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
To: Tim Appenzeller <>, Elizabeth Culotta <>, Jeffrey Mervis <>
Cc: Marcia McNutt <>
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



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