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Jezebel Story On Trevor FitzGibbon Largely Affirms What Shadowproof Reported

Anna Merlan of Jezebel interviewed me about my story for Shadowproof on the United States Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia declining to pursue criminal charges against the founder of the now-defunct progressive public relations firm, Fitzgibbon Media.

During her interview, Merlan acknowledged several questions that were directed at my reporting on social media, but she conceded they don’t “undercut from the news” that was published about the U.S. Attorney’s office. “That is indisputable. That is important, and that advances the story.”

In other words, there was journalistic value to reporting on this latest development with Trevor FitzGibbon.

Merlan’s final piece was unable to undermine the substance of the news about FitzGibbon, although there were times in which she made attempts.

For example, it seems like Merlan insinuated that it was possible I fabricated details about the involvement of prominent attorney Gloria Allred in representing women who filed criminal complaints.

FitzGibbon’s attorney, Jeffrey O’Toole, recalled, “The person of Gloria Allred had a profile that [the U.S. Attorney’s Office was] unwilling to ignore, I was told.”

“I agreed to let the the U.S. Attorney’s Office share the evidence that we possessed that indicated the first degree sex offense allegation was a false police report. We agreed to let the U.S. Attorney’s Office share with Gloria Allred the evidence we provided to let her weigh in on the U.S. Attorney’s consideration.”

O’Toole added, “Following that, the U.S. Attorney’s Office decided not to pursue any charges, and we don’t know if she still has any involvement in the case.” He also described the work of the U.S. Attorney’s Office as “thorough.”

Amidst all the outrage from former staff at FitzGibbon Media (which I told Merlan I completely understood), Merlan acknowledged that my interest in reporting this story was legitimate.

Significantly, Jezebel prominently featured a falsehood in the introduction of the story.

The first paragraph was the following, “With the U.S. Attorney in Washington D.C. declining to press criminal charges against him, FitzGibbon has now declared himself “cleared,” and apparently, an appropriate choice to lead this initiative, called Dignity for Our Daughters.”

Shadowproof printed the word “clears” in the headline. At no point in the Shadowproof report that was referenced in Merlan’s piece was FitzGibbon quoted stating that he is “cleared.” That is not how FitzGibbon represented the development, which Shadowproof reported as news. It was inaccurate and wrong for Jezebel to attribute that to FitzGibbon as some kind of declaration.

I am deeply interested in the issue of how people accused of sexual allegations rehabilitate or reintegrate themselves into communities after they are willing to own their behavior and take responsibility.

When do the consequences end? At what point do people—in this case the progressive movement—decide that FitzGibbon paid the price for inappropriate conduct and he now should be able to move on with his professional life? Can there be some kind of restorative justice?

“The question of how people are rehabilitated or reintegrated into communities is an interesting question. I think what people are reacting to in FitzGibbon’s case is that he has declared himself cleared of all allegations and is now representing himself as someone who is speaking for vulnerable women in the workplace, which is an interesting choice,” Merlan stated.

“But I mean,” Merlan added, “Everyone has a right to try for their second chance, I suppose.”

This is a question I have for Merlan, and her report, which makes it appear that FitzGibbon is pursuing an initiative to help women in the workplace in order to coverup and pretend like he is no longer a creep: What if FitzGibbon is doing this because he feels that he has made significant mistakes in the past in his interactions with women?

What if FitzGibbon has paired up with Ann Szalkowski to launch Mission Critical Media, his new public relations firm, because he genuinely would like to atone for how he behaved?

It does not appear Merlan contacted Szalkowski, so she chose to avoid this critical and complex question. However, Szalkowski shared that FitzGibbon was not hired to go out and speak on behalf of women who are raped, sexually assaulted, or harassed in workplaces.

“Men don’t listen to women. Men listen to men,” Szalkowski declared. “Letting go of all the criminal stuff that’s been dropped or whatever and just going by whether he was being a gentleman or not, he was not being a gentleman. He was imposing on people. That’s where it starts.”

Within the initiative called “Dignity For Daughters,” which was launched to work with trauma survivors and bring about healing, there are no plans to have FitzGibbon act as some representative of women or “somebody that’s going to explain to us how we’re living our lives or how we’re supposed to feel about things,” according to Szalkowski.

“What he’s doing is he’s coming from a male perspective so that any men that we address on this can see how easily stuff can blow up in their faces and how easily inappropriate behavior can be escalated either by the person receiving it or by that person who is feeling like they need to push the envelope further and further. Because these things tend to happen by degrees.”

Szalkowski asserted, “Trevor is good to have there because he knows how things happen by degrees, and so, for the men that are just going to write off all women that talk about this as being hysterical, [it’s good to have] a man in the room to say, let me tell you how I fucked up, and I was cleared of all criminal charges, but that doesn’t make me an angel.”

She also insisted that a friend introduced her to FitzGibbon. He did not come to her soliciting work.

“It was I, Ann, saying this is risky. And we’ll probably get our asses handed to us at first by a certain set of people. Beyond that, there’s a greater good to be accomplished with the ‘Dignity For Our Daughters’ stuff because this is a conversation that is not being had,” Szalkowski said.

For more than twenty minutes, I discussed the code of conduct at FitzGibbon Media with Merlan. I shared my views about how the shutdown of FitzGibbon Media was a significant and shocking event that sent ripples through many different progressive circles. I even spoke about my personal view toward what was reported in 2015 by the Huffington Post.

