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.

Monday, January 18, 2016

My own David Bowie story

The world is in extended mourning for David Bowie, rightly so, and many who knew him have been telling their stories. Sadly, I never met him, but over the last decade I have become good friends with his cousin Kristina Amadeus, an art expert and award-winning writer. She has kindly agreed to let me tell a story which demonstrates David's great generosity. Because a number of years ago, David did me a wonderful kindness: After reading my book, The Goddess and the Bull, about the archaeological excavations at Neolithic Catalhoyuk in Turkey and the origins of civilization, he allowed me to put a blurb on the paperback and Kindle editions.

The purpose of this story is not to sell books, so I am not including any links. But here's what happened.

Shortly after the book came out, in early 2005, Kristina contacted me out of the blue with a rave review of the book and some very kind words about how much she enjoyed it. Kristina had long been interested in Catalhoyuk--which is a sort of Mecca for Mother Goddess worshippers but also a very key site for understanding the origins of farming and settled, village life--because of a novel she has in progress which features the excavations. I didn't know who she was, but I thought her name very interesting, and so Googled her. I learned that she was David's cousin, and that she was a well-known fixture in the Ziggy Stardust tour because during it he had visited her in New York (where she was then living) and, of course, every step in that tour is now as sacred as the Stations of the Cross.

I asked Kristina if she thought David might be interested in reading the book, because I knew that he was very intellectual and read a lot. We arranged to get a copy to his New York office and he told her that he would put it on his summer reading list.

The following October, I believe it was, I asked Kristina if he had read it, and she sent him an email. It turned out that he had, and he said the following about it:

"I liked it very much. A little heavy on theory for my taste but exciting to read of what could have been the first town. I also approve of burying the dead under the floor. At least you'll remember where you put them."

The paperback edition of my book was about to come out, so I asked Kristina to ask David if I could put that very funny comment on the book. He wrote her back: "I have no problem with it."

Think about those six words for a moment. They are the words of someone for whom an act of great kindness and generosity is no big deal, just something you do in the course of the day. No thought of whether he should be selective in bestowing such kindness, just a matter of fact favor to his cousin and to his cousin's friend.

And, of course, the publisher of the paperback edition of the book--Mitch Allen of Left Coast Press, recently bought by Routledge--was thrilled that a famous rock star was saying in this amusing way how much theory was in the book, because Mitch was marketing it as an academic book to be used in archaeology classes. What might be a tad too much theory for David Bowie was just the right amount of theory for the undergraduate and graduate students who would be reading it.

Do you ever have a fantasy that you will meet a famous person one day, sit down with them as if they were just a normal person, have coffee, and talk matter of factly about the issues of the day? I did, and it was always about David Bowie. I always thought it might happen, but now of course it never will. But I have his music, his videos, his blurb proudly displayed on my book--and his cousin as my friend, with whom I can share all the pain and sorrow that the last week has brought.

Update: Kristina has just sent me the old email correspondence from when this all happened. After David said he liked the book, I suggested that he could do the rock opera version and that it would be okay if he left out most of the theory. His response to that was "LOL!" So I made David Bowie laugh one day long ago. That really makes my day today.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Rachel Dolezal and the Culture of Condemnation

When the Rachel Dolezal affair became a major news story last week, we at first had only a few details. Her parents were claiming that she was white, not Black; we learned that Dolezal was estranged from her mother and father; and we were told that her parents had adopted four Black children when Dolezal was young.

That should have been enough to make Dolezal the subject of intense curiosity, and for some people she was. What life experiences led her to identify herself as Black rather than her "birth" race? Was she just a totally dishonest person worthy of contempt, or a struggling human (like so many of us) trying to make some sense of her life. And what does race mean, anyway? Is it a biological concept, a social construct, or both? In the days that followed, some commentators did take up some of these questions, often in very thoughtful ways.

Many others, however, especially the social media lynch mob--which seems ever growing in numbers these days--immediately condemned her. She had lied, she had betrayed the trust of her community, she had pretended to be something she was not. Of course, none of those who criticized her had ever been dishonest about any of these things, had they? I would wager that, one time or another, some of her fiercest critics had been less than honest about some aspect of their lives.

