JAMA’s top editor resigns over controversial podcast on racism
The top editor at one of the country’s most prominent medical journals has resigned after his publication hosted a February podcast that ignited tremendous backlash by minimizing structural racism in medicine.
The American Medical Association announced Tuesday that Dr. Howard Bauchner will voluntarily step down as editor in chief of JAMA and JAMA Network effective June 30. He had been on administrative leave since March while the AMA investigated the origins of a podcast and related tweet that said no physicians are racist.
In a statement, Bauchner said he was “profoundly disappointed” in himself for the lapses that led to the podcast and tweet being published.
“Although I did not write or even see the tweet, or create the podcast, as editor in chief, I am ultimately responsible for them,” Bauchner said. “I share and have always supported the AMA’s commitment to dismantling structural racism in the institutions of American medicine, as evident by numerous publications in JAMA on this issue and related subjects, and look forward to personally contributing to that work going forward.”
The since deleted Feb. 24 podcast episode called “Structural Racism for Doctors: What is it?” featured a discussion between then-JAMA Deputy Editor Dr. Edward Livingston and Dr. Mitchell Katz, an editor at JAMA Internal Medicine and CEO of NYC Health + Hospitals.
During the conversation, Livingston, who has since resigned at Bauchner’s request, called structural racism “an unfortunate term.”
“Personally I think taking racism out of the conversation will help,” he said. “Many of us are offended by the concept that we are racist.”
A now deleted tweet promoting the podcast said, “No physician is racist, so how can there be structural racism in medicine?”
On March 4, Bauchner issued an apology and said the tweet and “portions of the podcast” don’t reflect his commitment as editorial leader of JAMA and JAMA Network “to call out and discuss the adverse effects of injustice, inequity, and racism in medicine and society as JAMA has done for years.”
AMA CEO Dr. James Madara tried to separate his organization from the podcast and tweet in a March 10 post in which he said the AMA’s independent journal oversight committee was investigating the circumstances that led to them. He said the committee had hired the Zuber Lawler firm to ensure objectivity and integrity in the review.
It’s not clear what stage the review is in, or whether the findings will be made public. The AMA also did not say whether anyone else left JAMA as a result of the incident.
Numerous physicians and others were outraged. The Institute for Antiracism in Medicine called for an independent investigation into Bauchner’s leadership at JAMA in an open letter to the AMA’s Board of Trustees in May. The group circulated a Change.org petition that called on JAMA to take steps to address its failed message to the medical community, including hiring a deputy editor with a focus on antiracism and health equity and scheduling town hall sessions on the subject. The petition currently has more than 9,000 signatures.
Dr. Brittani James, IAM cofounder and a physician working on Chicago’s South Side, said she is encouraged that Bauchner is stepping down but still eager to see the results of the AMA’s investigation and learn how the organization specifically plans to address racism within JAMA.
“I’m relieved at what him leaving that position can open up in terms of a replacement,” James said.
After the IAM posted its letter to the AMA, multiple people who work at JAMA shared their experiences with the group’s leaders about racism at the publication.
“A lot of people were literally too terrified to go on record,” she said, “but some of the stuff we heard was extremely damning toward the JAMA publication process.”
For example, one person, who asked to remain anonymous, told the IAM that Bauchner did not allow the word “racism” to be used in the journal for fear of losing readers, which nearly caused a lead writer to withdraw a piece in 2016.
Bauchner has led JAMA since 2011. In that time, it has launched four new journals, including JAMA Health Forum this year, and has grown its social media following.
JAMA Executive Editor Dr. Phil Fontanarosa will serve as interim editor in chief while the AMA forms a search committee to identify Bauchner’s replacement. Dr. Otis Brawley, a Johns Hopkins University professor who twice chaired the search committee for the editor in chief of the journal Cancer, will chair JAMA’s search committee.