NYT Exploits Black Physicists for Culture War Clicks
On the reported op-ed that is masquerading as neutral news coverage
12/20/2022 5:32 PM ET Update: It turns out that this is not the first time a Powell has specifically come after a woman assistant professor. It seems there’s a template.
12/29/2022 4:33 PM ET Update: There are four people behind #RenameJWST, and I am just one of them. The other three have published a statement at that further highlights the factual errors and misrepresentations in the NYT, including baseless accusations about a supposed campaign against Hakeen Oluseyi. To be clear, no one from NYT’s fact checking department ever reached out to me to verify any of the claims being made about me in the piece.
Obviously last week I was pretty hype to share the new Cite Black Women+ in Physics resource, which can now be quickly found at citeblackphysicists.com and citeblackwomeninphysics.com. Unfortunately, as my Chanukah and vacation kicked off, I didn’t really get the opportunity to kick back and enjoy watching this new resource focused on promoting Black physicists (who are women and gender minorities) as it moved out in the world.
This is because yesterday morning, the New York Times published an article that was ostensibly about the #RenameJWST controversy, but was actually a poorly fact checked op-ed focused on me and replete with errors and bias. I’ve written a lengthy Twitter thread about this, but given the volatility of that platform these days — and that some people have left — I am also writing up my comments about the article. (Please note that throughout the thread I mistakenly refer to Matthew Francis as Matt Francis. Please do not reproduce my error!)
Here is a screenshot of the title, so you can seek out the article if you want to. I’m not linking to it:
In the process of alt-texting the screenshot of “How Naming the James Webb Telescope Turned Into a Fight Over Homophobia,” I actually noticed something I missed yesterday, and it’s error number one: It’s the James Webb Space Telescope. It’s not the James Webb Telescope. Sometimes folks call it Webb Telescope for short. But if the telescope were sentient, it might be screaming at the author of this screed, Michael Powell, that’s not my name!! This kind of carelessness with the facts is a theme of the
article op-ed, sadly.
I want to be clear about one thing: I should not be at the center of this story and neither should any of the other people who were interviewed for it. Any focus on the individuals is a distraction from the main issue at hand: a confrontation with institutional homophobia. This distraction is, in my opinion, the point of Powell’s piece.
Facts not included or mispresented
First, a bit of history: the article suggests that journalist Dr. Matthew Francis was the first person to write up a piece accusing James Webb of complicity in homophobia. In fact, it was Dan Savage, whose name appears nowhere in the piece. This is something I mentioned when I spoke to Michael Powell because Savage is in fact how I first heard about the issue with Webb, and it was the link that I passed on to Francis, who is a very experienced science journalist, unlike Powell. The problem, perhaps, for Powell is that if he mentions Dan Savage as the source, it’s harder to blame me for what happens next, because I was not the person that Savage heard about this from. The failure to include this history of how the information spread shows that Powell and the NYT published a reported op-ed, not a researched news story seeking to show different perspectives. (You can read Francis’s perspective on this here.)
Second, the article discusses a blog entry by Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi — then President-elect of the National Society of Black Physicists, now President — but fails to mention that Oluseyi repeatedly updated the blog as people found evidence that countered its original claims. He does not include notes about the changes he made on the blog, nor does he credit the person who dug up the information (Dr. Adrian Lucy), who at the time was a student. (As you all know, I’m a fan of citing people.) For a full discussion of the changes Oluseyi made — and a critical analysis of the perspective he puts forward — check out the analysis that appeared on. Dr. Lucianne Walkowicz’s analysis includes a link to the original blog post. Powell’s op-ed does not contain any discussion of these hidden changes to the blog or why they were made, even though he pilloried Matthew Francis for making a smaller change that is not identified in his blog at Forbes.
Third, Powell fails to mention or grapple with the fact that there is now public evidence that Oluseyi was prompted to write his blog entry by someone working at NASA headquarters. Of course, mentioning this might undercut the piece’s entire through line, which is that Oluseyi is a tireless hero, motivated only by a sense of justice and a commitment to history, unlike me who is motivated by . . . the fact that I came from a left wing activist family? I ask because I’m a bit two dimensional in the piece. More on that later.