Now, as more details come out--she reportedly was married to a Black man but it ended in divorce, she began taking care of one of her adoptive siblings, another is accused of sexual abuse, her parents moved to South Africa--there is even more reason to pause and consider that all of us have complicated lives and behave in ways that might seem inexplicable to others. Nearly of us have lied, misrepresented ourselves, and betrayed friends and family at one time or another.

The culture of condemnation has become a disease afflicting the USA and many other countries as well, perhaps all those that have access to social media--in other words, the entire world. Of course, some things should be condemned: Racist or sexist statements or activities, the murder of fellow human beings including acts of war and terrorism, the exploitation of the bodies or the labor of other humans. But in almost every case we have the information we need to know that condemnation is the right attitude.

What do we have in the case of Rachel Dolezal? A woman with a long history of fighting racism, which is more than most of those condemning her can claim. Someone who might (or might not) have become confused at some point in her life about who she was and what she wanted to be. Someone not so different from the rest of us.

Perhaps it is good that Dolezal's case has sparked yet another "national conversation about race." If so, let's discuss, and be curious, and wonder about her as we would wonder about any fellow human who has done something that needs some serious explaining. Leave the condemnations behind, at least until we are very sure that there is good reason for them--and that we are so without sin that we have the right to throw stones.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and the current controversy within PEN America

Many readers will have read about the debate within PEN America over the past several days, over whether the organization is doing the right thing by awarding the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo at its upcoming May 5 PEN Literary Gala. The original six writers who objected to this have now expanded to at least a few dozen. PEN's leadership has responded to the objections, in terms that I think most writers and defenders of freedom of expression can rally around. The title of that response is "Rejecting the Assassin's Veto," and even those objecting to the award agree that murder is not the appropriate response to speech with which we disagree. But throughout the Charlie Hebdo affair there has been a lingering suggestion by some that the 12 murdered colleagues had it coming somehow, because they insulted Islam, Muslims, and/or the Prophet Mohammed. I'm afraid that those who object to the award are in effect buying into that notion, just as some suggested that Salman Rushdie had provoked the fatwah that came down on his head after the publication of "The Satanic Verses."

PEN has now opened up a Web page for public debate on the matter, which has received some very wise comments (and a few unwise ones, in my view.) One of the wisest observations came from writer/lawyer Wendy Kaminer, who took issue with the suggestion that Charlie Hebdo did not deserve the award because it targeted the powerless (supposedly marginalized Muslims) rather than the powerful. Not only is this not true in general terms, but as Kaminer pointed out, Charlie Hebdo continued to publish its cartoons and articles against Islamic extremism despite death threats. That takes courage, as she pointed out:

"PEN protesters might respond that a courage award should only be bestowed on speakers who offend the powerful. It doesn’t take a lot of courage to offend people who can’t hurt you. Charlie Hebdo’s speech targeted the powerless, the 'victimized,' they assert. Not quite. If murder isn’t a definitive assertion of power, what is? The power of the sword has been wielded most effectively; we’ll never know how much speech has been chilled. Most of us are not that courageous."

I posted my own thoughts on this comments page, which I am reproducing here with a few changes (mostly to clean up my typos.) My main point is that Charlie Hebdo should not be defended in spite of what it stood for,
but because of it. Here they are:

I'm very glad to see PEN open this issue up for general comment and debate. I live in Paris about half of the year, and my home is a 10 minute walk from Charlie Hebdo's former offices in the 11th district. I was on the scene, along with hundreds of other journalists, within an hour of the horrific massacre of our colleagues. So this hits very close to home. A lot has been said already, so I want to underscore one key point: In the United States particularly, there is a huge misunderstanding about the cartoons and caricatures that Charlie Hebdo published and what they meant. Charlie Hebdo is a left-wing, anti-racist publication and the cartoons it published concerning Islam, the Prophet Mohammed, etc, were all in that spirit. Charlie Hebdo never attacked or ridiculed Muslims as individuals, but was hostile to all religions; its caricatures and drawings of the Prophet were all intended to attack and satirize Islamic extremists (ISIS, Al Qaeda, Taliban, etc) who used Islam as an excuse for their crimes and brutality. Stephane Charbonnier ("Charb") and other editors of Charlie Hebdo made that clear time and time again in their responses to criticisms of the publication and the cartoons in particular. In his posthumously published book, just out this month, Charbonnier made that clear once again. He rightly points out the difference between attacking individual believers and the religion in which they believe, a distinction that is the basis of French law (which does not go far enough in protecting freedom of expression in my view.) He criticizes the patronizing attitude of many anti-racists on the left (a group I normally count myself among) and suggests that Charlie Hebdo's critics assume that every Muslim is so sensitive to criticism of his or her religion, and so lacking in humor, that they should be viewed as on the verge of committing violent acts (beheadings etc) on a hair-trigger basis. Few members of PEN, and few Americans in general, would consider a caricature of the Pope (say caught committing an act of pedophilia, to take a relevant example) as an attack on all Catholics as individuals, but somehow a caricature of the Prophet (if he was indeed a prophet) is considered to be a racist (or "Islamophobic") expression. To summarize, the controversy over Charlie Hebdo is in very large part based on a misunderstanding of the cartoons, their meaning, and the intentions of the publication's artists and writers. They are not racists but anti-racists who refuse to allow extremists to dictate what they can say and cannot say, write, or draw; they are not colleagues who should be just defended in spite of their thoughts and actions, but also because of them.

