Standing with DNLee, but not turning on Scientific American

Late last week, along with so many of you, I read Dr. Danielle N. Lee’s honest and horrifying post on The Urban Scientist about the email exchange she had with a website editor who invited her to write posts for free and then called her an “urban whore” when she declined. This side of suffrage, emancipation, the Enlightenment, and the end of the Middle Ages, there’s really only one possible reaction to such a story, which is to be outraged at the inhumanity and unprofessionalism of the editor’s  response. Those words would be cowardly and reprehensible if directed at anyone, but aiming them at one of the too-few women of color in the science blogosphere also drags in racism and sexism.

Then, unfortunately, that original offense was all but eclipsed by Scientific American‘s decision to remove Danielle’s post, citing an unbelievable reason for doing so. Later statements from Mariette DiChristina, the editor in chief, gave a fuller explanation but even that was generally received as incomplete, inconsistent, and at least partly unbelievable.

Although this has all been on my mind a lot in recent days, I’ve found it difficult to write anything about it for several reasons. Because of my friendship with Mariette and my tenure at SciAm, it’s personal for me in ways that differ from the ways it’s personal for many others. In the blogosphere and Twitter, I’ve seen a lot of insightful expressions of beautiful humanity in the wake of this, and righteous anger that bigotry and sexism are daily, hourly occurrences for most of the population. I’ve also seen a lot of that anger be quick to sneer at perspectives like mine as privileged and condescending—and because I understand why they can be, I’ve mostly shut up.

But tonight I read Paul Raeburn’s good post for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, “Slur sparks turmoil among science bloggers and at Scientific American,” and some appropriate words came to me. Below is the comment I left on his post.

• • •

Thanks for your assessment of this mess, Paul. The initial verbal assault against Dr. Danielle Lee by Ofek was unspeakable. Scientific American‘s removal of her post made the injury worse for her (and many others, obviously) because it bespoke betrayal and disregard for the racism and sexism at issue. Knowing Mariette and the others at Scientific American as I do, I don’t believe for a moment that was their intention, or even an unconscious motive at work. But that’s a personal perspective I can’t expect others to share, and I don’t offer it to contradict others’ experience of what happened as racist and sexist.

I also agree that SciAm’s failures to explain what it was doing, correct the record, and apologize adequately is the biggest cause of its woes at this point. When I read Mariette’s full statement, I see her trying to own the responsibility for those mistakes, but it appears that’s not how it has been received, so maybe I’m reading more into it than is on the page. Plenty of people have made the point already that being honest from the start would have been the best choice, and the unfolding of this debacle certainly underscores how true that is. Having been in the chair that Mariette now occupies, though, I can attest that being so candid in practice can be extremely hard to do.

Personally, I wish there were a little more sympathy and support being shown to Mariette during this, if not to SciAm. The sci-comm community can be wonderfully forgiving and encouraging of its own even when they have transgressed badly, and Mariette has a long record of generosity to others. But if people disagree or can’t be otherwise now, Mariette will survive. She’s one of the best science journalists, one of the best executives, and one of the best people I’ve had the honor to work with.

I will disagree with you on one point, Paul, where you suppose that SciAm didn’t seek legal advice before taking down Dr. Lee’s post. From my experiences there, I am completely certain that lawyers were consulted and that the insistence that the post come down immediately came from them. I’m equally sure they would have insisted that any initial statement about why it came down should not mention legal concerns: in any lawsuit that might follow, that statement could be used as an admission of negligence in allowing a damaging post on the site in the first place. Or so they would argue, anyway.

The reason I say this with the certainty that I do is that I have had those same lawyers make the same insistent recommendations to me in analogous situations.

Some people have dismissed the idea that anything in Dr. Lee’s post could have been legally risky because she was showing screen caps of the emails, so their factuality was not in doubt. That’s true, but it’s not necessarily the full legal story, and I don’t know whether any of Mariette’s statements about the lawyers’ concerns reflected all of [those concerns]. For example—and I’m really surprised that so many journalists seem to be unaware of this—you cannot necessarily publish your correspondence with someone, particularly with the intention of holding that person up for criticism or ridicule, if he or she had a reasonable expectation that the communication was private. In such cases, the truth is specifically not a defense against charges of defamation.

I’m not saying these objections are the last legal word on the subject. (And to be even more clear, I’m not accusing Dr. Lee of having done anything wrong.) But they show that legal opinions on these matters can get complicated and that lawyers could easily make a case for taking down the post.

Whatever the legal advice might have been, it doesn’t explain or excuse all the mistakes SciAm made in removing the post, being evasive about the reasons, and then being less than fully forthcoming afterward. I’m hopeful that SciAm will have learned from this dreadful experience—indeed, that the whole ugly business will have opened many people’s eyes to truths about racism and sexism, and to the importance of owning up to mistakes promptly. Most especially, I wish the best for Dr. Lee and her desire to help make more of us aware of the curses of prejudice and the blessings of diversity.

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One Response to Standing with DNLee, but not turning on Scientific American

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