Saturday, October 01, 2016

The Manufacture of Harassment

"The intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
(The Downing Street Memo)

You don't have to be Noam Chomsky to be suspicious of a CNN report. Most thinking people have experienced that moment when a major news story reports facts about which they already themselves know something. It feels a bit like it must have felt for Copernicus when the penny dropped. "My God! It's spinning!" (Many, unfortunately, soon find themselves in the position of Galileo as well, bitterly grumbling "And yet it moves," under their breath.) I certainly stopped approaching CNN primarily as a journalistic institution long ago, taking it mainly as a propaganda operation instead. And, once one realizes that a story is not being told so much as spun, it is often also obvious that the axis of that spin is some particular policy.

Yesterday's CNN report on sexual harassment in the sciences, with particular focus on astronomy, is an excellent example. In this post I'm going to look at it from the point of view of someone who has detailed knowledge of some of the "facts" being presented. All of these are a matter of public record, and it seems clear to me that the story's credibility depends upon the viewer not knowing them, and not checking them after viewing. The underlying presumption about the lack of curiosity among CNN's viewers that this implies may of course be true.

The spin literally begins in medias res. The first shot is Sarah Ballard talking about conversations that became "increasingly sexual" and we cut to Jessica Kirkpatrick talking about a different man who "wanted a sexual relationship with her". After a brief title shot, we then cut back to Ballard talking about "physical touching, like skin on skin, on my neck" and then again back to Kirkpatrick talking about a man accosting her while drunk. I don't know anything about Kirkpatrick's story but it seems clear that she's talking about something more serious than what happened to Ballard. CNN's report wants us to think of these flashes of imagery as part of a single kind of behavior. And the only man's face they will put to it is Geoff Marcy's.

It's important to keep in mind that CNN did not have to do this. They could have told Ballard's story in every detail, and let their viewers draw well-founded conclusions about what happened to her, and how serious they (the viewers themselves) thought Marcy's behavior was. Instead they chose this impressionistic, dream-like sequence of images to leave a very distinct impression on their viewers. CNN left blanks for the viewer to fill in in ways that are, simply, counter to the facts.

I don't know anything about Springman's story either, but it, too, seems to be a more serious one. Given the obvious spin on Ballard's story, both Springman's and Kirkpatrick's are of course drawn into question, but it's clear that bringing them together vaguely, as accounts of behaviors that all three women "have experienced over their careers, multiple times, from different men", amplifies at least Ballard's story significantly. If the viewer thinks that what we hear from Ballard is just one case among many she has experienced, the viewer would be forgiven. But it's not true. This is something Ballard experienced only at the start of her career, from one man, once. (Though she has surely had occasion to do so, she has never suggested that similar behavior was endemic to her research environment in the ten years that followed.) Moreover, what happened isn't what the viewer was led to believe. But that will have to wait for another post.

Springman complains that harassment cases get dismissed because it's too much of a matter of "he said, she said". That is indeed a problem. My solution, which I will also unpack in a subsequent post, is to approach harassment cases like blackmail cases. Harassment, after all, is wrong mainly because it is a form of extortion. What an investigation should do with a habitual harasser is gather fresh evidence, not just old anecdotes. It should undertake, if possible, to catch the harasser in the act. The solution, surely, is not just to stop letting "him" say anything in his defense.

Kirkpatrick says she was asked to reflect upon how she "feels about ruining a man's life". From the tone of her voice, it's clear she did not feel that the man deserved such consideration. Since I don't know her story, I don't know whether her contempt for his life is justified (it may well be), but since I do know Ballard's story, which CNN deftly conflates with Kirkpatrick's, I conclude that the viewer is, at this point, to feel no sympathy for Marcy's fate, and Marcy's life in science (which, as CNN reported, could have earned him a Nobel prize) was, of course, very definitely ruined.

CNN has Ballard explain that harassment is often carried out by more senior people against more junior people such as students. The report then cites the SAFE13 study as saying that more than "90% of those being harassed or assaulted were students or employees". I doubt anyone really takes a reference to a scientific study in a news story seriously these days, but let me just for the record quote from the published article's statement of its methodological limitations to assess whether it can be used to support the alleged fact in question: "these survey data neither allow us to estimate the rate of these experiences among our trainees and colleagues, nor do they allow any estimation of the prevalence of field sites with a hostile work environment and/or systematic abuse." I'll leave that there for now. I have a post coming up about surveys in general.

There is a weird moment where Kirkpatrick seems to find it problematic that you can't report your thesis supervisor for sexual harassment and keep them as an advisor. It is also suggested that changing your advisor is a career-ending move. That's of course untrue; advisors die, retire, move to other institutions, etc. all the time, and doctoral students find someone else to continue with. It is certainly true that a false accusation (or just a failed one) would have detrimental consequences to your career, but that's also true of accusations of plagiarism or data fraud. In any case, the weird thing is that she seems to think victims are entitled to keep their harassers as their supervisors. I actually think this reveals something about what they mean by "harassment". But more on that later too.

I find it telling, and encouraging, that CNN had to trip up half its character assassination of Geoff Marcy with copy that was obviously written at the insistence of CNN's lawyers.* Without giving a prominent place to Marcy's side, this story, it seems, would be very open to litigation for libel. I noted the same thing about the Inquiring Minds podcast. It's an important indication of CNN's own assessment of the story they are telling. All that said, I think that anyone who actually looks at Marcy's side of this will see that CNN is being very selective in quoting him. One does not get the sense that Marcy has denied the substance of Ballard's accusation he harassed her. Indeed, one is led to believe he confessed. That is not true, but again it's something I will leave for later.

Like I said at the beginning, after noticing the spin, it is often not long before we discover the axis of that spin, the policy around which our intelligence is being organized. And, sure enough, at the end of the story, Sarah Ballard sets up the segue to Speier's policy proposal, calling for action at "the federal level". To evoke Chomsky again, here she's behaving a little like a guerilla leader calling for US troops to intervene on behalf of her people. Of course, Chomsky would explain, the guerillas are already funded by the CIA, and the intervention is already underway.

I want to stress that to criticize a news report for "manufacturing" a problem that a policy has been proposed to solve is not, of course, to deny that the problematic behavior exists. It is simply to point out that the public is being manipulated into supporting a particular solution, proposed by particular people, for their own particular reasons. Perhaps tellingly, the story ends with an image of the sun setting on (I think) UC Berkeley. Let's not let the sun go down on the sciences like this. Let's not let these ideologues destroy our ability to discover new stars and new planets.

(Updated at 16:04 to fix minor errors)

*I hadn't seen Marcy's lawyer's statement when I wrote this post. It's worth reading too. It seems to have been published at about the same time as the report aired, which leads me to think it is part of mitigation strategy against possible litigation. That is, CNN has knowingly aired a report that, taken on its own, leaves the impression that Marcy is a sexual predator, which there is no reason to think he is. By publishing supplementary materials to balance the bias of the report, they believe, no doubt rightly (I'm sure CNN's lawyers are worth their pay), that Marcy won't have a case against them.

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