Friday, April 29, 2016

Brian Richmond steps down as a guest editor of Journal of Human Evolution special issue on Koobi Fora

Earlier this month, at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) held in Atlanta, members of the editorial board of the Journal of Human Evolution met to discuss a long-planned special issue focusing on footprints and fossils found at the hominin site of Koobi Fora in Kenya. Brian Richmond, curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), was supposed to be the lead guest editor for this issue (Richmond has long worked at Koobi Fora and made important discoveries there.) However, in light of allegations of sexual misconduct against Richmond--he is currently under investigation for the third time by the museum for allegedly sexually assaulting a colleague, and for an alleged pattern of sexual harassment over the years--the editorial board initially voted in Atlanta to cancel the special issue rather than let it go forward under Richmond's leadership.

Subsequent to the vote, however, Richmond offered to step down as guest editor to save the special issue. I am now informed by JHE special issues editor Mark Teaford, in a statement copied below, that the issue will go forward under two other guest editors. In an email to me, Richmond declined to comment on the matter.

The anthropology community is actively struggling with the consequences of the allegations against Richmond, who has not been allowed to work on the AMNH premises while the current investigation is going on (it has been dragging on since last December.) At stake are his collaborations with other researchers and about $1.3 million in National Science Foundation grants on which he is still either principal investigator or co-PI.

The statement provided by Mark Teaford:

"At the Journal of Human Evolution (JHE) Editorial Board Meeting held at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) in Atlanta on April 14, one of the topics discussed concerned the JHE Special Issue on analyses of fossils and footprints from the Okote Member at Koobi Fora.  As a result of those discussions, it was initially decided that each of the papers from that volume would be treated as individual submissions rather than as part of a Special Issue.  In light of that decision, and after subsequent discussions with David Braun, René Bobe, and Brian Richmond (the proposed Guest Editors of that Special Issue), the Editors of JHE (Sarah Elton, Mike Plavcan, and Mark Teaford) received a request from Brian Richmond to voluntarily remove his name as a Guest Editor of that issue.  Under that scenario, David Braun and René Bobe would handle most of the guest editorial work, taking exceptional care to provide thorough, productive reviews of each paper.  Whenever they couldn’t oversee the review process (for instance, when they’re co-authors on the same paper), Mark Teaford, the Special Issues Editor of JHE, would handle those duties.  As in all JHE Special Issues, final oversight of the reviews, revisions, and decisions on all papers would rest in the hands of Mark Teaford.

        The Editors of JHE, felt that this option was worth considering.  Thus it was suggested to the Editorial Board this week and approved. As many of the papers were ready for submission earlier this month, the review process for them shall begin as soon as possible and the journal plans to proceed with the publication of the Special Issue with David Braun and René Bobe as Guest Editors."

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Supplemental information on my conflict with editors of @sciencemagazine over Brian Richmond story: Part 2

final summary of my concerns about the sexual misconduct story

Michael Balter Tue, Jan 19, 2016 at 8:08 AM
Reply-To: michael.balter@gmail.com
To: Tim Appenzeller <@aaas.org>, Elizabeth Culotta <@gmail.com>, Marcia McNutt <@aaas.org>
Tim (with copy to Elizabeth and Marcia),

I was expecting to hear back from you yesterday, as you had indicated, but I realize that it was a holiday and so understand if you were not able to get to this.

I am still hoping that we will be able to work out the issues with this story and come together on the goal that we all want, and that the anthropology community has long been awaiting: Publication in Science of the full investigation I have been conducting for nearly three months.

However, recent events have raised serious concerns for me, and a couple of real red flags. Let's start with my conversation with Elizabeth on Friday, which started off as a very constructive discussion of the story but then ended on three very troubling points:

1. Elizabeth strongly urged me to attempt to subtly convince the "research assistant," as we refer to her in the story, to use her actual name because it would make the story "so much stronger." When I explained that I felt this was wrong, because it would amount to pressure on her--and that I had had thorough discussions with the alleged victim about her options and that she had expressed her strong feelings about how she wanted to be identified--Elizabeth upped the pressure on me and essentially bullied me into reluctantly agreeing. I regret very much that I considered this even momentarily; as you know I wrote to you and Elizabeth immediately after this discussion to withdraw my agreement and stated flatly that I would not do it. In an email shortly after that I stated my opinion that it was unethical.

2. To my great surprise, Elizabeth suggested that the story might end with Brian Richmond having the last word instead of Katie Hinde's very eloquent quote about how the culture was changing. I dismissed this idea out of hand, but on thinking about it more the last few days I really began to wonder what this idea reflects in terms of my editors' views of the story and what fairness and balance means in this context.

