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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Note to an editor whose major publication decided to pass on an important #MeToo story (but that does not involve politicians or film stars)

Are #MeToo stories about famous perpetrators or unknown victims?
Note: In the past few days I heard back from the editors of a major publication that it would not be publishing a six month long investigation into a pattern and practice of sexual predation by a well-known paleoanthropologist over a period of more than 15 years. His actions consisted of several well-documented cases of sexual assault, and multitudes of cases of sexual harassment, nearly all targeted at students or other colleagues younger and much less powerful than him. In many, although not all, of these cases these alleged victims came to work at a famous field site the paleoanthropologist ran outside the United States. Last year the story was killed by the publication that first assigned it, out of fear of litigation: The paleoanthropologist in question hired a high-profile US attorney, who threatened in no uncertain terms to sue the publication (and presumably myself) if the story ran.

In the most recent case, after three months of consideration, the latest publication decided not to publish because not enough alleged victims had gone on the record, or they had put some conditions on their participation that were designed to protect them from the retaliation that they would clearly be at risk of. While I did not argue directly with this decision, I shared some thoughts with the editor I had been working with, and I am sharing them here with readers of this blog. I hope in some way, at some point, they will help to convince editors considering running #MeToo stories that this is not celebrity journalism, and that the victims are the central characters in these sad and often devastating dramas.

I will have more to say about these issues both on this blog and in other articles that I am now preparing and discussing with other editors.


Hi _________,

I am now back in the __ area and have collected by thoughts about the decision _____________ has made about this story.

Actually they are not new thoughts, but things I have been observing and pondering for some time now.

Obviously ______________, ________________, and other major publications have done a great service by exposing sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein and breathing new life into the #MeToo movement. This has made it easier for a lot of women to speak out about their experiences.

At the same time, those who have been emboldened to do so are by and large victims whose fears of retaliation have either been greatly diminished by the removal of the predator from his position of power (Weinstein and many others) which leaves them freer to speak.

In proposing a story about the situation in paleoanthropology, and suggesting that we draw broader lessons about academia and the sciences, I wanted to focus on areas of life and work where the alleged predators maintain their power not only up to the last minute before publication, but sometimes even afterwards in various ways.

This was true of the Brian Richmond story for Science, and it remains true of the Texas Tech stories I did for The Verge (I hope you read those, which I sent to you and your colleagues earlier.)

So it's not surprising that women like _______ or ____________ have ongoing concerns about suffering serious consequences from speaking out, and want to put some conditions on the circumstances in which they do so. It is also one of the ironies of academia, which is supposed to be a truth-seeking endeavor (no more so than in the sciences), that the organizational hierarchies are so strong they actually allow men (and a few women) to prey on vulnerable young researchers who end up getting far more attention than they bargained for.

Indeed, one negative effect of the Weinstein revelations is that editors are increasingly insisting that women publicly reveal their identities before their cases can be written about. In the Brian Richmond story for Science, we felt no need to do that, and we did not do it. And yet it did not diminish one bit from the credibility of the story, nor the consequences to Richmond once the museum had done a serious investigation of the allegations. [Both the editors and attorneys at Science were comfortable with the voluminous evidence backing up the claims we were making.]

So the question arises whether this trend towards insisting on victims outing themselves is to move the discussion forward, or to create more dramatic stories to increase the readership of the publications that publish them. [(In saying this, I do not doubt the sincerity of the editors who work on these stories and often passionately defend them, but on the institutional framework and business model of the publications that get them out there. I have been approached by numerous editors in the past months asking that I share my experiences with journalists interested in "getting into" this new and dramatic beat.)] 

This is really all I have to say about it at this time. But I am talking with other editors about exploring this aspect of media involvement with the #MeToo movement, and the strengths and weaknesses of that involvement in getting at the truth--which, after all, is what journalism is all about.

I hope we can work together on something else in the future, as I am a science writer and investigative journalist with 40 years' experience and I could be an asset to __________. And I hope that _____________ will think about the fact that the victims are just as important as the perpetrators, if not more so, even if the focus up to now has largely been on celebrity predators and well-known politicians in most cases up to now. I think the NYT has done the best job bucking that trend up to now, and I hope __________ will follow suit soon; I had hopes that it would do so with this story, and/or the _______ affair, especially after you told me on the phone that __________ wanted to branch out in the domains it covered.

best wishes, Michael

Note: I have made a few small additions to the original note which I have indicated with [brackets]

Afterthought: This particular story involved dozens of sources, but there were two sexual assault victims in particular who were willing to take great risks to themselves to go public and explain their experiences with the sexual predator the story was about. They showed great courage and continued to be committed to telling their stories for many months, but that was not good enough for the second publication that killed this story. The first publication killed it for fear of being sued; the second for fear of being criticized. What about the victims?

Update: A large number of colleagues in biological anthropology know who this story is about. If anyone feels they have a need to know, they can contact me privately and discuss it. 

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