Addendum: Just a reminder that I commented on whether Charlie Hebdo primarily targeted Muslims and Islam in an earlier post. Answer = non.

Update: No one has written more eloquently and nailed the key issues in the Charlie Hebdo killings better than Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker, and he does it again today. Essential, vital, obligatory reading for all those who need a lesson in what civilization is really about (and to inspire those who already do know.)

Update II: I've just become aware of an excellent Web site, Understanding Charlie Hebdo Cartoons, which takes a number of cartoons and explains in detail what they mean within the context of French culture and politics. Thanks to a NYT story on the controversy published yesterday, which provided it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Toilet in Tarrytown

Have you ever wished you had enough time to deal with life's annoyances? Well I am taking the day off today so thought I would find out why the men's bathroom at the Tarrytown Metro North station, used by thousands of commuters, is "out of order" and how long it's going to take to fix it. I don't have to tell you how important an issue like this can be to our quality of life...

So first I called the telephone number for complaints and comments posted right by the station's ticket window. The sign indicated that it was available 8:30 am to 5:00 pm. After trying three times and letting it ring at least 20 times with no answer (and no recording), I thought of going online to see if it was the right number. Turns out that it no longer is, and you have to call 511 and go through the usual long list of choices. Too much trouble to put a recording on the old number and let us know that? Apparently so.

Okay, so I called 511 and went through my many, many options, finally saying "comments and concerns" into the telephone as instructed. Amazingly, this actually transferred me to a real human being--imagine my surprise (how easy it is to be cynical.)

So this nice lady said she would immediately send an email to the Tarrytown station manager and make inquiries, and call me back when she found out more. Again, surprisingly, the station manager emailed back while we were still on the phone with a preliminary response.

Now it gets a little more typical. The station manager did not know when the bathroom would be fixed (isn't that something he should be concerned and curious about, given that he is the station manager?) He also indicated that since the Village of Tarrytown has certain responsibilities for running certain aspects of the station (the Village Hall is right across the street), it was not clear to him whether the village or the structures department of Metro North was responsible for the repairs. So he agreed to contact the structures department and find out more. The nice lady agreed to call me back when she had more information, perhaps as early as this afternoon.

So things could have been worse, but isn't this actually already pretty bad (I return to the issue of the station manager's ignorance--is this really the first time anyone has asked about it after several days of "out of order" status?

There are some other issues concerning Tarrytown station (a major stop on the Hudson Line) which I will save for a subsequent post. For, as you can see, I've decided not to let this one drop. Sometimes in life we just have to find time for the little things--the things that we can actually do something about.

Update 11 am: So the nice lady has now left a message on my cell phone updating me on the situation. It turns out that the bathroom was closed because there is some sort of blockage in the sewer lines that lead to the toilets, or possibly a crushed sewer pipe. MTA or Metro North (not clear which), possibly together with the Village of Tarrytown, is now hiring a company to investigate, which will involve putting a camera into the sewer pipes to see what is going on. That will determine whether Metro North (MTA) will be responsible for fixing the problem, or the Village of Tarrytown. The nice lady apologized and said it was too soon to know whether it would be sooner or later before the bathroom was operational again. Does this sound like the kind of thing that could go on for weeks or months? And what if MTA and the village can't agree on who is responsible? All I can hope is that they see the @MetroNorth and @MTA tags in my Tweets of these blog posts and get on the problem quickly. Unfortunately I am only in the area until April 7, and then back again briefly late April, but will monitor progress as best I can.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Was Charlie Hebdo obsessed with Islam? A study by two sociologists says "non"