3. At the end of this conversation, Elizabeth began to instruct me not to tell anyone when the story was going to appear, other than Brian and the research assistant, until it had actually been published. This would have included such key people in the story as Becky, Bernard, Katie and Kate, etc. I told her that this would be a betrayal of my sources, who have put themselves on the line so that the truth will out, and that I couldn't see doing it. Elizabeth deferred this discussion until later.

In my email exchanges with you, I have expressed great concern that the story has slipped from Jan 29 or Feb 5, as Elizabeth had recently told me would be the latest it would appear, to possibly Feb 12 or even later. As of last Friday, this would have meant almost a full additional month, while the museum conducts its third investigation of Brian--something that is the direct consequence of our doing this yet unpublished story--and is being given free rein to do everything it can to look good even though the facts of my reporting suggest that it has been very slow to act decisively in the fact of the evidence it has.

Also, you told me that the story still needs "serious work," but despite my requests you have not yet told me what this means, leaving me with the impression that you might think my impeccably sourced story is too strong, unfair to Brian or the museum, or other concerns. I hope it is not true that you intend to water the truth of the story down out of a misplaced concern for fairness or fear of litigation (something which has driven much of the editorial direction from the beginning), but I am left so far without clear reassurance about this.

To make matters worse, when I shared my concerns with a few very key sources for the story, and they asked what they could do and wrote to you at my suggestion, you provided them with misleading information. You implied heavily that I had been late with my most recent draft, which is totally untrue. As you well know, Elizabeth and I had a plan to hit the ground running as soon as Brian provided his responses to my email follow up questions, but she was pulled off to do other work causing at least a week's additional delay. But both you and Marcia made this erroneous and prejudicial statement to my trusted sources, forcing me to have to correct the record.

In addition, in your responses, you referred to the need to subject the story to careful and thorough editing, a vague phrase which--combined with the "serious work" remark--reinforces my concerns about your real intentions for this story. I sincerely hope those concerns are misplaced.

I have made two key requests which you agreed to respond to yesterday. First, that we make Feb 5 the latest possible date for online and/or print publication; and second, that you clarify what you mean by "serious work" so that I can have a better idea of whether Science and I are going to be able to agree on a final draft.

Back in December, you said, quite rightly, that we needed to try to come up with a story that I could live with (my name and reputation goes with it, of course) and that Science could feel comfortable publishing. I am still fervently hoping that this will be possible. But I need to hear from you with all due haste.

As you know, I am prepared to publish the story elsewhere, in pretty short order, if we cannot come to agreement about it. You might take that as a threat, but really it is a promise I would need to keep to the community that has given its all for this story, the research assistant who is the alleged victim of a sexual assault, and to my own conscience as a journalist.

I am not going to give you any deadlines or ultimatums about this. If and when the time comes that I feel I have no choice, the story will simply go online. It will be completely clear that everything I write is the result of Science's own investigation, and you will have to either own or disown the result.

best wishes,

Michael

cc. Some people who need to see this. 

--
******************************************
Michael Balter
Contributing Correspondent, Science
Adjunct Professor of Journalism,
New York University

Email:  michael.balter@gmail.com

****************************************** 

Supplemental information on the history of my conflict with editors of @sciencemagazine over the Brian Richmond story: Part 1

my requests concerning sexual misconduct story

Michael Balter Sat, Jan 16, 2016 at 11:53 AM
Reply-To: michael.balter@gmail.com
To: Tim Appenzeller <@aaas.org>, Elizabeth Culotta <@gmail.com>, Jeffrey Mervis <@aaas.org>
Cc: Marcia McNutt <@aaas.org>
Dear colleagues,
I have decided to collect in one email my thoughts and concerns about the course of this story, and at the end, what I want to see happen now.
In the following history of this assignment, the first point I want to make is that my initial instincts about the story were correct, even though they were not immediately shared by other colleagues.

We first found out about the allegations in August 2015, when Ann Gibbons reported hearing from a reliable source that Brian Richmond was under investigation by the American Museum of Natural History for alleged sexual misconduct. Ann also mentioned that she had heard complaints about Brian sometime previously when he was chair of the GWU anthropology department, but that no one had filed a formal complaint.
Ann and I had a long email exchange at the time (Elizabeth was on vacation so did not weigh in until later) in which I expressed the view that we should cover the fact that the investigation was happening rather than waiting until it was concluded, much as we had done with the Marc Hauser case. Ann countered that we should wait until the investigation was over before writing about it, and that we couldn't be doing a story every time there was a case of sexual harassment given how often it happens. However, at the ESHE meeting in London in September, to her great credit, Ann began talking to sources about the story and became more convinced about its importance and our need to cover it.

