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Science magazine writer fired after controversial story
Behind the ‘breakdown of trust.’
Sometimes fighting for their integrity can cost journalists their jobs. And that’s what Michael Balter—a science reporter and longtime correspondent for Science magazine—thinks happened to him.
In a Skype interview with the Daily Dot, Balter described his firing from Science as a surprise. But in a series of tweets, a blog post, and in talking with the Dot, Balter revealed that there was more going on behind the scenes of Science and its parent nonprofit, the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) that, in his view, likely played a role in his termination.
Balter began writing for Science in the early 1990s. He’s contributed numerous features and shorter news articles both in print and online. Across his career, he’s covered a variety of topics and stories, particularly related to paleontology, anthropology, and archeology. But he said there was one topic that played a role in his firing.
A difficult story
After announcing his departure from Science on March 10, Balter suggested that the reasons behind his firing were likely due to a story he wrote about sexual misconduct in the paleoanthropology field, published online in Science in February.
The latest in a spate of high-profile stories of sexual misconduct in academia, the story centered around an unnamed research assistant’s allegations that paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond sexually assaulted her while she was drunk in his hotel room in Italy. The research assistant said she went out with Richmond and others for a night of drinking. Later in the evening, she claimed she awoke to him kissing her and groping under her skirt in his hotel room. The research assistant said she did not recall how she got to the hotel room nor did she consent to the encounter. Richmond insisted the encounter was “consensual and reciprocal.”
Balter tweeted that, behind the scenes, he had to fight with his editors to get the story published in a timely manner and with reporting he felt did justice to the story.
The contention escalated to a breaking point in January where Balter felt he had to threaten to publish the story elsewhere if Science did not let him publish in a way he was happy with.
In a blog post about his termination, Balter mentioned that certain elements to the story nonetheless wound up on the cutting room floor.
“There was material in the original drafts of my story that was supportive and confirmatory of [the research assistant’s] story that was lost in the final draft,” Balter said.
He described one scene to the story, which was in early drafts but ultimately left out of the final version, where the research assistant confronted Richmond about the night in his hotel room. Balter said that both Richmond and the research assistant confirmed the details of this confrontation, in which the assistant said that she had no memory of entering his hotel room or consenting to any sexual activity. Richmond said he offered to let her stay in his hotel room after she couldn’t find her Airbnb, and was “startled” to hear she did not remember agreeing to come up or the events that transpired after, according to Balter.
Balter said there were more elements eventually cut from the story, but declined to divulge details out of concern of legal ramifications for himself and for Science. However, he said that he was aware of the decisions his editors made every step of the way.
“One of the good things about writing for Science is that the writers see every single version of the story,” Balter said. “That’s not always true of all publications.”
Balter said that both he and his editors were also very concerned about presenting a story that was fair to Richmond. He noted that he was the one to push Richmond to go on the record with an interview to get his side of things into the story. But, Balter said he felt Science and AAAS were also preoccupied with concerns over sparking a lawsuit from Richmond.
“There was a lot of tension between November and when the story was published in February,” Balter said. “But when we got to the end, and when they agreed to publish and publish in the way I wanted it to be, then I felt like we got over a hump.”
Balter continued to work on more stories for Science for the next month, and he continued to keep tabs on the Richmond story. He told the Daily Dot that at the beginning of the week, he was starting new stories for Science and his editors were enthusiastic to see what would become of those stories. He added that Science News Editor Tim Appenzeller approved a $200 expense for Balter to take some sources for the Richmond story out to lunch.
So it came as a surprise to him when Appenzeller—whom Balter had known since his early years at Science—called him on Thursday to tell him his 25-year relationship with Science would be coming to an end.
‘A breakdown of trust’
In his blog post and in his conversation with the Daily Dot, Balter said that Appenzeller had described the reasons for his termination as a “breakdown of trust” between him and the editors at Science. The Daily Dot reached out to AAAS’s press team, Appenzeller, and Science Editor-In-Chief Marcia McNutt for comment. The press team responded by linking to AAAS’s public statement on the matter.
The statement doesn’t address the particulars behind Balter’s termination but does say that AAAS stands by the Richmond story.
Appenzeller and McNutt have not responded to the Daily Dot’s requests for comment on the specifics of Balter’s termination and, in particular, the “breakdown of trust” Balter said was cited as the reason for his termination.
Others have pressed AAAS over Twitter to expand on their statement.
“A breakdown of trust is pretty big and it’s contradictory with the fact that they entrusted me to do more stories over the month,” Balter said.
In his blog, Balter speculated that a more proximate “trigger” for his firing was his inquiries into the departure of Kent Anderson from Science.
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.
Balter wondered in his blog if he asked “one question too many” to the distaste of higher-ups at AAAS. He told the Daily Dot he suspected the decision to terminate his contract likely came from someone higher up on the chain of command than Appenzeller, considering Appenzeller’s apparent enthusiasm at continuing to work with Balter.
Anderson did not respond to a request for comment.
But Anderson’s mysterious departure is not uncommon to Science. In his blog, Balter added some additional context, referencing three months in the fall of 2014 where he took a leave of absence in protest to the firing of four women in the art and production departments at Science.
“That was a big, traumatic experience for everyone at Science,” he said. “I thought there was a very good chance I was going to get fired back then. And I didn’t. Probably partly because Science didn’t want anymore bad publicity. And partly—I’d like to put a positive spin on it too and say that maybe there was some recognition that employees of AAAS at Science have the right to speak up and make their views known.”
‘There’s something seriously wrong’
Balter said that, though he was sad to be leaving Science, the free time will allow him to write for other publications and work on a new book. He said that he doesn’t want to fight for his job—and hopes no one else will, either. Instead, he hopes his experiences will inspire others to push for greater transparency in AAAS.
“I have been at Science for 25 years. I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of fantastic stories that I’m really proud of. I’ll always have that legacy,” Balter said. “But there’s something seriously wrong with a publication that can’t manage to keep someone like me in the family and feels they need to terminate me because I stuck up for what I thought was right, a year and a half ago over the firings and because I fought for the integrity of my story this time.”
Photo via Michael Balter | Remix by Fernando Alfonso III
Cynthia McKelvey covered the health and science for the Daily Dot until 2017. She earned a graduate degree in science communication from the University of California Santa Cruz in 2014. Her work has appeared in Gizmodo, Scientific American Mind, and Mic.com.