Yesterday's issue of Le Monde featured an opinion piece by two sociologists, who looked at the cartoon covers of Charlie Hebdo over a period of 10 years (see graph at right.) Contrary to what many commenters have said (especially in the United States), their exhaustive study showed that only a small percentage of covers involved Islam (7% strictly about Islam.) Three times as many covers targeted Christianity. The main focus of the publication was on political figures.

The two sociologists also conclude, as most people in France know, that Charlie Hebdo was a left-leaning, anti-racist publication, albeit very rude and irreverent in the way it expressed itself. I would add a personal observation: Charlie Hebdo did not target Muslims or Christians, nor their religious beliefs; instead it rightfully took aim at the hypocrites who would justify their outrageous acts under the cloak of religious belief. That might have offended some people, but the right to offend people is fundamental to free speech.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Stuart Klawans on "American Sniper"

"People want American Sniper to come from the Clint Eastwood who directed Unforgiven, but it's made by the guy who talked to a chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention."

           --film critic Stuart Klawans in The Nation.

Monday, November 3, 2014

AAAS CEO Alan Leshner speaks publicly at last, but sidesteps main concerns about terminations at Science

Yesterday the Columbia Journalism Review posted an online story about recent upheavals at Science, sparked by the abrupt termination of four employees in September. The story quotes the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Alan Leshner--who is also the Executive Publisher of Science--at length about the "digital first" strategy which provided the justification for letting colleagues with up to 23 years service to the organization go with little or no notice. I am also quoted extensively about the three months' leave of absence I had taken in protest of these terminations.

It's good to see Leshner acknowledge, at least tacitly, that the public (and especially the scientific community) has a right to know more about what goes on inside the AAAS, a nonprofit membership organization with a democratically elected Board of Directors (at least in principle.) But his explanations fall flat because they do not explain why the terminations had to be carried out in such brutal fashion; and very importantly, his statements that the AAAS attempts to retrain employees to meet new challenges are off the mark, at least in this particular case. None of the four employees were offered such retraining as far as I and other members of the news staff are aware.

Let's hope that Leshner's claims about AAAS human resources policies will actually be put into wider practice in the future.

Update: Since my leave of absence has accomplished more than I expected it to, as the CJR reporter explains in her story, I will be coming back to work a month early, ie November 28.

Apology: to Science Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt, for originally saying in the headline of my October 20 post that she had "slandered" the news staff and its reporting abilities. I have since changed that to the more appropriate term "dissing." I am still waiting, however, for Marcia to apologize to the entire news staff for accusing us of making false or inaccurate statements about the circumstances of the termination of the four colleagues.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Why is Science's Editor-in-Chief dissing her own news staff? [UPDATED]

As regular readers of this blog know (and many thousands of others), on October 6 I began a three month leave of absence from my position as Contributing Correspondent for Science, in protest of the abrupt and callous termination of four women from our art and production departments. I was also protesting the failure of the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes Science, and its Editor-in-Chief to make any formal response to concerns raised by the overwhelming majority of our news staff in a communication to them on September 26.

A number of people have asked me if anything has happened since then. The answer is, yes, a lot, which I will report at some length here.

Before I do, however, I want to address the question of whether these matters should be made public in the first place. The AAAS CEO and Science's Executive Publisher, Alan Leshner, has made it clear to colleagues that he is very angry about my October 6 blog, and there are some colleagues (now a minority given subsequent events) who feel that these issues should have been kept in-house. However, as I have argued, the AAAS is a nonprofit, membership organization, with a Board that is democratically elected; it is also the largest general scientific body in the world. Thus it should be subject to the same scrutiny, including from the scientific community and the public at large, as any other large organization of its type. This seems a basic principle. And in my view, such public scrutiny is now necessary to avoid in the future the kinds of abuses of long-time employees that I described in my October 6 post, and which the news staff expressed its alarm about in its September 26 communication.