In October I was in Boston/Cambridge for the NASW meeting, shortly after the Geoff Marcy case broke (which was on October 9.) Sexual harassment in the sciences (and in science journalism) was a major topic of discussion at that meeting. While there, I had a telephone conversation with Elizabeth in which she expressed skepticism that the Brian Richmond matter was newsworthy, saying that he was not as famous as Marcy, who supposedly was in the running for the Nobel Prize. For my part, I expressed skepticism about the idea that the prominence of the alleged perpetrator should play such a strong role in news decisions, but also pointed out that Richmond had a very high profile job at a very high profile international institution in the heart of New York City. At that point Elizabeth said that she did want to find out about the investigation, and I was hired on a short-term basis to try to get its report (if such actually existed; as we now know, the investigation had already concluded no later than June 2015.)
In my attempts to get the document or documents, I began talking to numerous sources including the victim of the alleged sexual assault that the museum had investigated, a research assistant at AMNH. That led to the information that Becky Ackermann had helped the legal team, led by Rhea Gordon, in its investigation and we had documentation that it had occurred (in the form of emails at that time.)
That led, rightly, to Science "letting me loose" as I suggested, and assigning me on November 16 to do a story on the case and the institutional response to it. Clearly, Science now saw the importance of the story as well as the credit that would accrue to the magazine if we published it.
Since that time, I have accomplished pretty much everything I was asked to do:
1. I documented the two investigations the museum conducted, one by Human Resources and the second by the legal team, and got the museum to officially acknowledge both the existence of those investigations and their results. More recently, the museum went out of its way to inform me that a third investigation was now underway.
2. I developed a relationship of trust with the alleged victim at the museum such that she was willing to tell her story and have it published, even if she wanted her identity somewhat shielded to protect her privacy. I had extensive discussions with her about how she would be identified, what her options were, and her concerns about her privacy. At that time, at least, Elizabeth fully agreed that she should not be made to feel in any way that she was being pressured to pursue any particular option.

3. After the first draft was submitted, at Elizabeth's request, I conducted substantial supplemental reporting to provide additional context for the story, including such issues as due process, changing concepts of consent, and the changing culture in science with regard to acceptance of sexual misconduct.
4. I succeeded in getting Brian Richmond to not only issue a written statement in response to the allegations, but to provide detailed answers to followup email questions, thus addressing the issue of basic fairness that he was entitled to.
I declined to do two things I was asked to do by Elizabeth, on Jan 15: To try to subtly convince the alleged victim of the alleged sexual assault to have her name used in the story despite her prior clear statement that she did not want to do this; and to withhold information from nearly all my sources about when the story was going to be published until it actually had been. Let's deal with the latter request quickly and briefly: To withhold such information from sources would be a serious betrayal of people who have put their trust in me and in Science. On the alleged victim: Elizabeth said that the story would be "so much stronger" if she could be named. To me that is clearly incorrect. Everyone in the anthropology community knows who she is already, and the rest don't need to know--the story is clear enough for them to understand what is going on. What would be stronger if she were named, however, would be the titillation factor for Science readers, and the further humiliation of someone who is an alleged victim of sexual assault and who is still clearly suffering greatly from the trauma. Are we mainly interested in providing click bait for our own purposes and interests, or are we trying to make a real contribution to the ongoing discussion about sexual harassment in the sciences? 

As you well know, this story has required all of the skills I have developed as a reporter in the past 38 years, including working with sensitive sources (about 40 in all) who have taken great personal and professional risks by talking to me and who need to be calmed and reassured that it is really going to be published, and in a timely fashion.
I have also made it clear that I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the way that our story, which is not published yet, has nevertheless driven events at the museum, including science provost Mike Novacek's request to Brian that he resign--which Brian has declined. That refusal to resign has now led to the third investigation, by T&M Protection Resources, which could be interpreted as an attempt by the museum to look good after the fact--an attempt that we aid and abet by our leisurely pace in publishing the story. More generally, it is not a healthy situation to have a work of unpublished journalism so clearly influencing events in this way. That is fine after a piece is published, but, in my view, for this to be happening beforehand compromises me as a reporter and Science as a publication. Nevertheless, my serious concerns about this have been summarily brushed aside and dismissed by both Tim and Elizabeth.
Also, and this point was more clearly acknowledged by Elizabeth, there is a basic issue of fairness that is violated by further delay: Fairness to the alleged victims of sexual misconduct quoted in this story, and also, fairness to Brian himself. Rightly or wrongly, his career is probably being destroyed by this story (as well as by his own alleged actions) and he deserves to have some idea of when it is likely to be published so that he can respond to it publicly (he has already requested this from me, quite reasonably.) In effect, lives are hanging in the balance here while we take our time publishing this story. As one key source said to me, "I hope the perfect will not become the enemy of the good."

