordano and his staff had allegedly committed against them while they participated in Giordano’s School of Authentic Journalism (SAJ) and/or working for Al’s news outlet, Narco News.
Eventually, twenty-two detailed victim statements were sent to the Board of Directors of Giordano’s Massachusetts non-profit (the Fund for Authentic Journalism) which directs money to SAJ and Narco News. The story was also partially covered by the Huffington Post and the Boston Globe.
Those of us who had either experienced or witnessed Giordano’s abuses hoped that speaking out would empower others to share their own stories, and that the Fund for Authentic Journalism would hold Giordano accountable for his predatory behavior. We wanted to make sure that no one else would have to experience what others had endured. We also hoped that the people who work with Giordano, especially those who are responsible for the governance of his nonprofit, would take our allegations seriously and take action to prevent him from inflicting further harm.
The Board, Giordano, and some of his staff met our accusations with silence, denial, paranoia, and/or dishonesty. This leaves us with no choice but to share the full story of what happened before and after we made our experiences public.
Starting over fifteen years ago, women who studied with or worked for Al Giordano report that they were subjected to sexual advances. Some were forced to listen to Al’s explicit accounts of sexual activity with other students and employees. Some were expected to perform personal favors, for no additional compensation; favors that included emptying Al’s bedpan and making him coffee. Many tried to distance themselves from Giordano’s predatory and exploitative behaviors, but Giordano intimidated them with threats that he would kill himself and/or publicly ostracize and disgrace them (the latter of which he did frequently). Some men who attended Giordano’s school, and/or worked for Narco News, report that, in the party atmosphere that defined both projects, they were encouraged to take advantage of female students when they were intoxicated beyond the point of being able to give consent. Those men who denounced, or distanced themselves from, Giordano’s behaviors were also publicly ostracized. Giordano carried out public smear campaigns against young journalists (women and men) that placed their careers, and sometimes their lives, in danger.
EXAMPLES OF ABUSE
The following excerpts from the full victim statements represent only a handful of the people who shared stories. Many have chosen not to share their stories publicly, and others have chosen to do so anonymously; both fearing the kinds of retribution that Giordano has already inflicted on them and others.
Giordano hired Isadora Bonilla, a young former student, to work for Narco News, after she attended the School of Authentic Journalism, in 2012. He told her he was in love with her the night before she started working for him. He made her come to his house for work, which included waking him up and making him coffee. He would describe his sex life in graphic detail and tell her about which women at the school he had slept with. Bonilla elaborated:
“He told me he only accepted women into the school if they were pretty. He would say inappropriate and graphic things about them. He talked about which ones he had sex with, which ones he performed oral sex on, which ones he made orgasm.”
When Giordano got sick, Bonilla was expected to act as his nurse:
“He had me bring him his breakfast in bed, give him his medicines, call his doctors. He even threw the plates of food I brought him on the ground. A few times I had to empty his bedpan. I told Al and Greg (Berger) that I wasn’t qualified to be a nurse. I felt trapped and scared, but I felt like I couldn’t leave because I felt guilty. Al would threaten to kill himself if I left. So, I was afraid to leave.”
While interviewing Thalia Guido, another former SAJ student, for a teaching position, Giordano told her that he wanted her to take over the school one day. She was 25 years old at the time. The best way to prepare for that role, he claimed, would be through a romantic relationship or at least a night together so they could realize their “connection.” He told her he knew she felt the same way and offered to give her “the greatest orgasm of [her] life.” Guido was especially alarmed because this interview took place in Giordano’s home. She later learned that Giordano publicly declared her persona non grata, uninvited her from the School, and ultimately accused her of working as a spy for the Mexican government.
Jennifer Whitney described Giordano’s sexual misconduct which began during the opening days of the 2004 school, where she was a student:
“Very early on, Al started coming onto me, trying to get me to kiss him, or go back to his room with him at night. I told him to stop, and he did. But he still flirted regularly, encouraged me to drink heavily, made comments about my body and outfits, and frequently used sexual innuendos around me.”