When Leshner first received this communication, he let it be known that he would be making no response to it other than a note he had sent earlier about the "transformation" AAAS is going through to a "digital first" strategy (see my Oct 6 post for more details on this.) We received no response from Science's Editor-in-Chief, Marcia McNutt, which was a surprise to some; however we surmised that she had probably not been responsible for the terminations, which were primarily the work of our Chief Digital Media Officer, Rob Covey.

Then my blog post hit, which was viewed by about 3000 people the first day, 1300 the second day, and several hundred each day for about a week after that. Either that evening or first thing the next morning, I am not clear on which, Leshner relented and said that he would meet with anyone who wanted to in his office on the following Thursday, October 9. That meeting did take place in DC, where AAAS has its headquarters. I was not present, but from accounts of those who were there (more than 40 people from Science's news and editorial staffs attended), it is clear that many colleagues were quite outspoken in raising their concerns about how the terminations were handled. There were mixed reviews about how much Leshner took these concerns on board, however, and many left the meeting feeling that his responses were unsatisfactory.

Clearly we are not going to get the jobs of the four fired women back. However, I would like to think that the AAAS, its senior management, and its Human Resources department will think twice (or three times) about how such things are handled in the future.

I would like to think that, but I am not sure, based on other developments. The only public response to events came from the AAAS director of public programs, Ginger Pinholster, who often handles public relations for the organization when big issues are at stake. I have known Ginger for many years and always considered her a consummate professional, a person of honesty and integrity. However, her response, which appeared in an October 7 report on the situation by Paul Raeburn of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, was very disappointing. She simply stated that the terminations were carried out the same way they always had been at AAAS, and that they were a necessary part of the digital transformation. A number of AAAS colleagues challenged this assertion to me privately, but that was the only public response at that time.

In the past week, however, at least two members of AAAS have written to Leshner and McNutt, citing my blog post and expressing concerns about it. These two individuals are researchers familiar with me and my reporting for Science, and they assumed that my facts were accurate. Leshner apparently made no response to them, but McNutt did so. And what she said was appalling: She told them that most of my facts were wrong, and that "some" of the terminated colleagues were unhappy and/or embarrassed that their situations had been made public (this despite my disguising the identity of those colleagues who would have been particularly vulnerable.)

This of course got back to me, and I wrote Marcia challenging her assertions. I pointed out that the facts in my blog post were virtually the same as those in the September 26 communication from nearly all of Science's reporters and news editors, and that I and the rest of the news staff had evidence that the terminated colleagues were in fact not at all angry about my blog post--which, after all, had brought about the meeting with Leshner, as is nearly universally understood (as I have said to colleagues, the meeting came about as the result of the one-two punch of the September 26 communication and my public action; neither alone could have done the job.)

To make things even more bizarre, Marcia wrote me back and asked what September 26 communication I was talking about, claiming she had no knowledge of it. We are not sure what that means, but it seems quite possible that she never got it or never read it. So I resent it to her, and got this response on October 16:

Michael -

I already met with the editorial staff. Tim and Alan met with the News staff. I am not sure what more can be done. Some members of the News staff have come to see me personally and I have met with each of them.

There are many items in this letter that are incorrect. Good journalists usually verify their facts from several sources, and unfortunately with private personnel matters, you are only going on rumors and supposition. I'd like to end this conversation because I honestly don't find it productive. 


[Tim refers to Tim Appenzeller, Science's news editor]
[my repeated questions to Marcia about whether she had seen the communication before I resent it to her have gone unanswered.]

In other words, despite the careful reporting that the news staff did before it sent its September 26 communication, which was of course based on multiple sources, our own Editor-in-Chief is saying in effect that we are bad journalists who don't verify their facts.

I want to end this by saying that I don't think this sad situation can be blamed entirely on Marcia, not by a long shot. She has repeatedly asserted in other contexts that she had nothing to do with the terminations, and was not in the chain of command that made those decisions. As far as we know she is right; they were carried out primarily by Rob Covey, with Leshner's apparent full approval. So why is Marcia taking the fall for them? Was she asked to do this by other managers, did she decide to do this on her own?

Meanwhile I have written again to Marcia challenging her to back up her claims that "some" of the terminated colleagues were upset about my public post, which she downgraded to "at least one" in her last response to me ("at least one" would imply that she is only sure of one.) I have offered to apologize to those individuals publicly or privately as they prefer, and to publicly apologize to her for accusing her of making false statements.