To repeat, I have done everything required to make sure that Science had a solid, impeccably sourced, libel and defamation resistant story that it could be proud of, and which would bring credit to our news team and significant readership both online and in print--at a time when holding onto and expanding that readership in an extremely competitive media environment is critical to the financial survival of both Science and AAAS.
On the other hand, after I filed a second draft of the story in time for Elizabeth to begin working on it Tuesday of this week (ie Jan 12), as agreed, she in fact did not begin working on the edit until Friday the 15th, which clearly was not enough time for her to get it done. Now she is is engaged in other activities until at least the middle of this coming week, ie until about Jan 20. This is not a good sign that Science is moving in a timely fashion to get this very topical story published. And now I am being told that it is unlikely to run before the Feb 12 issue--and there is no guarantee of that date either.

Now I am asking you to do something for me, the reporter on the story, as well as for the many sources who have put themselves on the line for it (not to mention the scientific community at large): Publish the story online no later than February 5, at full length or close to it and without cuts that I will not be able to live with, even if this means delaying a (possibly condensed) print version of the story another week or so after that. Such a publishing schedule gives Science more than enough time to insure that the story is accurate and comprehensive, and to conduct the necessary legal review.

And this request is more than a reasonable compromise: It would require you to move the story up only one week from the date that you are now considering, although it would mean that you would have to commit firmly to that date, at least for the online version. (As you know, in the fall of 2014, four female colleagues at Science lost their jobs, sacrificed to the new supposed "digital first" strategy--and yet it seems that "print first" is still ruling our publication strategy in the case of longer stories like this one.)

In the meantime, I reserve my options as the writer and reporter on the story, whose credibility and reputation are at stake, to insure that it is published in a timely fashion. If I feel forced to publish the story elsewhere--something I would very much regret having to do--I will take full responsibility for its content, but make it clear that it originated as a Science assignment.
I look forward to hearing from you further.
best, Michael
cc. Marcia

--
******************************************
Michael Balter
Contributing Correspondent, Science
Adjunct Professor of Journalism,
New York University

Email:  michael.balter@gmail.com

****************************************** 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Last word before exiting: My editors at @sciencemagazine pressured me to do something highly unethical on the Brian Richmond story

One week from today, I will no longer be under contract with Science after 25 years.

My efforts to explain why I was terminated have generated considerable discussion but also a great deal of confusion. That's because I left out something very important, in an effort to protect my editors--including Science's news editor, who notified me that I was terminated--from public exposure of a very serious ethical lapse on their part.

I have told a number of people about this privately, and this morning I posted the following on the BioAnthropology News Facebook page. I am pasting it in below. It will be the last statement I will make on this blog about what happened; if anyone has questions, they should contact me directly and I will attempt to answer them. It was not an easy decision to take this last step, but I do it in the interests of telling the truth.


I am hearing that there is still a great deal of confusion about what happened between me and Science. With the [American Association of Physical Anthropologists] meeting coming up, that means there will continue to be rumors and possibly discussion in this community based on this confusion. I have been trying to hold off saying more publicly on my blog, although there is so much more I could say. However, I have been telling some people privately, and in response to someone who just wrote me yesterday I have said the following. I hope it will help this community, at least, to understand things a little better about what was going on behind the scenes. But it requires me to, very reluctantly, accuse my editors of pressuring me to engage in behavior that is widely considered unethical in both journalistic and sexual assault victim advocate circles. I hope this will be the last thing I will have to say about it so that we can all move on:

"There is much more to what happened than I have said publicly, but briefly everything blew up between me and my editors on January 15 when they pressured me to try to convince the "research assistant" to go public with her name. She had already decided firmly she did not want to do that; to have gone back to her would be highly unethical--it would have been perceived as pressure--and most journalists know that. My editors lost their moral compass in pursuit of a "hot" story, that was their motivation at least as much as concern about the issues: They thought it would make Science look good and redeem its previous miscues and bad reputation on the sexual harassment topic. I refused what they asked, in shock, and I then began making demands concerning the timeliness of publication and insisting on guarantees of the integrity of the story, and threatened to publish it elsewhere if they were not met. They by and large capitulated to those demands, but now I am paying the price. I memorialized all of these events in lengthy emails written contemporaneously to my editors, usually within a day of the events, and have them available if they are needed and/or if my account of events is challenged."