Fourth, Powell claims that Lucianne, Dr. Sarah Tuttle, Dr. Brian Nord, and I shifted our arguments after NASA released its report. This is false. In 2021, we argued in a Scientific American op-ed that Webb was responsible for homophobia that happened on his watch, and we argued the same on this here substack just weeks ago. It’s worth noting that it was agitation by us — and many other astronomers and some of our professional organizations, including Royal Astronomical Society and the American Astronomical Society — that finally pressured NASA to release the report.
Fifth, Powell states that I wrote a series of tweets about Oluseyi without naming him, accusing him of misconduct. Certainly Powell is entitled to his suspicions, but here he reports his suspicions as fact. Since I am the author of those tweets, and I received no requests from a fact checker, I can say with total authority that Powell has no special information that allows him to determine who the tweets were about. My response to this is that there are multiple people who could be described, in my opinion, by those same tweets, including my own rapist — who is not Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi.
From the perspective of journalistic and editorial integrity, I think this part of the article is actually something that should be removed since it is literally a conjecture with no evidence, being reported about a specific person with no insider knowledge of the situation, as fact. My guess is that if I talked to a lawyer about it, this is technically libel.
Regarding specific accusations of misconduct or Title IX violations against Oluseyi: Powell does say that he talked to someone who made accusations against Oluseyi and determined that at least some of her accusations were false. Given the other errors and obvious bias in the article, I don’t see any reason someone should specifically trust Powell’s adjudication here. Reporting on Title IX is a specific skill, and Powell has no track record with it. He seems to be more focused on promoting transphobia. Overall my observation is that his beat is turning people he feels are “woke avatars” into public punching bags and calling it “journalism.” Powell did repeatedly ask me to talk to him about the Title IX accusations and for all the obvious reasons, I did not reply to his emails. If I did know of someone who had something to report about Oluseyi, I would never put them in touch with Powell or let him know how to reach them because I don’t throw victims to the wolves.
One of the “stranger” things about this op-ed is that it was written by someone who is not a science journalist and it completely ignores previous reporting by the NYT’s own science reporters, specifically Dennis Overbye. Overbye has been reporting on astronomy for so long that I read and loved a book by him when I was a teenager, and as the op-ed points out, I’m 40 now. Overbye’s own reporting on the #RenameJWST story invoked Lord Voldemort, which I suppose might be why Powell didn’t want to mention it.
So, if we are being generous, perhaps Powell doesn’t really know how to do science journalism correctly because his job is at the national desk. Maybe this explains why he completely ignores (misrepresents?) the issues that Sarah, Brian, Lucianne and I raised in our recent response to the NASA report. He accuses us of “reframing” while totally ignoring that we specifically said that NASA’s report asks and answers the wrong question:
based on the introduction it seems to be answering the question “Is there definitive physical proof that James Webb knew about Clifford Norton and his case?” That’s a separate question from, “Was James Webb, as administrator, responsible for the activities of the agency he led?”
One can only guess about why Powell chose not to report on or grapple with this. But certainly doing so would complicate the through line of his op-ed.
In relation, Powell appears to attack Scientific American Editor in Chief Laura Helmuth for her decision to publish our op-ed, while not publishing any rebuttal from Oluseyi. But our op-ed was a rebuttal in part to claims he made in his blog! Why would she publish him rehashing the same thing? Also, at least Helmuth, unlike Powell’s editor at the NYT, had the professionalism to label our piece as opinion, whereas Powell’s reported opinion essay is not labeled as opinion.
Powell did not report on one of my other major objections to naming the telescope after Webb, which was his role in promoting the development of psychological warfare. He also failed to report that I repeatedly advocated for extensive study of Webb’s life. He did not grapple with the idea that if Webb is responsible for the positive things that happened under him at State and NASA — like the Apollo program — he is also responsible for the bad things that happened, like homophobic witch hunts. Powell also didn’t report that I expressed significant enthusiasm for the telescope’s engineering and future scientific discoveries.
It’s worth noting also that Powell fails to quote any women who are supportive of his agenda; every single woman quoted is engaged in a critical manner.
Making this Personal
The #RenameJWST question is personal for me because I am a Black queer person. It is also personal because I was a founding member of the American Astronomical Society Committee on the Status of Sexual-orientation and Gender Minorities (SGMA, in fact I’m partially responsible for the unwieldy name). When the Savage story first got sent to SGMA, I don’t think I pushed hard enough to get the senior people on the committee to agree to speak up about it. I was the only non-tenured person on the committee at the time, and the generational gap was obvious. Also, at the time we did not know about the Clifford Norton case involving a NASA employee who was extrajudicially interrogated by Webb’s chief of security and subsequently fired for being gay.
