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Media | Science

November 14, 2007

James Watson's Disastrous Interview

The DNA co-discoverer questioned blacks' intelligence in an interview. The editor of the piece speaks about handling the explosive comments.

Michael Gluckstadt

The Sunday Times of London recently ran an article about physicist James Watson, in which the Nobel laureate created controversy by making racist comments. "He says that he is 'inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa' because 'all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really', and I know that this 'hot potato' is going to be difficult to address," interviewer and fellow scientist Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe wrote. "His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that 'people who have to deal with black employees find this not true'."

Cathy Galvin. Photo by Patrick Llewellyn.
"We were sensitive to the fact that Watson is an old man at the end of his career, but at the same time he is still an able, important figure and has a responsibility for his declarations."

Cathy Galvin. Photo by Patrick Llewellyn.

These comments in the otherwise innocuous profile were picked up all over the mainstream press, helping to prompt Watson to step down as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. Watson's misguided comments have helped to break a taboo on discussing race and intelligence in the public forum, and discussions on the issue have popped up all over the internet, classrooms, and newspapers.

Gelf interviewed Sunday Times deputy editor Cathy Galvin, who was responsible for the piece, about how the paper handled the spark plug of an article, why the Times coverage of Watson was sympathetic, and what she thought of the resulting media firestorm. (The interview was conducted through email and has been edited for clarity. Gelf ran this interview by Galvin before publishing, by prior agreement at her request—an arrangement Gelf doesn't typically make, and won't be making in the future.)

Gelf Magazine: We found the Watson story interesting because it seemed to set off a firestorm unintentionally. Were you at the Sunday Times aware of the controversy this piece would carry with it?

Cathy Galvin: We were perfectly aware of the weight and significance of the piece we published. Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe is a young writer and researcher on the magazine, and when she mentioned James Watson wanted to publicize his latest book—and that she was one of the few females in the world to have been mentored by him—we knew what would come to us as a result of that relationship would be interesting. It seemed an exciting casting.

GM: Why did you decide to keep the profile sympathetic and place the comments at the end of the piece?

CG: What we do on the magazine is different in tone, layering, and content to a newspaper. If Charlotte had been writing a news story or feature, everything would have had to center on Watson's extraordinary and unsolicited comments about racial differences in intelligence.
But for this to work as a magazine piece, these comments needed to sit within, and be contextualized by, a rounded interview which offered insights and explanations for those comments. There's a question of authorship here: It was important the reader understood Charlotte's relationship with Watson and her regard for him before exploring the explosive and unscientific territory of his opinions and history of statements about women, race, and abortion which have stirred so much controversy in the past.

GM: The reporter, both in her piece and the follow-up, seems very sympathetic towards Watson.

CG: As editors, we could support her in this while ensuring our readers were made aware that the feature was going to be controversial. Our opening layout had this quote: "Watson has long been something of a wild man and his colleagues tend to hold their breath whenever he veers from the script." We also wrote in the standfirst: "History will remember James Watson for the discovery of the double helix. But his pronouncements are often highly controversial. His former protégé Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe examines the complex legacy of a Nobel laureate."

"It is not our job to be so PC that we cast him as a monster. It's for the reader to decide what to think."
GM: Did you consider not publishing the sensitive quotes?

CG: There was never any question we wouldn't use the quotes on race that we did. They were impossible to ignore.

GM: Did Watson know when the piece was going to run, and was he apprised of the comments? Was there any effort to run the article by him?

CG: It is our job to accurately reflect what is said to us in an interview. It is not our job to return to our interviewees and check they are happy with what are going to publish. If some journalists and publications do that, I would suggest they have strayed out of journalism and into PR. [Editor's note: See above.]
So, no, we did not go back to Watson to tell him which parts of the interview we were using. And yes, he was told when the piece would run. It is also not our job to be so PC that we cast him as a monster. It's for the reader to decide what to think.

GM: Is Watson simply an old man who no longer cares what the world thinks of him, or is he worried that these comments will tarnish his legacy?

CG: Whether Watson cares about what the world thinks of him, we can't know. He is an old but robust man and the fallout from this piece must be difficult for him. We were sensitive to the fact that he is an old man at the end of his career, but at the same time he is still an able, important figure and has a responsibility for his declarations.

GM: How do you think the writer of the piece would respond to the claim that Watson's comments clearly stem from bigotry as opposed to research—something that any scientific organization would want to distance itself from?

CG: Charlotte is on holiday at present so I won't answer for her. Her interview and further piece on Times Online make clear her position and it's neither one of praising nor protecting Watson but of reporting their time together and her general respect for him.

GM: What did you think of the way the piece was received in the press?

CG: Pleased. It deserved that level of attention and debate.

GM: Is this something you've had to deal with before?

CG: All part of a day's work.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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- Media
- posted on Nov 15, 07


I really enjoyed your interview. However, I couldn't help but notice what may be viewed as hypocrisy on your part with respect to checking quotes. You say that journalists who do read-backs with interviewees should "[stray] out of journalism and into PR", and yet the editor of this piece makes it sound as though you yourself required that Gelf run quotes by you for your own interview. As a fellow journalist, I wonder if you could clarify your stance on this issue...

- Media
- posted on Nov 16, 07


I'd like to clarify on Cathy's behalf. The piece grew out of an informal series of emails in which Cathy answered my questions both directly and indirectly. When we made the decision to turn the piece into a Q and A, we were wary of taking her words out of context, especially in light of the recent controversy of a certain New York Times interviewer. We agreed that Cathy would see a draft of the interview (without the editor's comments), and when she did she raised no objections, nor did she add anything. I hope that clarifies things.


- Media
- posted on Nov 29, 07
Moe Moe

what about Jimmy the Greek?

- Media
- posted on Oct 10, 12

The TRUTH hurts. Tough. Thank you for your utmost honesty Mr Watson, it is refreshing.

- Media
- posted on Jul 11, 13

About the "Follow up" in "GM: The reporter, both in her piece and the follow-up, seems very sympathetic towards Watson" - I clicked it, showing a general page of the Times. Can you provide actual title of the follow up or a detailed address? Thanks.

Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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