The New York Times hit the wrong tone with an article on astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, who broke the University of California-Berkeley’s sexual harassment guidelines and recently resigned from his position at the university, Times public editor Margaret Sullivan argued.
The Times‘ Oct. 11 article, “Geoffrey Marcy, Astronomer at Berkeley, Apologizes for Behavior,” reported that “the university concluded that Dr. Marcy had engaged in inappropriate behavior with students, including groping them, kissing them and touching or massaging them.” The news of his actions was released just after BuzzFeed revealed the investigation and interviewed three of the women he allegedly groped and Marcy issued an apology, the Times noted.
One of the complainants said Marcy “grabbed her crotch,” BuzzFeed reported. Others said they saw Marcy giving back massages under clothing or being “inappropriately touchy,” BuzzFeed reported, noting that many people complained about Marcy’s behavior.The Times‘ article quoted from Marcy’s apology, a Times reporter’s e-mail with Marcy, and Marcy’s wife, who defended him at length.
Sullivan received many complaints about the article, writing it “angered and disappointed a large number of academics and scientists, especially women, some of whom are calling for its retraction and stating that it adds to the problems women face in a still male-dominated field.”
A letter sent to the Times signed by 268 astronomers and physicists argued “this article epitomizes the culture that champions the voices of predators and minimizes the experiences of survivors” because it “repeatedly sympathizes with Marcy.” The letter argued the Times reporter Dennis Overbye had a “serious conflict of interest” as well as bias because he had a “collegial relationship with Marcy and has championed Marcy’s work in previous NYTimes articles.” The group also sent a letter to editor about the coverage.
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“For a number of reasons, the focus in this initial article was off,” Sullivan wrote. “If The Times continues reporting on the larger topic (a worthy one), there should be no further emphasis on the ‘troubles’ of harassers.” Issues included the headline, which “was not inaccurate but it tilted toward” Marcy’s perspective and the inclusion of Marcy’s wife’s defense, especially given the limited inclusion of victims’ comments.
In response, Times science editor Celia Duggar pointed out to Sullivan that the article in question was the first article in ongoing coverage of Marcy. She agreed certain things could have been done better like the headline and how much the Times had quoted Marcy’s wife’s defense of him.
Despite the hundreds of upset readers, Duggar said the newspaper wouldn’t retract and that the reporter Overbye wrote “an evenhanded, straightforward news story.”