Science Magazine, a publication run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has cut ties with a veteran reporter weeks after publishing his in-depth investigation of a sexual assault allegation at the American Museum of Natural History.
Michael Balter had most recently been a "contributing correspondent" for the magazine, which is a contract position. But he'd worked with Science for over 25 years, at times serving as a full-time staff member. He received 30-days notice on Thursday; he says the reason he was given was a "breakdown of trust."
In a post on his personal blog, Balter suggests the magazine's editors may have been reacting to the long-term investigation he did for them. After nearly a year following a case of alleged sexual assault and misconduct at New York City's American Museum of Natural History, Balter said he had to fight to get the story published last month.
Science Magazine said in a statement that it stands by Balter's story.
I've known Balter for four years (and took a class with him while studying science writing at New York University), and he has made no secret of his pride in the investigation, telling friends and colleagues that it felt like one of the most important stories he'd ever done.
He told The Post on Friday that the piece was held up by "micromanaging" for about a month. Even before it was published, his reporting seems to have prompted the museum to launch a new investigation into the alleged incident involving one of its curators and a research assistant.
At one point, he said he became aware that reporters from the New York Times had caught wind of the story, and he worried that his work would be scooped. He worried that his months of careful reporting on the delicate subject — he claims to have interviewed around 60 sources — would be supplanted by hastier coverage. Still, he said, Science held off.
It was then that he threatened to publish the story on his own blog — an ultimatum that he says moved the process along. The story was reviewed and cleared by the magazine's legal department, according to Balter.
"To be fair to Science and to my editors, and I really am trying to be fair, I give them credit for publishing this damn thing," he said. "No matter how scared they were, they did it. Whether they did it because they’d be embarrassed if they missed out, or it would be a feather in their cap if they did, or they were really concerned about the issues and wanted to do the right thing, or some combination, they did finally publish it."
Balter said he knew he was putting his relationship with Science on the line by playing hardball, but he thought he'd emerged unscathed. " Despite the bad feelings and the bad blood and the tension about the story, no one was suggesting that I was going to be fired," he said Friday.
In fact, he said, he was speaking to Science's News Editor Tim Appenzeller as recently as Monday about a potential story idea.
"In other words, on Monday, there was no 'breakdown of trust'," Balter said. Appenzeller did not respond to a request for comment.
Representatives from Science did provide The Post with the following statement:
Michael Balter was provided notice on March 10, 2016, that his contract as a freelance writer for Science magazine was being discontinued. Mr. Balter has written many stories for Science's news section, including one published Feb. 9, 2016, on a sexual misconduct case.
Science editors stand by the Feb. 9 story as published. The goal of editing was to ensure that the story was both powerful and fair.
AAAS remains committed to providing leadership on stopping sexual harassment in science and empowering women in STEM fields.
The announcement comes at a time when the issues of sexual harassment and assault in academia and research — particularly in scientific fields — are coming to a head. Balter's investigation added to a growing pile of high-profile cases in the field. Science Magazine — a publication that faced harsh criticism last year over its handling of sex and gender issues — has just started to join other science outlets in a new wave of presenting sexual harassment allegations as topics worthy of front-and-center coverage.
"I think that Science was doing better," Balter said, "but I think this story may have been a little too hot to handle for Science. We were treading into more dangerous waters."
Correction: The number of sources involved in the story has been amended.