These Texts Cost A Top Hearst Executive His Job

Until March of this year, Scott Sassa was one of the most influential media executives in the U.S.

As president of entertainment and syndication at Hearst (it owns Cosmopolitan, among other titles), he cut deals with ESPN and Lifetime, and received a reported $6 million salary. He was a longtime friend of the Kardashian family.

Sassa’s most recent success was “The Bible,” a joint project with Survivor’s Mark Burnett for The History Channel that got record ratings. He was the executive producer of the show, which was so popular that its audience rivaled that of AMC’s The Walking Dead in size.

The two-hour conclusion of The Bible on Easter Sunday should have been Sassa’s moment of triumph.

Instead, he found himself unemployed, spending time with his kids on vacation in Hawaii, wondering how he can salvage his career after the boyfriend of an escort sent Hearst’s legal department copies of sexy text messages the woman and Sassa had exchanged.

A source sent copies of those texts to Business Insider, along with emails exchanged between the boyfriend and Hearst. The messages have circulated among several Hearst executives. The texts are sexually graphic, and discussed drugs. They are not safe to be read aloud at work.

Scott SassaScott Sassa

But they aren’t unusual.

Sexting is so common as to be mainstream, and it sometimes seems as if everybody does it. Samsung has even made a funny commercial about sex-texting. While sexting feels intimate and exciting to those exchanging the messages, what is often forgotten is that texts have only limited privacy protections. They can be copied and forwarded any number of ways. Sassa’s texts, for instance, were not passed on by himself or the woman to any third party. Rather, they were discovered by her disgruntled boyfriend — a man who may also have been her “business manager” — who became annoyed at the relationship between the two.

This, then, is a cautionary tale about the lack of privacy in the digital age.

Kira 3Kira

The texts do not show that Sassa ever met the woman, an escort going by the name “Kira” who worked for the Friends of Kari Ann web site in the Los Angeles area.

They are simply messages between two consenting adults, conducted in private. Neither Sassa nor the woman have been accused of any wrongdoing. They are both single. In many ways, the messages were none of Hearst’s business — it wasn’t even a workday when Sassa sent them.

When reached, Sassa told Business Insider, “I just want to put this behind me.”

“Kira” did not return a message requesting comment. The boyfriend, who does business under the name Ben Free, declined to talk on the record, although he did confirm the messages were genuine, and that he had an extensive criminal record which includes a conviction for assault. Three other sources familiar with the messages also confirmed to BI that the messages were Sassa’s.

Unsurprisingly, few people were willing to talk to us on the record about Sassa’s fall.

But speaking privately, those who knew him describe a driven, intense executive who is a great father to his children. Some in the media business have expressed sympathy for him. After all, would anyone want the messages they’ve sent to lovers exposed to their employers? Expect Sassa, after a brief break, to come back to the business in a big way — we’re told his phone is ringing off the hook with future offers.

“He was the smartest, most forward-thinking media executive I ever worked with,” said one colleague. “He was taking Hearst into the 20th Century.”

Hearst, however, is a conservative company. “Everybody on the top floor is married with a wife and 2.5 kids and a picket fence,” a source says. Sassa was single.

Three female sources told us that they had nothing but respect for Sassa, that they felt the texts were an aberration and not reflective of his day-to-day dealings with women. They noted that the texts occurred on Christmas Day, when Sassa — who lives in New York — was stuck in a Los Angeles hotel room without his family. “Here’s a guy who was displaced around the holidays, who was kind of lonely,” one told us.

By mid-March, The New York Post reported that Sassa was the victim of an extortion plot involving the messages, and on March 13 he resigned his position. Hearst likely gave him a large severance package.

The following slides explain how it happened.

They contain texts that use highly pornographic language and references to illegal drugs. They will likely be offensive to many readers.

Click the right arrow to begin.

The photo is Kira's publicity shot from the web site.

She agrees to meet him the W Hotel in the Westwood neighbourhood of Los Angeles.

Kira decides to try to bargain up her price. At this point the texts get very graphic. We've skipped the most vivid one.

For the next couple of hours, Kira is uncommunicative.

Then she claims to have car trouble.

Kira tries to cancel the meeting. The texts offer no evidence that they ever actually met.

Sometime after Christmas, Kira's boyfriend and business manager discovers Sassa's texts on Kira's iPhone. He takes a bunch of screengrabs. (This photo is another shot of Kira.)

Then, on the afternoon of March 5, he phones Sassa's office at Hearst in New York and reaches his assistant. He offers to send the screengrabs to her and to Sassa's bosses.

The man sends the images to Sassa's assistant. He threatens to send them to TMZ, the gossip site.

The next day, March 6, he sends the texts to James Asher, Hearst's chief legal officer.

Asher confirms he received them.

Kira's boyfriend claims he has a meeting with TMZ later that day but he will hold off as long as he is in contact with Asher and Hearst.

Asher decides to investigate the man's claims.

The man supplies Kira's real name and her phone number.

Asher confirms he received the information.

A few days later, Kira's boyfriend attempts to set up a meeting with Hearst execs in New York. He now claims both TMZ and US Weekly are interested in the story of Sassa and Kira.

By this time, however, Hearst has already decided that Sassa must go. Sassa resigned the next day.

Here's another ad exec who's had some inappropriate relationships ...

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