This op-ed essay took “it’s personal” in a new direction: a lot of the piece was focused on me even though everything I have published on this topic has been done in partnership with three other people, and almost 2000 astronomers signed our petition to Rename JWST. Powell describes me in terms of my “low six-figure Twitter following” rather than for example the fact that between 2021 and 2022 I won eight awards,* including four for science writing, three of which were for a 2021 book that won universal acclaim from all reviewers. Powell also at one point describes me as Ms. Prescod-Weinstein, despite calling Oluseyi Dr. Oluseyi or Professor Oluseyi throughout.
The specific way that Powell describes me is full of dog whistles, complete with a mention of my left-wing activist family (which I am proud to be a part of). Powell is not incompetent, so surely knew that would set a certain segment of the population off. In fact, when he interviewed me, I spoke to him about the kind of hate mail and possible death threats I would get depending on the discursive choices he made. This is to say, he chose dog whistles having had a full conversation where I alerted him to the safety risk they presented to me.
It’s clear that Powell had erected a straw-Chanda in his head, and he decided to write her up and then knock her down. That seems pretty ironic, given the central complaint of Powell’s article. From speaking to other people who had interactions with him, Powell seemed to focus on trying to get us all to say bad things about each other: he tried to get friends to say bad things about me. That alone is a kind of bias, regardless of what his excuse for it is.
As I write in my scholarship on white empiricism, ignoring inconvenient facts is a key white supremacist practice. For example, Powell failed to situate in context (or properly investigate?) the past history between the people in the article. His entire op-ed works by exploiting the fact that Oluseyi and I have a history of not getting along. I declined to discuss this with Powell when he interviewed me. Broadly, I have tried really hard not to focus any formally published discussions on this, though I have written some tweets about it. For example, it was my choice to not include his name in our Scientific American piece, although as Lucianne describes in their substack linked above, there is reason to believe that Oluseyi’s blog entry was in part meant to be an attack on me — someone who at the time it was published wasn’t thinking about him, talking about him, or writing about him.
I don’t really want to get into the conflict because I think it’s a distraction from the issues at hand — institutional homophobia — but I’m not at all embarrassed about what happened or afraid to share it publicly. If someone wants to ask me about it, I will share, but I’m not going to allow it to use up more space in this piece because the gist is that we are people who do not get along, and I blocked him on Twitter years ago to minimize us having contact.
An Unprofessional Interview
During my actual phone call with Powell, he was very focused on the following:
Getting me to agree that Matthew Francis had erred in his reporting. I declined.
Getting me to say bad things about Oluseyi. I declined.
Trying to get me to agree that I should be grateful to Webb because I am Black, even though as a queer person I could not have worked at his NASA.
Suggesting to me that queer people are such a marginal group that what happened to our folk at NASA in the 1960s is just an unfortunate reflection of the time.
Suggesting to me that Webb was just a man of his time and completely ignoring that so were all of his openly LGBT+ contemporaries, like the people who started the Stonewall Riot.
Trying to get me to agree that because Webb at points was supportive of hetcis Black employees at NASA, he deserved a $10 billion monument in the sky.
Trying to get me to agree that he was especially heroic for standing up to George Wallace, as if Webb was somehow more deserving than the Black children and adults who in some cases died opposing Wallace and his ilk.
When I did not agree to these things, Powell was aggressive and argumentative. There was no hint of genuine curiosity about my perspective. It was pretty clear that Powell had a very specific and settled perspective on the issues at hand. It appeared very much like he called me with the goal of arguing with me and then reporting only the parts of what I said in response that aligned with a narrative he wanted to construct about people who disagree with him. This is very clearly opinion/editorial territory, not reported journalism. It seemed to me that there was no pretense or attempt at genuine journalistic objectivity — instead it took the usual, biased form.
Since I started writing about my experience with this yesterday, multiple people have reached out to me to share stories of Powell’s inappropriate handling of stories and interviews. It is a shame that the New York Times continues to give him a platform to behave like this, and won’t even do the very basic thing of moving his work to the opinion section, where it would at least be appropriately categorized.
Why is the National Society of Black Physicists In It?