After the school ended, Whitney was in a brief romantic relationship with Giordano, during which she experienced emotional and physical intimidation:
“He got other people from my cohort at the SAJ to report on my activities when I was in the US…. The whole relationship was characterized by constant attempts to control me, my speech (written and spoken), and my behavior, my friendships, my activities, my travel. There were frequent and disturbing psychological games; verbal abuse; break ups every few weeks followed by reconciliations; wild paranoia and accusations; regular threats of self-harm and suicide; personal attacks on my character, upbringing, politics, family, etc. He also reminded me that I ‘had nothing’ before he ‘rescued’ me, and that I had nothing to go to if we were to split up.”
When Whitney did eventually end the relationship,
“I went into my room to get away from his tirade, but there was no lock on my door; he burst in, pulled out my top dresser drawer, and threw its contents on the floor. Somehow I forced him out of the room and slammed the door, holding the handle tightly while he tried to force it open. I dragged the desk, bed, and dresser in front of the door, closed the curtains, and waited out the next 6 or 7 hours, basically under siege, while he drank, screamed, and pounded on the door. He threatened suicide, and he said he would go public with all manner of private things I’d shared with him. In the immediate aftermath, he contacted my friends from the SAJ and said I had ‘cuckolded him,’ (I hadn’t), that I betrayed him and ‘the cause,’ and insisted that they cut me off, or be cut off by him. Many complied.”
Molly Kate Goss attended the school, in 2014:
“Before, during, and in the brief time I still associated with the school, Al made lewd comments and tried to convince me to sleep with him, explaining that, in his opinion, we would make a ‘great couple.’ He once gave me a massage that I didn’t feel comfortable with in the least, but at the time, I felt that if I rejected it, I wouldn’t have a chance to participate in this wonderful school that I had heard so much about. I also remember that he kissed me, and I stood as still as a statue, not reciprocating at all, so he complained that it wasn’t a real kiss. I told him that I was seeing someone and didn’t want a relationship with him.
“I contemplated not attending the school after this happened, but I still wanted the opportunity to learn and meet other journalists, and I thought that my telling him I was seeing someone would ward him off. It didn’t. I tried to avoid him as much as possible, but it was difficult as he was the director of the school. When it was finally over I went out with some of the graduates. That night we went out with a few other people to a bar in Mexico City, and I felt pressured into dancing with Al. After the dance, I attempted to return to my seat, and he grabbed my hand and did not let me go immediately, even though I was tugging in the opposite direction.”
Jill Freidberg taught at the 2010 SAJ:
The first time I worked for Al Giordano was in 2006, as a filmmaker covering the Zapatista Otra Campaña, in Oaxaca, Mexico. For the entire first week that I was on the project, Al tried to convince me to sleep with him. I had just met Al, and I didn’t want to start off on a bad foot, so I tolerated his persistent verbal advances. When I finally told him to knock it off, he did. I was able to draw that line because I had decided I didn’t need to work on Al’s project if it meant putting up with the constant flirting and lecherous comments.
In the end, I didn’t get kicked off the project, and four years later I taught at the 2010 SAJ. I was teaching the documentary group, and I felt a strong sense of accountability to the community we had been filming, so I got up really early one morning and sneaked out to go film. (I say ‘sneaked’ because we weren’t allowed to miss the morning plenaries, so I literally had to tiptoe out of the hotel). When I got back, both Al and Greg (Berger) asked me, in separate conversations, whose hotel room I had been sneaking out of that morning. They let me know that the two of them had sat around that day speculating about which student or professor I might have been sleeping with the night before. I hadn’t been sleeping with anyone, but it creeped me out that the two male directors of the school thought it was okay to tell me that they had discussed with each other the details of my imagined sexual activity.”
UNSAFE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT
Many former students and faculty of the SAJ describe the atmosphere at the School of Authentic Journalism as reminiscent of a fraternity party. Jennifer Whitney, a student from the 2004 school, recalls:
“The partying at the SAJ was pathological. There were parties every night, where alcohol flowed freely; participation was expected; and Al disparaged those who didn’t participate, and exhorted those who did to drink more.”
Kristin Bricker, who taught at the 2010 SAJ remembers:
“Al explicitly encouraged drinking, partying, and sex. Part of the donations pay to bring Al’s favorite bartenders from Oaxaca, to whatever location the school is at, and pay for their bar and housing. I saw drunken Greg Berger (co-director of the school) running around the hotel courtyard one night trying desperately to find a condom. Regarding Greg and other co-workers cheating on their partners during j-school, Al told me ‘what happens at j-school stays at j-school.’ He threatened to fire me if my best friend found out that a co-worker cheated on her at j-school.”
