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Thursday, March 17, 2016

A reader's guide to my Science story on the allegations concerning Brian Richmond

The following assumes that readers are familiar with my story about allegations of sexual misconduct against Brian Richmond, curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. This story was published online on February 9 and in print in the February 12 issue of Science

A number of things were cut from the story due to length and legal issues. Many of them I would have preferred to keep in, and there would have been room for them had the story run at six pages rather than five as I had hoped. Although I have carefully vetted what I say here to be consistent with the guidelines we followed to avoid litigation as a result of the story, I take full responsibility for the content below and absolve Science, AAAS, and my editors at Science of any liability for it. Nevertheless, they were aware of these findings since they appeared in earlier drafts of my story and their accuracy was never questioned.

Here are the salient points:

1.     Richmond was not the search committee’s first choice. There were two searches: The first resulted in the curator position being offered to a highly respected paleoanthropologist at the University of Tubingen in Germany. After about 8-9 months of negotiations, she turned it down for various reasons. Then there was a second search: Richmond was the search committee’s third choice. The first choice, a popular African expert in human evolution based at a US institution, was reportedly lowballed in the salary offer by science provost Mike Novacek because Novacek really wanted the second choice, a respected female anthropologist; she got a counter-offer at her university, so that left Richmond. This provides important possible insights into why Novacek protected Richmond when the allegations arose: Terminating him for the alleged sexual assault would have required yet another lengthy search and public embarrassment for the museum.

2.     I know who most of the European researchers were who were drinking with Richmond and the research assistant that night in September 2014. They are reluctant to come forward because of European laws against talking to the press about possible criminal allegations, but one did tell me anonymously that the research assistant was definitely drunk and thus incapacitated. Other evidence from these young researchers indicates that the research assistant could not find her AirBnB and that it was agreed among some of the group that Richmond would shelter her in his hotel. Richmond was her supervisor and it was assumed that he could be trusted to take care of her. Richmond confirms these details but insists that she was not so intoxicated that she could not have given consent to the encounter.

3.     I have been in direct contact with three friends of the research assistant whom she told what had happened in the first few days after her return to New York from Italy. They are referred to only very briefly in the article as confirming that she was telling the same basic story of what happened from the very beginning, even though one is on the record and provided a full page written account which she was willing to have published with her name attached to it. This account was cited in my original draft, together with this witness’s name, but was cut from the final. The key point is that the research assistant apparently did remember the details after she woke up in Richmond’s hotel room from the beginning, even if she had been too drunk to remember how she got there in the first place. There is other strong evidence that the research assistant did not change her story, as Richmond insists, which we had decided to keep in reserve in case of litigation.

4.     On the Monday after the research assistant returned from Italy, her first day back at work at the museum, Richmond walked into her office and she confronted him, demanding to know what she was doing in his hotel room and what he had done to her. Richmond and the research assistant agree about the basic details of this confrontation. He explained to her that she could not find her AirBnB and he had made his hotel room available to her. Richmond told me in an email that he was “startled” to hear that the research assistant did not remember the events that led to this. The research assistant later emailed a member of the group they had been with in Italy to ask what had happened that night, leading up to the incident in the hotel room. The research assistant says that there is a contradiction between Richmond saying that she was not too drunk to give consent and at the same time insisting that she did not remember the incident. This was an important point that did not make it into the final version.

5.     I either spoke or emailed with 11 people with whom Rhea Gordon was in contact for her investigation; most of them either experienced directly or witnessed directly what they claimed was inappropriate sexual behavior by Richmond in various settings. The three anonymous women in the story, who were at Koobi Fora,  are just one part of that. A mention of the 11 people was cut from the story. Gordon was trying to see if there was a pattern of behavior, similar to what Bernard Wood was looking for in his investigation. This truncation of our account of Gordon’s investigation deprived readers of additional evidence that the museum itself had apparently identified the same pattern of behavior beyond just the three anonymous Koobi Fora witnesses.

6.     Richmond has a point about the distortion of due process by the museum. I began my investigation in early November 2015, and was officially assigned to do the story by Science on Nov 16. By Nov 30 I had enough information to go to Anne Canty at the AMNH and ask for certain documents, interviews and other information, and I presented her with my requests that day. Richmond says that he was asked to resign within the first few days of December, ie, almost immediately after they knew for sure what we were doing (I told Canty much of what we knew so that the museum would be as forthcoming and transparent as possible.) He declined to say who asked him to resign, but in a Dec 11 meeting of the anthropology division called by its chair, Laurel Kendall, Kendall told colleagues that Novacek had asked for the resignation. Her statement to the meeting is confirmed by three sources present at the time. This important reference to the meeting and Kendall’s statements was cut from the final version.