Update: Although I don't intend to post any more blog posts about these events, I will update this post as necessary. On January 16, the day after my editors pressured me to go back to the "research assistant," I wrote a lengthy memo to them, including our news editor, my editor on the story (identified as "E" below), and Science editor-in-chief Marcia McNutt (who was fully aware of events the entire time.) Here is an excerpt relevant to the ethical issues at play:

[E] said that the story would be "so much stronger" if she could be named. To me that is clearly incorrect. Everyone in the anthropology community knows who she is already, and the rest don't need to know--the story is clear enough for them to understand what is going on. What would be stronger if she were named, however, would be the titillation factor for Science readers, and the further humiliation of someone who is an alleged victim of sexual assault and who is still clearly suffering greatly from the trauma. Are we mainly interested in providing click bait for our own purposes and interests, or are we trying to make a real contribution to the ongoing discussion about sexual harassment in the sciences?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A reader's guide to my Science story on the allegations concerning Brian Richmond

The following assumes that readers are familiar with my story about allegations of sexual misconduct against Brian Richmond, curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. This story was published online on February 9 and in print in the February 12 issue of Science

A number of things were cut from the story due to length and legal issues. Many of them I would have preferred to keep in, and there would have been room for them had the story run at six pages rather than five as I had hoped. Although I have carefully vetted what I say here to be consistent with the guidelines we followed to avoid litigation as a result of the story, I take full responsibility for the content below and absolve Science, AAAS, and my editors at Science of any liability for it. Nevertheless, they were aware of these findings since they appeared in earlier drafts of my story and their accuracy was never questioned.

Here are the salient points:

1.     Richmond was not the search committee’s first choice. There were two searches: The first resulted in the curator position being offered to a highly respected paleoanthropologist at the University of Tubingen in Germany. After about 8-9 months of negotiations, she turned it down for various reasons. Then there was a second search: Richmond was the search committee’s third choice. The first choice, a popular African expert in human evolution based at a US institution, was reportedly lowballed in the salary offer by science provost Mike Novacek because Novacek really wanted the second choice, a respected female anthropologist; she got a counter-offer at her university, so that left Richmond. This provides important possible insights into why Novacek protected Richmond when the allegations arose: Terminating him for the alleged sexual assault would have required yet another lengthy search and public embarrassment for the museum.

2.     I know who most of the European researchers were who were drinking with Richmond and the research assistant that night in September 2014. They are reluctant to come forward because of European laws against talking to the press about possible criminal allegations, but one did tell me anonymously that the research assistant was definitely drunk and thus incapacitated. Other evidence from these young researchers indicates that the research assistant could not find her AirBnB and that it was agreed among some of the group that Richmond would shelter her in his hotel. Richmond was her supervisor and it was assumed that he could be trusted to take care of her. Richmond confirms these details but insists that she was not so intoxicated that she could not have given consent to the encounter.

3.     I have been in direct contact with three friends of the research assistant whom she told what had happened in the first few days after her return to New York from Italy. They are referred to only very briefly in the article as confirming that she was telling the same basic story of what happened from the very beginning, even though one is on the record and provided a full page written account which she was willing to have published with her name attached to it. This account was cited in my original draft, together with this witness’s name, but was cut from the final. The key point is that the research assistant apparently did remember the details after she woke up in Richmond’s hotel room from the beginning, even if she had been too drunk to remember how she got there in the first place. There is other strong evidence that the research assistant did not change her story, as Richmond insists, which we had decided to keep in reserve in case of litigation.

4.     On the Monday after the research assistant returned from Italy, her first day back at work at the museum, Richmond walked into her office and she confronted him, demanding to know what she was doing in his hotel room and what he had done to her. Richmond and the research assistant agree about the basic details of this confrontation. He explained to her that she could not find her AirBnB and he had made his hotel room available to her. Richmond told me in an email that he was “startled” to hear that the research assistant did not remember the events that led to this. The research assistant later emailed a member of the group they had been with in Italy to ask what had happened that night, leading up to the incident in the hotel room. The research assistant says that there is a contradiction between Richmond saying that she was not too drunk to give consent and at the same time insisting that she did not remember the incident. This was an important point that did not make it into the final version.

5.     I either spoke or emailed with 11 people with whom Rhea Gordon was in contact for her investigation; most of them either experienced directly or witnessed directly what they claimed was inappropriate sexual behavior by Richmond in various settings. The three anonymous women in the story, who were at Koobi Fora,  are just one part of that. A mention of the 11 people was cut from the story. Gordon was trying to see if there was a pattern of behavior, similar to what Bernard Wood was looking for in his investigation. This truncation of our account of Gordon’s investigation deprived readers of additional evidence that the museum itself had apparently identified the same pattern of behavior beyond just the three anonymous Koobi Fora witnesses.

