A new statement about last week’s NYT fiasco has been released by Dr. Lucianne Walkowicz, Dr. Sarah Tuttle, and Dr. Brian Nord. I had no hand in writing this, but felt it was important to share since it adds further context to what was wrong with the NYT piece, including erasing their own roles in the #RenameJWST movement. It begins:
Last week, the NY Times published an article by columnist Michael Powell, titled “How Naming the James Webb Telescope Turned Into a Fight Over Homophobia.” Rather than a work of unbiased journalism, this article was an op-ed intended to attack our colleague and friend, Professor Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. Although we have submitted a letter to the editor, the 175-word limit is not enough to tackle the sizable mess the NY Times made by publishing Powell’s error-riddled screed. In the statement that follows, we aim to make several points clear (and further expand on each below):
Powell’s “article” is a flimsy, error-riddled opinion piece. In contrast to the movement to #RenameJWST, which is based on a full and thorough review and analysis of information related to the telescope naming decision, and the historical record about both James Webb and anti-LGBT government activity at the time, neither Powell’s published opinion nor the NASA report ask enough questions–or the right ones–to defend the assertions and claims contained within them. Instead, Powell’s piece is part of his attempt to style himself as a culture warrior. The article singles out Professor Prescod-Weinstein by denigrating her leadership in physics research, and by attempting to twist the various facets of her identity into a weapon that makes her vulnerable to attack. The factual errors and poor analysis in Powell’s article are symptoms of the fact he is unqualified to have written it in the first place: Until early 2020, Powell’s beat at the NY Times was sports. In the early months of the pandemic, however, his writing shifted into works on race, free speech, and civil rights– all written from now-familiar soap boxes favored by right-wing talking heads: e.g., that “cancel culture” has run amok, that free speech is under attack, and that critical race theory is inciting fury by discussing how conceptions of race can shape society. The only thing these arguments have in common with sports is that they follow a predictable playbook.
Powell’s article attempts to reframe the debate over whose historical legacies merit a $10 billion monument into a spat between two individuals, Professor Prescod-Weinstein, and Professor Hakeem Oluseyi. However, the movement to #RenameJWST is not a single person. It was spearheaded by four of us (Lucianne Walkowicz, Sarah Tuttle, Brian Nord, and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein), but there are also nearly two thousand signatories on the renaming petition, including many leading scientists in the field.
As a Black, Jewish, queer, agender woman, Professor Prescod-Weinstein has been singled out for harassment– for years, but also specifically by Powell’s article– for her steadfast questioning of the decision to name the telescope after James Webb. But she did not act alone, and does not stand alone: we categorically reject the torrent of hatred unleashed upon her, and will continue to speak out with her and in her defense.
In the following sections, we provide some of the fact-checking that we would otherwise have expected from a major paper like the NY Times. Sources are provided throughout, and we encourage readers to look at those.
For the rest, check out for the full statement.