7.     To underscore what is implied above: AMNH science provost Mike Novacek was making many of the decisions here, perhaps in some cases in collaboration with higher ups or with the museum’s legal department, perhaps in some cases on his own. It might be a safe assumption that AMNH president Ellen Futter is now involved in all major decisions.

      Additional thoughts: My editors were rightly very concerned that our story be fully fair to Brian Richmond, a concern that I completely shared and acted on during the entire time that I was reporting the story. I aggressively pursued Richmond, urging him to tell his side of the story; and when he finally began to do that I inserted as many comments as possible from him, focusing on his strongest arguments as is standard ethical journalistic practice. However, fairness is not achieved by cutting important information and context such that a story becomes a "he says, she says" account rather than a search for the truth. I'm sure that my editors will not agree, but in my view some of the cuts had that effect.

      Important additional information: All of the statements in this "reader's guide," as in the original story in Science, are multiply sourced and based on sound reporting of the facts of the case.


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Statement by @sciencemagazine Editor-in-Chief on my termination repeats non-explanation by @aaas

Since I was informed on March 10 that my contract with Science was being terminated after 25 years of service to the journal, officials of the AAAS, the publisher of Science, have issued two statements about it. They both insist that it had nothing to do with my investigative piece into allegations of sexual misconduct by Brian Richmond, curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The first statement came on March 11; the second was issued just yesterday by Science Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt (who will soon become the first woman president of the National Academy of Sciences.)

This second statement was issued by Marcia to the Anthropology section of the AAAS, Section H, and was posted on its Facebook page as follows:

"AAAS is saddened by Michael Balter’s recent statements, but will not comment on matters related to anyone who has worked for AAAS, whether they were on staff or working under a freelance contract, as in Mr. Balter’s case. However, contrary to a public narrative that has been set forth by others, the ending of Mr. Balter’s association with AAAS is not related in any way to the content of the news story published in Science on allegations of sexual misconduct against Brian Richmond. Our commitment to the published story, and to covering the extremely important topic of sexual harassment in science, remains unwavering."

In my original blog post about the termination, I provided my own side of the story, which is that the termination has everything to do with serious conflicts that arose between me and my editors during the preparation of the story. This is the "breakdown of trust" that Science's news editor referred to when he broke the news to me by telephone. In my response to Marcia's statement on the Section H Facebook page, I waived my rights to privacy in this matter so that AAAS can feel entirely free to tell its side of the story and respond to repeated queries from the scientific community (social media posts amounting to many thousands of individual posts.) I still hope that it will do so, as I may well have more to say about the entire affair in the coming days given that my credibility and my reputation are on the line. There was indeed a "breakdown of trust"--on my side, it was my trust in my editors that they were pursuing the story in an ethical way and with correct motivations.

Much more importantly than my personal situation, however, Science has removed me from an ongoing story, which I am far and away in the best position to continue to report on: The AMNH's third investigation into the allegations against Richmond, and the action that the museum may or may not take once it is completed, which should be quite soon from the information I have been able to gather about it. No matter how that turns out in the end, it is of vital interest to the scientific community. As I pointed out in my previous blog post, Science was happy to have me continue to report on dinosaurs and stone throwing chimps and pursue other story ideas for a full month after the Brian Richmond story was published. Why now all the sudden rush to remove me from the Richmond story before I had completed the job?

Friday, March 11, 2016

Why did @sciencemagazine terminate me after 25 years of service?

Yesterday March 10 at about noon East Coast USA time, I received a telephone call from Science's news editor, Tim Appenzeller. Tim was calling to tell me that after 25 years with the magazine, he was giving me 30 days notice that my Contributing Correspondent contract would be terminated. He spoke briefly of a "breakdown of trust" between me and Science's editors and indicated that the quarter-century long relationship was no longer working. In a followup email, Tim referred to the "wonderful work" I had done for Science over the years, and wrote that my recent investigative piece on the sexual misconduct allegations concerning Brian Richmond of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) had been "a high point." Last month, shortly before the piece was published, he called this three-month long investigation "an extraordinary piece of reporting."

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.