A role model for our field

How a discipline can and should respond to the minimising of sexual harassment charges.

We are writing to give feedback on a story which appeared in the October 11 edition of the NYTimes, titled “Geoffrey Marcy, Astronomer at Berkeley, Apologizes for Behavior” by Dennis Overbye. Appended at the end of this letter is a Letter to the Editor to be considered for publication.
The authors of this letter are all professional astronomers and physicists, from across the world. Women are dramatically underrepresented in our field and other sciences, in part because of the sexism and misogyny that this article reinforced.
This article epitomizes the culture that champions the voices of predators and minimizes the experiences of survivors. Mr. Overbye’s piece repeatedly sympathizes with Marcy, portraying him as a misunderstood, empathetic educator. This viewpoint is captured in the title of the article, and it is reinforced by quotes from Marcy and his wife that Marcy was “condemned without knowing all of the facts” and “the punishment Geoff is receiving here in the court of hysterical public opinion is far out of proportion to what he did”. Not only are these statements false (see the next paragraph), but they employ the damaging tactic of painting female targets and their supporters as overly sensitive trouble-makers….

Read on.

3 thoughts on “A role model for our field

  1. I agree that the title is inappropriate—it should certainly have focussed on the University’s findings and Marcy’s dismissal, not his apology. But I think most of the other criticisms of the *Times* article are, at best, of limited force.

    The statements that Marcy was “condemned without knowing all of the facts” and “the punishment Geoff is receiving here in the court of hysterical public opinion is far out of proportion to what he did” were not by the author of the piece: they were direct quotations from Dr Kegley, Marcy’s wife. I don’t see any indication that the Overbye endorsed those quotations, any more than he endorsed any other quotation in the piece.

    Now, I’d tend to say that the opinions of Dr Kegley aren’t terribly relevant, unless she’s de facto acting as Marcy’s spokeswoman. But having made the decision to ask her for a statement, surely the *Times* had the responsibility to quote it accurately.

    I agree that her claims are false: Marcy doesn’t seem to have been “condemned without knowing all of the facts”, and public opinion here isn’t “hysterical”.

    But it’s not a journalist’s responsibility to quote only from people who state true things: it would be more or less impossible to report on anything if that were the case.

    If someone asserts a *straightforwardly checkable* falsehood — e.g., when a politician flatly misstates Planned Parenthood’s budget — then the reporter ought to point out its falsity. But whether someone has been treated fairly, or whether a punishment is proportionate, is in legal terms a “matter of opinion”. (I hate that idiom, since it suggests claims like these aren’t truth-apt, when of course they are; but it does capture the fact that they aren’t just things which one can mechanically verify or falsify by looking up the data.)
    And in those cases we certainly shouldn’t blame a reporter for reporting straightforwardly what someone says, even if we think that what is said is false.

  2. I should add that I do think the article could be better in a lot of ways — as I noted, the space given to Marcy’s wife doesn’t seem justified, and, as the authors of the letter note, it might have been preferable if someone who hadn’t used Marcy as a source extensively before had written the piece. But newspapers reporting on current events work under tremendous time pressure, and decisions about who writes an article or who gets quoted are often strongly constrained by availability.

    I think it’s unfair to say that an article “epitomizes the culture that champions the voices of predators and minimizes the experiences of survivors” because some editorial choices, perhaps made under great time pressure (the article says that the email exchange with Marcy occurred on Saturday, and it appeared in the Sunday *Times*), could have been better.

  3. I disagree very strongly with Interested Commenter here about the force of the criticisms of the NYTimes article. This was (judging by a search of NYTimes.com in date order) the first article in the Times to report Marcy’s harassment. Overbye chose to include the irrelevant comments from Marcy’s wife. Indeed, he chose to highlight them over comments from anyone critical of Marcy–the first three paragraphs of the story consist of a fairly neutral lead, paragraphs four through nine consist of remarks from Marcy and Kegley, paragraph ten is a bland statement from the university, paragraph eleven tells us that Marcy has “been told he is not welcome” at a conference on the twentieth anniversary of the “work that made [him] famous” (poor dear!), and only in paragraph twelve do we begin to hear from one of Marcy’s victims.

    It is true that Overbye does not endorse Kegley’s comments about Marcy’s “empathy” and how condemnation of him is “hysterical” (!). But Overbye chose to put them in the article, and to highlight them, when they were hardly newsworthy. How many other articles reporting someone’s misconduct lead with quotations from the miscreant and his spouse? (Look at this article on an upcoming indictment against Sen. Robert Menendez, picked randomly; there’s a lot of description of the charges against him before two brief paragraphs of his protestation of innocence, and the rest of his defense is buried far down in the story.) Even if Overbye didn’t endorse Kegley’s comments, his choice to put them above the victim’s comments spins them a certain way.

    And this shows why we need to have some philosophy of journalism. (Jenny, I remember having a conversation with you about philosophy of journalism a few years ago!) Yes, Kegley said what she did, but that doesn’t end the conversation about whether and how to include it in the story–as though a newspaper story were a mere recitation of facts, and as long as everything it says is literally true it’s essentially in order. Much of what we take from a newspaper story depends on what facts the reporter has deemed worthy of presentation, and how they were presented. The way Overbye chose to present his facts, including the not-very-relevant fact that Marcy’s wife defended him, spun the story so as to minimize what Marcy had done.

    (I’m reminded of the reporting in the run-up to the Iraq war that reported, accurately, that various Bush administration officials had said various things, but that failed to report the ways in which those officials had been deceptive in the past, and the ways in which the things they said were irrelevant to the case for war even with true. Google “Iraq war stenography” if you want to know what I’m talking about. And yes, I’m afraid there’s something sexist in using “stenography” as an insult.)

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