Editor-in-chief leaves JAMA after journal’s racism denials

Podcast denying systemic racist attitudes in medicine seen as emblematic of leadership at top periodical

June 2, 2021
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The editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Howard Bauchner, has agreed to step down after an internal review of a podcast and Twitter posting that denied systemic racism in medicine.

Professor Bauchner, a professor of paediatrics and community health sciences at Boston University, had been on administrative leave for more than two months while protests against his leadership mounted.

The 138-year-old medical journal is one of the most respected publications in academic science, but the podcast episode directly casting doubt on racism was seen by Professor Bauchner’s critics as part of a larger pattern.

“The lives of all patients are at risk if the medical structures that provide care fail to actively name racism as a public health challenge and to commit to antiracist action,” a 9,000-signature petition told JAMA’s editorial board.

In the February podcast by JAMA, a deputy editor at the journal, Edward Livingston, rejected the existence of systemic racism in medicine, saying: “Many people like myself are offended by the implication that we are somehow racist.”

The journal’s Twitter account, in promoting the podcast, added: “No physician is racist, so how can there be structural racism in healthcare?”

Professor Livingston resigned within days and Professor Bauchner, the top editor since 2011, was placed on leave pending the internal investigation.

In a statement announcing his departure by the end of June, Professor Bauchner said he “did not write or even see the tweet, or create the podcast”, but remained responsible for them in his role as editor-in-chief. “I remain profoundly disappointed in myself for the lapses that led to the publishing of the tweet and podcast,” he said.

But concerns over Professor Bauchner’s record on race predated that event, including the low level of diversity among JAMA editors. The petition suggested that JAMA take steps that include hiring a deputy editor with a dedicated focus on anti-racism and health equity, and establishing a transparent evaluation of current editorial processes with regard to race and racism.

James Madara, the chief executive of the American Medical Association, which produces JAMA, credited Professor Bauchner in the journal’s statement with "many visionary decisions," including a major expansion of podcasts and social media presence. Top JAMA editors published an article in the journal offering similar praise.

JAMA’s statement credited Professor Bauchner with a range of actions to improve diversity and equity in its operations and publications, but did not directly address the ideas suggested in the community petition.

The journal did, however, announce its appointment of Otis Brawley, a professor of oncology and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University, and a descendant of Southern sharecropper families, to head a search committee to find a new editor-in-chief. JAMA said its executive editor, Phil Fontanarosa, would serve as interim editor-in-chief.

Professor Bauchner’s removal comes two decades after JAMA fired George Lundberg after 17 years as its editor-in-chief for rushing into publication a research article about the sexual attitudes of college students in an apparent bid to make a political statement on President Bill Clinton’s sex scandal.

That case in 1999 led JAMA to create an oversight board charged with monitoring the editor-in-chief and ensuring that he does not interfere with editorial independence.


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