6.     Richmond has a point about the distortion of due process by the museum. I began my investigation in early November 2015, and was officially assigned to do the story by Science on Nov 16. By Nov 30 I had enough information to go to Anne Canty at the AMNH and ask for certain documents, interviews and other information, and I presented her with my requests that day. Richmond says that he was asked to resign within the first few days of December, ie, almost immediately after they knew for sure what we were doing (I told Canty much of what we knew so that the museum would be as forthcoming and transparent as possible.) He declined to say who asked him to resign, but in a Dec 11 meeting of the anthropology division called by its chair, Laurel Kendall, Kendall told colleagues that Novacek had asked for the resignation. Her statement to the meeting is confirmed by three sources present at the time. This important reference to the meeting and Kendall’s statements was cut from the final version.


7.     To underscore what is implied above: AMNH science provost Mike Novacek was making many of the decisions here, perhaps in some cases in collaboration with higher ups or with the museum’s legal department, perhaps in some cases on his own. It might be a safe assumption that AMNH president Ellen Futter is now involved in all major decisions.

      Additional thoughts: My editors were rightly very concerned that our story be fully fair to Brian Richmond, a concern that I completely shared and acted on during the entire time that I was reporting the story. I aggressively pursued Richmond, urging him to tell his side of the story; and when he finally began to do that I inserted as many comments as possible from him, focusing on his strongest arguments as is standard ethical journalistic practice. However, fairness is not achieved by cutting important information and context such that a story becomes a "he says, she says" account rather than a search for the truth. I'm sure that my editors will not agree, but in my view some of the cuts had that effect.

      Important additional information: All of the statements in this "reader's guide," as in the original story in Science, are multiply sourced and based on sound reporting of the facts of the case.


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Statement by @sciencemagazine Editor-in-Chief on my termination repeats non-explanation by @aaas

Since I was informed on March 10 that my contract with Science was being terminated after 25 years of service to the journal, officials of the AAAS, the publisher of Science, have issued two statements about it. They both insist that it had nothing to do with my investigative piece into allegations of sexual misconduct by Brian Richmond, curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The first statement came on March 11; the second was issued just yesterday by Science Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt (who will soon become the first woman president of the National Academy of Sciences.)

This second statement was issued by Marcia to the Anthropology section of the AAAS, Section H, and was posted on its Facebook page as follows:

"AAAS is saddened by Michael Balter’s recent statements, but will not comment on matters related to anyone who has worked for AAAS, whether they were on staff or working under a freelance contract, as in Mr. Balter’s case. However, contrary to a public narrative that has been set forth by others, the ending of Mr. Balter’s association with AAAS is not related in any way to the content of the news story published in Science on allegations of sexual misconduct against Brian Richmond. Our commitment to the published story, and to covering the extremely important topic of sexual harassment in science, remains unwavering."

In my original blog post about the termination, I provided my own side of the story, which is that the termination has everything to do with serious conflicts that arose between me and my editors during the preparation of the story. This is the "breakdown of trust" that Science's news editor referred to when he broke the news to me by telephone. In my response to Marcia's statement on the Section H Facebook page, I waived my rights to privacy in this matter so that AAAS can feel entirely free to tell its side of the story and respond to repeated queries from the scientific community (social media posts amounting to many thousands of individual posts.) I still hope that it will do so, as I may well have more to say about the entire affair in the coming days given that my credibility and my reputation are on the line. There was indeed a "breakdown of trust"--on my side, it was my trust in my editors that they were pursuing the story in an ethical way and with correct motivations.

Much more importantly than my personal situation, however, Science has removed me from an ongoing story, which I am far and away in the best position to continue to report on: The AMNH's third investigation into the allegations against Richmond, and the action that the museum may or may not take once it is completed, which should be quite soon from the information I have been able to gather about it. No matter how that turns out in the end, it is of vital interest to the scientific community. As I pointed out in my previous blog post, Science was happy to have me continue to report on dinosaurs and stone throwing chimps and pursue other story ideas for a full month after the Brian Richmond story was published. Why now all the sudden rush to remove me from the Richmond story before I had completed the job?

Friday, March 11, 2016

Why did @sciencemagazine terminate me after 25 years of service?

Yesterday March 10 at about noon East Coast USA time, I received a telephone call from Science's news editor, Tim Appenzeller. Tim was calling to tell me that after 25 years with the magazine, he was giving me 30 days notice that my Contributing Correspondent contract would be terminated. He spoke briefly of a "breakdown of trust" between me and Science's editors and indicated that the quarter-century long relationship was no longer working. In a followup email, Tim referred to the "wonderful work" I had done for Science over the years, and wrote that my recent investigative piece on the sexual misconduct allegations concerning Brian Richmond of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) had been "a high point." Last month, shortly before the piece was published, he called this three-month long investigation "an extraordinary piece of reporting."