A young man who attended the school, in 2010, was approached by Giordano and told, “toward the end of an evening of dancing and drinking, I should take one of the girls up to my room with me.”
Students and faculty who didn’t participate in the partying were unpopular with Giordano. Shannon Young, a radio journalist and teacher in the 2004 school remembers:
“What I encountered was an environment in which heavy daily drinking was encouraged, smoking was permitted almost everywhere (I was one of two visibly pregnant participants), and hook-ups — including between teachers and students — were winked at. Both Al and Greg engaged in public displays of intimacy with young female students. It was clear by the end of the SAJ that I had fallen out of favor with Al, despite my volunteer labor, out-of-pocket travel expenses, and on-deadline delivery of produced radio content that could be held up to donors as proof of results.”
From a 2012 student:
“I do not drink. I used the time when others were drinking to work on a video that Al had asked me to produce. But I never got the impression that Al appreciated the extra work I was putting in. Instead, it felt like he looked down on me for not participating in the party. I was not invited back to the school when I applied the next year, and I always wondered if it was because I don’t drink.”
Leah Hennessey taught at the school in 2013: “He (Al) made clear to me that I had been given a special pass. I was ‘allowed’ to not drink because I, as a family friend, was special.”
At the 2013 school, student Alice Driver was mocked for her reluctance to party:
“I didn’t drink much on the first night of the school, and Al and Greg bullied me, calling me a ‘grandma,’ and even calling me ‘Mary King’ to make fun of me. Mary King is a revered civil rights activist who was a professor at the school, and she didn’t drink.”
INTIMIDATION & SMEAR CAMPAIGNS
When Marta Molina (2012 SAJ student) ended her romantic relationship with Giordano, he:
“…repeatedly told me that I could not write for other publications in English about social movements in Mexico, because that was ‘his turf.’ I continued writing for another outlet for independent media, Waging Nonviolence (WNV). The editor of Waging Nonviolence received threatening messages from Al saying that he ‘couldn’t’ publish me. At the same time, nearly every day, I received private messages from journalist friends, asking me what had happened with Al, because Al was asking them not to publish me. His efforts resulted in a serious attempt to boycott my work inside and outside of Mexico. Al not only demanded that his contacts not publish me but also threatened that I would never get a job in Mexico or any other country I had worked in, throwing into doubt my ability to pursue a career in journalism.”
Eric Stoner, the editor of Waging Nonviolence, confirmed Molina’s account:
“Once we published Marta, Al launched a nasty campaign to sabotage our publication, telling writers not to work with us, banning anyone who had written for us from attending any future SAJ, and viciously slandering Marta and her work online. When asked in person by another editor what Al wanted from us, he said that we should stop publishing Marta or else he would escalate his ‘sanctions’ against us. We refused to cooperate with his attempt to blacklist Marta, who is a talented, professional journalist, and continued to publish her. I never spoke with Al again, but know he continued to publicly insult Waging Nonviolence and turn away anyone who has worked with us, for years after this incident.”
Journalist Kristin Bricker taught at the 2010 SAJ, and was employed by Giordano for years:
“I began working for Al, as a staff member, in July 2008. Al offered me my first salaried journalism position. For this reason I put up with really intolerable behavior from him, like frequent tantrums. One time I got in trouble because I wrote an article where I quoted a man Al didn’t like. Another time, I received an offer from coup resisters in Honduras to go to Honduras to report from the ground. Al said, ‘no, if anyone from Narco News was going to Honduras, it was him.’ He forbade it. If I went, I was fired. I regret not going. Al went to Honduras.
Al was not happy when I got married, in October 2009. He told me that married women make bad journalists because they can’t prioritize their careers when they have families to worry about.
When the attempted coup in Ecuador occurred in 2010, in my opinion, Al’s coverage was esoteric at best. In the comments section of one of his articles, a reader linked to my Twitter feed and said it was helping them understand what was going on. Al got really angry and smeared me. He posted that I am a rumor-monger who apparently did not learn enough from him while I worked for him, and he discouraged his readers from reading my work since I was no longer a trustworthy source. A joint Facebook account run by Greg and Al called “Los Detonadores” posted on my Facebook wall that they cut all ties with me because they suspected that I was sent by the CIA to spy on Mexican social movements, particularly Oaxacan ones. Al violated an explicit verbal agreement we had, for my own safety, that no pictures of me from j-school would be published. At that point I had already survived one kidnapping attempt. As SOON as I quit, Al published my photo on Narco News. It remained the only photo of me on the internet for the rest of my career, which included two more kidnapping attempts.