The conflicts between me and Oluseyi are tied up in dramas that occurred within the context of the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP). And two of the people featured/discussed in the reported op-ed are current and former leaders of NSBP. Oluseyi is the current President and in the past has been the administrative officer. At the time he published his blog entry, he was the President-elect. In addition, Jim Gates is a past president of NSBP, and if I recall correctly, he is also one of the founders of the organization.
One of the reasons I was very bothered by the blog entry was specifically because it came from the President-elect of an organization that I served faithfully in various capacities for about 15 years. The blog promotes the idea that Webb was a civil rights hero and was just following orders with respect to the harassment of LGBT+ folk, which insinuates that managers are not responsible for bias that happens on their watch. This is a deeply problematic message coming from a leader of a minority-serving organization! Gates’s comments in support of Oluseyi’s perspective are disappointing to me, again because of the message it sends about what we faculty are responsible for when it comes to how our students are treated.
There is perhaps some irony here that it was, as a young student, watching Gates’s advocacy for Black physicists that partially motivated me to become involved and engaged in advocacy specifically for Black physicists, for example in developing the Cite Black Women+ In Physics Bibliography. He was a model that so many of us looked up to.
The apparent unwillingness to grapple fully with the implications of this messaging overlaps with a growing concern I’ve had over the last few years about the (mis)handling of gender and sexuality issues within NSBP. The fact that two current and former officers appeared in this op-ed in the way that they did heightens my concerns. Importantly, this is not specifically a Hakeem Oluseyi or Jim Gates problem: it is an institutional problem.
As far as I know, in over 40 years of existence, NSBP has only had two women presidents. During the 20 years I have been a member, the elected leadership has been almost exclusively male. Only once during that time has there ever been an event that focused on LGBT+ issues: I organized it. Anything that addresses gender has been left to a handful of women to manage.
This is also personal for me, and not just because I have long been a volunteer. As a student, I was sexually assaulted at NSBP meetings twice, but there was no reporting mechanism for addressing it. In the case of my experience being raped, I was too afraid of professional retaliation to report it anyway. At one point, someone who had held a leadership role called my room at 2 A.M. and asked me to come to his, a request I ignored. Again, there was no reporting mechanism for this.
I have heard other stories about women being subjected to uncomfortable remarks about their bodies and appearance at the meeting; I have heard rumors about other, even worse experiences. I am one of a set of women I know who no longer attend the meetings, much less volunteer, because we do not feel comfortable there. There are LGBT+ experiences that are so distinct that I probably can’t share them without putting the victim’s privacy at risk. I struggle with whether to encourage students to attend. There is no organizational home for LGBT+ students, no consistent, institutionalized support for women and gender minorities.
Sexual harassment, assault, and gender discrimination are not uniquely NSBP problems. But this is our house, and pointing out that someone else has the same mess does not make our shit any cleaner.
By participating in this Michael Powell-written fiasco in the way that they did, Oluseyi and Gates chose to put our organizational weaknesses on the front page of the New York Times. And in that sense, maybe they have accidentally done something helpful. Because it is past time to talk about how to make NSBP better for it constituents. The mission of the organization is critically important. It is hard to publicly criticize it because in the past there has been an extraordinary amount of unfair criticism that was rooted in white supremacist disrespect of the organization, its mission, and the broader community of Black physicists. In the Black community, we struggle with whether to air our dirty laundry, knowing that bad actors will take advantage of it. For years, I stayed publicly silent because of this. But it’s clear that quietly agitating for change — as folks have done — is not working.
The New York Times is what it is and per the teachings of the Serenity Prayer, we may not have the power to change it (but people should keep calling it out, especially since they eliminated the public editor position). But we have the power to do better by LGBT+/women/gender minority Black physicists, and I hope that all NSBP leaders will commit to not only annunciating their support but also backing it with action. If Hakeem Oluseyi is the President to do this, fantastic.
*Because someone is going to ask for an accounting: 2021 APS Edward A. Bouchet Award, 2021 UNH CEPS Award for Excellence in Research by an Assistant Professor, 2021 UNH Gold Sustainability Award for Research and Scholarship, 2021 University of Waterloo Faculty of Science Distinguished Alumni Award, 2021 Los Angeles Times Book Prize — science and technology category, 2022 Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science, 2022 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award, 2022 NASEM Schmidt Award for Excellence in Science Communication — top prize in mid- to late-career researcher category.