So why am I now being terminated? This sudden action is all the more surprising because just earlier this week Tim had expressed interest in a possible story idea I had come across unexpectedly, and also this week I had made a telephone appointment with our biomedical news editor to discuss a followup feature to another high-profile story I had done recently entitled "Talking Back to Madness."

What follows is, of course, my own interpretation of events, and I am going to try to keep it short for now even though it's somewhat of a long story. For Science's view of things, I can only refer you to Tim himself, or the magazine's Editor-in-Chief, Marcia McNutt. It will be interesting to see what kind of public explanation they might give, if any.

There is a proximate cause for my termination: A tense, sometimes bruising behind-the-scenes conflict with my editors over the Brian Richmond story that eventually forced me to threaten to pull it from Science and publish it elsewhere, as my contract allows if agreement on a text cannot be reached. My take on this conflict is that Science was at least as concerned with avoiding a lawsuit as it was with telling the truth about what its reporter was finding. The piece was way outside the magazine's comfort zone, and yet it did not want to lose a story that would bring it considerable credit and attention. I am proud of the story that was published, but a great deal was left out. More on that later.

Then there is a more long-range, historical reason for what Tim referred to as a breakdown in trust. That goes back to October 2014, when I took a public leave of absence to protest the firing of four women at Science, in the art and production departments. At least two of these colleagues have had their careers destroyed by this action, which was carried out by two male senior managers and shocked the conscience of the entire staff at Science and its publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS.) My public action, which admittedly was controversial among my colleagues on the news staff, raised the issue of whether a nonprofit membership organization, with a supposedly democratically elected board, should be acting like a Wall Street hedge fund. At the very least, the question of the need for transparency in such an organization became a subject of debate in the scientific community, to the discomfort of AAAS's highly paid managers, who were used to operating behind closed doors (and who, unfortunately, still are for the most part.)

But given the suddenness of Tim's action, and his interest in my story ideas just a couple of days earlier, there must have been an immediate trigger for it. I can only speculate on that, and will do so at the end of this post.

Because I do not want to treat my colleagues as shabbily as they are now treating me (one editor is already spreading disinformation among the news staff about why I am leaving), and because the Brian Richmond story had undergone a careful legal review, I will need to be somewhat circumspect about what I say here. But it is important to note that Science did not jump on the story when we first found out about the allegations concerning Richmond last August. There was discussion about whether we should focus on this one person, about whether Richmond and his alleged actions were important enough to write a story about, and related issues. I don't think my editors will contest the fact that I pushed the hardest for us to do a story; but even after the Geoff Marcy sexual harassment case broke at Berkeley, and the astronomer was forced to resign, there was still a great deal of ambivalence about whether the Richmond case was newsworthy. Fortunately, however, I was in New York teaching at NYU, and so in a good position to begin probing the allegations. Without going into details, a difference of opinion emerged almost immediately between my editor on the story and myself; my editor wanted me to give highest priority to obtaining documentation that would cover Science in case of a lawsuit, and I wanted to talk to as many sources as possible about the allegations (I was also, rightly, doubtful that we would get the key document my editors sought, as it was covered by the AMNH's attorney-client privilege and no one had a motivation to give it to us.)

Fortunately for the story, I ignored much of the instruction I was given by my editor and pursued the investigation according to my experience and instincts as a reporter. The result is what you can read in Science. But towards the end, it became clear that my editors were in no hurry to publish the story, even though it was time-sensitive in a number of ways and basic fairness to both Richmond and the alleged victim of the sexual misconduct dictated that we not dither with it; and for various reasons I became concerned that my editors wanted to tone down the story and cut key information for fear of a lawsuit (in fact, some key details were lost, and I may discuss that in a follow up blog post.) I insisted that my editors set a certain date for publication, and threatened to pull the story if they did not agree and if they did not publish a version that I could live with. They finally acquiesced to these demands, and we compromised on an online publication date of February 9 and print publication on February 12. I regretted very much that this battle became necessary.

Some commentators have pointed out in the past, and reminded social media followers yesterday, that Science and the AAAS have had a poor track record on sexual harassment issues. The Brian Richmond story was a chance for the magazine to redeem itself, and indeed it was already on the way to doing so with fine stories by my colleague Jeff Mervis, who broke the Christian Ott Caltech story. My own perception is that the magazine was caught between its desire to take credit for the Richmond story and its fear of a lawsuit. In prior comments to people about this, and on discussion lists, I have tried to give my editors credit for doing the right thing and publishing a hard-hitting story despite their fears; but in the end they have decided to shoot the messenger.