I would call upon Marcia to stop fronting for the decisions and actions of senior management, which she had nothing to do with, and to back up her news staff and its concerns, which is the true job of an Editor-in-Chief over the best science news team in the world (no brag that, just fact.)

Watch this space for further developments.


There are some signs that Science's staff is finally being listened to by the people who matter. Reports are that Marcia McNutt met with the news staff this week, a meeting that was apparently productive; and so did Rob Covey, who clarified his plans for the future. Time will tell if the kinds of abrupt terminations that started this campaign will cease, but it seems clear that the efforts of the news and editorial staffs to firmly communicate their feelings might bear some fruit.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Why I have taken a leave of absence from Science: to protest the abrupt firing of 4 colleagues

The following was sent to Science's news editor this morning:

6 October 2014


Dear Tim,

As you know, I have been writing continuously for Science for the past 24 years. I have been on the masthead of the journal for the past 21 years, serving in a variety of capacities ranging from staff writer to Contributing Correspondent (my current title.) I also spent 10 years as Science’s de facto Paris bureau chief. Thus it is particularly painful and sad for me to tell you that I will be taking a three-month leave of absence in protest of recent events at Science and within its publishing organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

I am taking this action to register my profound dismay about two related developments:

1.     The recent dismissal of four women in our art and production departments, with essentially no notice in three cases and very little notice in the fourth case.
2.     The failure of AAAS CEO and Science’s Executive Publisher, Alan Leshner, and Science’s Editor-in-Chief, Marcia McNutt, to make any serious response to sincere and heartfelt concerns expressed to them, by the overwhelming majority of Science’s news staff, about the way these dismissals were handled.

As you know, the dismissals occurred during the week of September 22. Two colleagues from our art department, and two from production, were the victims. Although the termination of each was handled somewhat differently, a common feature was the brutality and insensitivity with which they were dealt with by AAAS senior management and by our Human Resources department. One colleague was summarily fired and escorted out of the building; when she was allowed to return a few days later to clear out her desk, she was not permitted to talk to any of her former colleagues. A second colleague, who had been at Science for 16 years, was offered a demotion, and when she declined to take it, given essentially one day to leave as well. Our print production director, a veteran of 23 years service to the organization, was told that her position was being eliminated, and given two weeks’ notice. The circumstances of the termination of a fourth colleague are not clear, because she apparently vanished without a trace. For various reasons, I am one of the few people in the news department who knew her; she was a highly competent and serious employee.

Amazingly, even though the news staff worked closely, on a daily basis, with three of these colleagues, no explanation was provided for their departure, and no acknowledgement of their contributions to the organization over many years was forthcoming—nor has it been as I write. I, along with most members of the news staff, had to assume that it was related to the digital media reorganization of AAAS and Science currently being spearheaded by Rob Covey. And by all indications Covey, who earlier this year was given the title Chief Digital Media Officer (more on this shortly), was directly involved in the dismissals of the four colleagues. Thus some of us expected him to make some explanations, if not about the individual dismissals, at least about how these actions fit into the reorganization now under way. When our art director was suddenly terminated last spring, for example, we were at least given a somewhat detailed explanation by Marcia McNutt. She described a staff a meeting that Alan Leshner and Rob Covey had with the art director—another veteran employee, who had graced Science’s cover with so many beautiful images--to explain why her position was being eliminated. Many of us were very disturbed at the insensitivity with which that matter was handled, but little was said at the time.

Yet in the case of the four women dismissed last month, no such explanation was made, nor even a formal announcement that they were gone. Instead, on September 25, Covey wrote a short email to Science staff telling us who the new contacts were for magazine makeup and magazine layout. No mention whatsoever was made of our terminated colleagues. As one fellow colleague expressed it to me: “Brr.”

So on September 26, the great majority of our news staff came together to communicate its shock and concern to Alan Leshner and Marcia McNutt about the way these dismissals had been handled. I am not authorized to reveal the contents of this very eloquent communication, but I know that you are familiar with it. Leshner apparently received this communication just at the time that he was drafting a short note to the staff, which he sent later that same evening. The note reminded us of the “strategic transformation” that AAAS is currently undergoing, to enhance its engagement with its members and to be in the forefront of the “multimedia landscape of the future.” Then, in reference to the dismissal of our four colleagues, Leshner stated: “Some of you may have heard that these changes this past week have negatively affected some of our colleagues. These changes, while very difficult decisions to be sure, were a necessary part of the strategic and organizational changes that we are undertaking.”