In 2011, radio journalist Shannon Young (2004 SAJ faculty) learned that an informal conversation she had with Greg Berger ended up in quotes, in an article Giordano wrote:
“First, there’s the ethical issue of putting a casual, in-person chat on the public record. In U.S. broadcast journalism, it’s illegal — in most cases — to broadcast statements made in private without the informed consent of the speaker. Both Greg and Al are at fault. Second, the words attributed to me in the post, in quotation marks, never came out of my mouth. The tone and motives attributed to me are also false. What ended up in print was a misrepresented second-hand account based on one party’s subjective recollection of a casual conversation. After I didn’t respond, Al contacted a colleague to say, in substance, that the outlet I worked for would be targeted if Al was unhappy with the content of the documentary I was making; a threat the colleague passed along in FYI style.”
After Alice Driver (2013 SAJ student) graduated:
“Al sent me an email demanding that I translate hundreds of pages of interviews from Spanish into English for the memoir he was writing. I wrote an email to him explaining that I was a professional translator and I did not work for free. Al responded that he expected me to do the work for free because I owed it to him for attending the School for Authentic Journalism. After the school, Greg Berger invited me to be a ‘bikini girl’ in one of his social documentaries. I turned him down. After refusing to do unpaid work for both Al and Greg, I was ostracized and attacked on social media by both of them (they accused me of being ‘jealous’ of them) and by various other people who they worked with.”
Katie Halper was involved with SAJ for over 10 years; first as a student and later as faculty:
“Then, I became persona non grata. I was informed that in order to continue teaching at SAJ, I’d have to promise to never talk to an SAJ teacher who Al had uninvited from the faculty. The teacher had helped Al during his sickness but fell out of Al’s graces. During the presidential primaries, Al wound up ‘purging’ me from his life, and the SAJ project, over politics. I didn’t say anything about Al’s behavior because of how vindictive I knew him to be. I feared that he would publish personal information I had shared with him over the years. Sure enough, after a Twitter exchange over politics, Al tweeted a screenshot of an email I had sent him. People were shocked that he would so publicly violate someone’s privacy. They were even more shocked by what he shared. It was from an email I had sent him before he was having surgery for his throat cancer. In that email I said that I was thinking of him, wishing him well and that I still cared about and respected him despite our fight. I never published any screen shots of his email response, but he told me to never contact him again, that we hadn’t had a fight, because if we had I’d ‘still be feeling the sting,’ and that everyone from the school had been instructed to never talk to me again. ‘There would be no second chances,’ for those who spoke to me after being warned.
Martha Pskowski, who was the first to go public about sexual harassment at the School, was indirectly accused, on Twitter, of working for Latin American counter-insurgency efforts. In response to her February, 2018 tweet, Giordano said:
“We have never harassed you or anyone…I’m not going to carry on a conversation about bizarre, evidently invented, claims via email. I really don’t understand your motives for inventing them. There is money here in Latin America to do counter-insurgency. I sure hope that is not what is behind this!”
SILENCE & DENIAL
When Martha Pskowski went public with her allegations, instead of acknowledging his behavior or showing remorse, Giordano denied it, not only suggesting that she was being paid to “do counter-insurgency,” but also publishing in his newsletter that “none of the women I have worked closest with over the years have suggested…I’m a harasser.” This, despite the fact that many of his accusers are precisely the women with whom he worked most closely.
Perhaps just as disappointing as Giordano’s denial of guilt was the response (or lack thereof) from a few of the men and women who have flanked Giordano for decades; including people who have built their careers by aligning themselves with social movements and underdogs. In particular, Greg Berger and Bill Conroy remained silent despite having witnessed Giordano’s behaviors for years.
The School for Authentic Journalism’s co-director, Greg Berger, witnessed Giordano’s behaviors and continued to collaborate with him, for over a decade, in the direction and management of the school. Several SAJ students allege that Berger proposed, discussed, and attempted sexual behavior with SAJ students while serving as their teacher. And Berger participated in many of Giordano’s smear campaigns against those who have spoken out about Al’s behavior. Nevertheless, many of us considered Berger a friend. When we went public with our stories, Berger responded with silence. Utter silence.