I've already talked above about the culture at AAAS that allowed four colleagues to be fired precipitously in 2014, and will not elaborate on that here--except to say that just as I was beginning the Brian Richmond investigation, one of my editors asked me to delete a key blog post about that episode in which I criticized our Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt for parroting the party line put out by former AAAS CEO Alan Leshner. I declined to engage in this sanitizing of the historical record, not least because I consider that episode to be one of the proudest moments of my life. It's not often that one gets to put one's career on the line for something one believes in, and I have no regrets.

And the key issue here is not me nor my termination by Science, but whether researchers, students, reporters and other employees of an organization like the AAAS can speak out without fear of being fired. I said I thought there might be an immediate trigger for why I was suddenly terminated. This is total speculation, but a couple of weeks ago I learned that Science's publisher, Kent Anderson, who was hired to great fanfare in August 2014, had quietly left the magazine late last year. There was no announcement to staff, no press release, nothing. And when I made inquiries, no one knew, although some suspected that there had been a disagreement or fallout of some sort among upper management at AAAS (Anderson did not respond to my direct questions to him about this.) I did not hesitate to ask some senior people at AAAS about this, as is my right as a reporter and a scientific citizen.

So the publisher of Science leaves and no one is told about it, and no one knows why? Is that the kind of behind-the-scenes lack of transparency that an organization like the AAAS should be operating under? AAAS members need to ask some hard questions about the way that their organization and its flagship publication are being run. Perhaps I asked one question too many.

Additional thoughts: Some readers might think that my speculations about why I was terminated this week in particular are, well, pretty speculative, and I suppose they are. But consider this: On Monday of this week our news editor Tim Appenzeller expressed interest in a story idea I told him about and mentioned two other editors he thought might be interested in it too; on Tuesday he approved $200 in expenses for me to take some of the sources for the Brian Richmond story out to lunch next month; on Wednesday another editor made an appointment to discuss yet another story idea next week; on Thursday I was fired. What happened between Monday and Thursday? Did someone above Tim make the decision to terminate me and Tim was the messenger? Questions that need answers, and not just for my sake.

Update 12 March: Reporter Cynthia McKelvey at The Daily Dot posted an excellent and very accurate story today, well worth reading for additional insights, information, and nuances.

Friday, January 22, 2016

My terrible teachable moment dream

I had a terrible dream a couple of nights ago, and I think I understand it very well. Freud would no doubt be proud of me, even if there was no sex in it.

After teaching in NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP) for the past six years, I finally decided to take a break and hand my course in journalism fundamentals to someone else. I had a dialogue about this last month with Ann Finkbeiner--who used to run the Johns Hopkins program--on the Last Word on Nothing blog, where science writers get to say pretty much anything they want (within reason; Ann always reminds me that they don't have libel insurance.) We talked about the pain of quitting teaching, how much our students meant to us, and related things. I think I got a bit gushy at times, but as I said there, I think that I have been an important person in the lives of many of my students and I know that they have been a very important part of my life. That's why I have all their photos on the wall of my office.

The evening before I had the dream, one of my students from last semester, who had done a profile of a particular individual (I won't complicate her life by naming her or the profile subject) started getting a lot of flak from someone associated with the subject over a passage in the article. The passage was absolutely true, and the student felt strongly that she should not have to change it--despite being threatened with legal action to "squash" the article. (Really, more people should read the First Amendment and the Supreme Court decisions associated with it, we would be so much better off.)

I applauded and supported her stand, as did her other professors and her fellow students. I know that she greatly appreciated the support. And what a great teachable moment: Journalists are truth-tellers, at least they try hard to be, and that takes a lot of courage no matter how early they are in their careers.

So in the dream, I was walking down a hallway, probably at NYU (although you know how dreams are), when I saw a couple of my former students and started to say hi to them. Suddenly I remembered that I was supposed to have gotten together with them for a drink or coffee or whatever, and they both looked very upset that I had entirely forgotten. Indeed, one of them started to cry inconsolably, tears streaming down her face. I woke up with the shock and slamming heart so typical of a nightmare, and then, relieved that it was only a dream, fell back to sleep--only to wake up again with the dream still going on. Now there was a larger group of students, all of whom were clearly angry at me. The student who had been crying no longer was, but she didn't want to talk to me and rebuffed my apology.

I can assure you that I do not relate my dreams publicly very often (actually never, this is a first for me.) But the meaning of this one is so obvious that I really don't feel very embarrassed about it. If anything it is the deep night sweats terror version of the question I discussed with Ann: What do we mean to our students, and what do they mean to us? A very great deal, as it turns out. And there is just no way to walk away from those bonds; they are for life.