“I was stunned when this happened, as anybody else. I learned about what happened with Trevor FitzGibbon not through Trevor FitzGibbon. I didn’t learn about it through any personal friends or colleagues in the progressive movement. I read about it in a Huffington Post story, like everybody else,” I told Merlan.

I added, “I took it very, very seriously. I did not immediately jump to trying to exonerate Trevor FitzGibbon. I believed in December 2015 that every single aspect of what was being alleged against him was true, and that doesn’t mean today what women said he did isn’t true.”

However, through reporting, I uncovered the fact that one woman is believed by individuals in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. to have filed a false police report accusing FitzGibbon of sexual assault.

There are other aspects of the story that were wholly exaggerated too, like the fact that there are former staffers, who insist FitzGibbon Media was some den of rape culture when in fact the truth is different and far more complex.

The first ten minutes of my interview with Merlan involved a series of gotcha questions, which were intended to undermine the substance of my report. They included: how did I obtain this information, did FitzGibbon write for Shadowproof, whether I was friends with FitzGibbon on Facebook, if I had an existing relationship or friendship with FitzGibbon, etc. [Note: As of the publication of this piece, Jezebel.com linked to the “Trevor FitzGibbon” tag for posts and incorrectly referred to it as an author page. FitzGibbon’s actual author page includes three posts, all of which are statements from the Chelsea Manning Support Network.]

When Merlan asked if I wrote a “very sympathetic story” for FitzGibbon because of some “relationship” with him, I responded, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about my relationship with Trevor FitzGibbon because that has nothing to do with the substance of the story. If you would like to ask questions about the substance of the story for the purposes of building on your prior reporting of FitzGibbon Media, I am more than happy to answer questions about the story in which I reported.” [Note: Listen to the audio of this part of the exchange here].

“Again, I would say to you that I have been more than willing to answer your questions, and I doubt that you would want me to call and interrogate you about the way in which you produced a story for Jezebel.com, and I highly doubt that if I emailed you and said I would like to talk to you—If I got you on the phone, I highly doubt that you would let me ask you who you contacted, who was your sources for the story, how you obtained documents, how you got to see text messages, how you were able to uncover information that you used for your story.”

Merlan opted not to include a statement from me making clear that I empathize with former staffers who are viscerally upset with what I published.

“I believe that there are number of people who worked with Trevor and for the firm, who even if they didn’t know that these complaints existed, were holding out [for the possibility] that at some point in the future Trevor FitzGibbon would be prosecuted,” I said. “And not just prosecuted for things like unwanted touching but believed that, from what they had heard, Trevor FitzGibbon had assaulted, if not worse, raped somebody. What is clear from the U.S. Attorney’s Office is they were looking into these crimes and they were unable to find evidence to substantiate, particularly that woman “Alice,” whether she was sexually assaulted severely or not.” [Note: That is affirmed by this statement recently put out by former staff members of FitzGibbon Media.]

Since the story was published, former staff have adopted this kind of mob mentality. One individual posted the names of executives of a client and targeted those officers in the hope of forcing them to no longer associate with Mission Critical Media.

Screen shot of Facebook conversation encouraging former staff and friends to pressure executive officers of a Mission Critical Media client.

Screen shot of Facebook conversation encouraging former staff and friends to pressure executive officers of a Mission Critical Media client.

Another individual suggested the “PR piece he placed in Shadowproof disclosed someone’s disability and medical condition without their consent.” Anyone making this claim is making a statement that may be libelous.

“The piece calls Molly’s well-documented disability ‘a claimed medical condition.'” At no point in the piece is her “condition” described as a disability. To anyone reading, they could think it was a stomach ulcer or diabetes or epilepsy. There were no additional details included, and the former staff whom I interviewed provided no details that would have violated her rights.

It is evident that the former staff plan to continue escalating the situation instead of working toward some resolution that can bring about healing for the former staff of FitzGibbon Media and Trevor FitzGibbon and his family. There are plans in the works to put together a statement of solidarity that progressive groups can sign on to in order to make it clear that FitzGibbon should remain exiled.

“Allegations were levied against med in December of 2015, all coming in a 72-hour period,” FitzGibbon stated. “Upon hearing them, I immediately took a leave of absence, transferring control of the firm to the managing director, with instructions to allow for the process to take place which included a full-scale investigation by an independent law firm. Within 48 hours, we realized it was pointless.”

“In the closing hours, a few of us desperately tried to find a way to keep the business going so the staff wouldn’t lose their jobs right before Christmas. But none of that could occur. No investigation was allowed by the team.”

“While there were no lawsuits ever filed against me or the firm—and no charges brought after a year-long investigation,” FitzGibbon declared, “The fact is that I made mistakes against those I respect. And for that, I am sorry, so sorry it hurts.”

“[To] my family, my friends who believed in me and who I let down, my clients who were left high and dry, all I can do is act and work to rebuild trust someday.”

Update – Friday, May 19 9:50 AM EST

The story was updated to reflect the fact that the story published by Jezebel contained a falsehood related to what Trevor FitzGibbon declared about the decision by the U.S. Attorney’s Office not to pursue further action. Jezebel editors were asked to print a correction. This space will be updated if and when Jezebel editors decide to fix the inaccuracy.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."