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.