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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. 

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

Email:  michael.balter@gmail.com

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