Other than a brief email to one of our editors, in response to the communication from news staff, stating that he could say nothing more, Leshner has made no other reply to the concerns expressed. Nor has Marcia McNutt, although it is unclear just what her involvement was in these decisions.

By way of background: I wrote my first article for Science in 1991, and was appointed as a Contributing Correspondent in 1993. I later spent several years as a member of staff. Although others have far outshined me in terms of production, I have nevertheless produced more than 350 news and feature articles since coming on board, and about 250 online stories. I have made Science my primary home as a journalist. Why? I can trace my turning point back to 1995, when Science and AAAS held a joint “retreat” in Washington, DC, and I met many of the colleagues I still know today. You, Tim, in your then role as features editor, were there if I recall correctly, and I also met the editor with whom I have worked for nearly 20 years, our anthropology editor Elizabeth Culotta. I remember so well how blown away I was by how smart, talented, and just plain nice all of my colleagues were, up and down the hierarchy of AAAS and Science. Never before or since have I encountered an atmosphere so creative, collegial, and supportive.

I think that this collegial atmosphere continued to dominate until earlier this year, when the changes that we are currently living through began in earnest. Rob Covey came on board at AAAS in September 2013, and at first many of us thought that he was serving mostly in an advisory capacity; after all, he had a reputation for helping media outlets achieve their design and digital goals, a role he had played at National Geographic, Discovery Communications, and elsewhere. I count myself among those who were happy about many of the changes he brought about, including the redesign of the magazine, the ramping up of our multimedia presence, etc. But somewhere along the way Covey began to take on more power and more authority for personnel decisions, an evolution that has generated increasing consternation among the staff in all of Science’s departments.

(In addition, according to all the information I have been able to gather about it, Covey was responsible for one of the most embarrassing recent episodes at Science, the July 11, 2014 cover of the special AIDS issue. This cover, for which Science has been widely excoriated, featured the bare legs [and no faces] of transgender sex workers in Jakarta, which many saw as a crass objectification and exploitation of these vulnerable individuals. Marcia McNutt was forced to publicly apologize for this cover, although she partly defended it as the result of “discussion by a large group.” In fact, my understanding, based on sources I consider reliable, is that a number of members of Science’s staff urged Covey not to use the cover, to no avail.)

In what seems like one short year, we have gone from a culture appropriate to a nonprofit, membership organization like the AAAS, to the culture more typical of a Manhattan publisher or a Wall Street corporation—a culture in which even long-time, loyal employees are expendable and can be let go with essentially no notice. While the U.S. economy appears to be recovering, the job market is still very tough; such policies and practices not only jeopardize the future livelihood of our colleagues (three of the four women dismissed are over 50), but they undermine their sense of self worth, a common side effect of being abruptly terminated by an organization they had regarded as a home. I wonder how many AAAS members would approve of such practices if they knew about them, especially since they have been endorsed by a CEO who himself earns just over $1 million/year (with the compensation for Science’s publisher at about $860,000/year according to the lastest available report to the IRS.)

And much as we grieve for our departed colleagues, we must now fear for our own jobs, as there is no reason to think that anyone at AAAS and Science is secure from similar treatment—including the news staff itself, even if we are not (apparently) threatened with immediate changes or reorganization.

Tim, I want to make absolutely clear that in my opinion none of this reflects on your leadership of the news team, to which you have brought the talent, insight, respect for writers, and vision that sent a major thrill through the staff when we learned that you were coming back to Science after so many years away. Speaking personally, I have felt nothing but strong support from you for my many projects at Science, and I cannot express adequately how much I appreciate the understanding you have shown for the passion that I try to bring to them. So it really hurts me, with a visceral pain, to have to write this letter, even if my three month leave of absence is primarily a symbolic gesture. I have no illusions that Science can’t do without me for that short period of time. But I do hope that this gesture, and my decision to make it public, might help in the larger effort by our colleagues to return the AAAS to its former humane values.

Yours truly,

Michael Balter
Contributing Correspondent