All three members of the board of the Fund for Authentic Journalism (FAJ), which grants 501(c)3 status to both Narco News and the SAJ, have also responded inappropriately. Douglas Wilson, the president of the Board, has thus far not responded to our request that he provide a status update of the Board’s investigation.
Journalist Bill Conroy has been involved with the School of Authentic Journalism, and written for Narco News, since 2004. Bill also serves on the FAJ board. When we sent Conroy detailed victim testimonies from over 20 former students and employees, his only response was that he would look into it. He then asked us to send confidential documents (sworn statements that included each victim’s name, location, and signature) to an address that turned out to be that of Al Giordano’s lawyer, Tom Lesser (information that Conroy did not provide when he asked us to mail the documents). This represents a clear conflict of interest. As a board member for the 501c3 of the SAJ and Narco News, Conroy’s legal (and moral) responsibility is to investigate and act upon allegations of misconduct. Instead, he appears to have sided with Giordano. Many of us also considered Conroy a friend. He has made no public statements in response to our allegations.
The third board member of the FAJ, Michele Stoddard, responded with: “Thanks for reaching out, but this is not something I am interested in,” when one of us attempted to send her the full victim statements.
After the FAJ Board failed to respond publicly to our allegations, we filed complaints electronically and by phone with the office of the Massachusetts Attorney General, Maura Healey. We expected her office to investigate our complaints of unethical behavior by charitable employees or board members, as well as the misappropriation of charitable funds, as such issues fall within her office’s jurisdiction. We have, thus far, received no response from the Attorney General, and our complaints have not been registered on their publicly-accessible database.
Despite our efforts to hold these alleged abusers and their enabling board accountable, the Fund for Authentic Journalism remains in existence, which means that, even if the School for Authentic Journalism does not continue in its current iteration, Giordano’s projects (and behaviors) can continue under the guise of Narco News, or under new names, funded by public and private donors, who remain unaware of the 22 complaints that we filed. That’s why we are compelled to continue sharing detailed accounts of the harassment and abuse experienced by Giordano’s former students and employees.
The #MeToo movement has emboldened us to speak out and condemn the sexual harassment and abusive behavior we have experienced and/or witnessed at the School of Authentic Journalism and/or Narco News. We regret that our fear of vicious smears and retaliation has kept us silent for so long. If we are going to build a world in which women can learn, work, and thrive without fear of sexual violence, intimidation, and public shaming; if we want a world in which men can hold each other to high standards and stand up as allies to women making such allegations without fear of reprisal, it will require that people of all genders make courageous decisions that impact their own lives and careers. Men (and also women in positions of power) will have to believe women, take immediate precautions to ensure safety and confidentiality, and promptly initiate substantive investigations upon hearing allegations, even when it means jeopardizing their own positions of privilege and power. When women speak out, they risk everything — personal safety, reputations, careers, and friendships. Unless men are willing to take the same risks, nothing will change.
Isadora Bonilla, Thalia Guido, Jill Freidberg, Shannon Young, Jennifer Whitney, Marta Molina, Fernando Leon, Eric Stoner, Katie Halper, Irene Caselli, Molly Kate Goss, Kristin Bricker, Andrew Beale, Daniela Castillo, Kirsten Han, Aran Shetterly, Alice Driver, Martha Pskowski, Beth Geglia, and Leah Hennessey.
We’d also like to thank and acknowledge those who have made their support for us public, including longtime SAJ participants. They believe us, and they include:
Journalist, Laura Carlsen
Bolivian water activist, Oscar Olivera
Mexican human rights activist, Mercedes Osuna
Documentary filmmaker, Jesse Freeston
Community organizer, RJ Maccani
Executive Director of Marin TV, Michael Eisenmenger
Community media activist and producer, Milena Velis
Lela Singh, Omar Vera, Monica Wise, Heriberto Paredes, Andrew Beale, Luz Rodea, Dominic Corva, and Miguel Angel Angeles
To those men who, when asked for their support, replied “I need to know more,” we hope this more detailed version of our experiences moves you to believe us and other women who risk everything to expose predators.
SAJ Truthtellers, email@example.com