Saturday, July 29, 2023

Meet the student who helped boot the president of Stanford. (WaPo)

"The world will stand aside for a young man who knows where he's going."  -- line from Earl Hamner, Jr. 1970s tv series, The Waltons.

Meet the student who helped boot the president of Stanford

College journalist Theo Baker’s reporting paved the way for Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s resignation

The Stanford Daily’s Theo Baker interviews Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) after a class on Oct. 24, 2022. (Nikolas Liepins)
8 min
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SAN FRANCISCO — On Christmas Day, Theo Baker was pacing around a relative’s home in Los Angeles, mumbling to himself: “How am I going to get inside Genentech? How am I going to get inside Genentech? How am I going to get inside Genentech?”

He was a freshman at Stanford University, just a few months into his career as a college journalist, and already fixated on a huge reporting challenge: Finding workers at a Bay Area biotech company, where Stanford’s president had once been a top executive, to scrutinize research he’d overseen. Baker’s parents were initially concerned and skeptical when he told them about pursuing allegations of research misconduct that could implicate Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a neuroscientist who had just completed his sixth year as the head of Stanford.

“Be careful here,” Peter Baker recalls telling his son. “This guy is a world-renowned scientist, and you’re a 17-year-old kid.”

As journalists, Theo Baker’s parents have covered wars and presidents. His mother, Susan Glasser, is a former Washington Post editor who’s now a staff writer at the New Yorker. Peter Baker, a former Post reporter, is the chief White House correspondent for the New York Times. Theo Baker’s investigation would soon win him a special George Polk Award. Not only did his reporting for the Stanford Daily get inside Genentech, it also contributed to Tessier-Lavigne’s resignation this month.

How did it all happen? Through a helpful tip from a friend, a dogged but careful reporting process, and a childhood — surrounded by his parents’ endeavors in journalism — that prepared him for the pace and heat of a big story.

Growing up with two notable bylines as parents, Baker learned through example and osmosis. Before he could read or type, Baker was toddling around the Washington Post newsroom. Some of his fondest memories, he says, are of workshopping unpublished headlines with his mother when he was 7 or 8.

“My parents have always included me, even when they had no obligation to,” Baker said. He’s had firsthand lessons in the demands of the 24/7 news cycle. Baker has seen his parents cut short vacations and dinners because of breaking news. On multiple occasions he’s nearly walked on camera, pajama-clad, as they’ve been in the middle of television hits at home. Now he’s doing TV interviews himself.

“He had the velocity of the news cycle ingrained in him from an early age,” Glasser said of her son. As a middle schooler during the Trump administration, Baker had multiple news alerts set up on his phone and would often text his parents during the school day, inquiring about the implications of the president’s latest announcement or executive order.

Baker chose Stanford because it was a place he could pursue an array of interests, from humanities to the ethics of artificial intelligence. He’s hosted campus hackathons and has embedded with a student group of amateur race-car drivers. Frank Zhou, Baker’s best friend from boarding school at Phillips Academy Andover, recalls intense ping-pong matches — Baker has a tell-tale tennis stroke, Zhou says — and late-night dorm hallway conversations about German literature.

Last fall, one of Baker’s friends, a recent Stanford graduate, directed him to a post on PubPeer — a website where scientists raise questions about published research — that pointed out aberrations in reports fromTessier-Lavigne’s research team. In early October, Baker engaged scientific experts to review the papers co-authored by Tessier-Lavigne that contained images alleged by experts to be manipulated. Baker’s reporting enlisted multiple scientific experts to examine, corroborate and ultimately expand upon the concerns raised on PubPeer.

On Nov. 30, the day after the Daily published the first of more than a dozen stories about the allegations, the university convened a panel of experts to independently examine Tessier-Lavigne’s research. Last week that panel found that Tessier-Lavigne had failed to correct errors in years-old scientific papers and had overseen labs with an “unusual frequency” of data manipulations. On July 19 Tessier-Lavigne announced in a statement that he’d step down as university president Aug. 31 but remain on the Stanford faculty. Tessier-Lavigne also said that he would ask for three papers to be retracted and two corrected.

The report from the panel “clearly refutes the allegations of fraud and misconduct that were made against me” online, Tessier-Lavigne wrote, adding that “in some instances I should have been more diligent when seeking corrections, and I regret that I was not. The Panel’s review also identified instances of manipulation of research data by others in my lab. Although I was unaware of these issues, I want to be clear that I take responsibility for the work of my lab members.”

In February, at 18 years old, Baker won the special Polk award for his reporting in the Daily. He’s the youngest person to ever win a Polk, though it’s not unusual for college journalists to have a profound impact on their universities. This month, Northwestern University fired its football coach after the Daily Northwestern reported on specific details of hazing that had led to the coach’s suspension.

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Theo Baker with his special Polk Award. (Courtesy of Theo Baker)

Sam Catania, the Daily’s editor in chief for the past academic year, said his role was to be the skeptic, constantly asking questions of Baker’s reporting and prodding him to consider whether his sources might have ulterior motives. “We tried to never be overconfident,” Catania said in an interview.

Oriana Riley, a rising junior and editor at the Daily, observed Baker working so many late nights that she would unsuccessfully urge him to get some sleep to avoid burning out. “A lot of people at Stanford have this trait,” Riley said. “Sometimes they will not give up on things to the point where maybe you should give up — or at least take a break.”

Baker and his parents insist that he and his peers did this work without the parents getting involved. The student journalists had the benefit of pre-publication consultations and edits from the Daily’s professional advisers — one of whom is a current Washington Post editor who also serves on the Daily’s board of directors — and a pro-bono legal review from the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine.

“My parents — they don’t read my copy before it goes out,” Baker notes, adding: “They’re not my editors.”

One way Baker’s parents have had a distinct influence on him is in hammering home the importance of attending classes even while you’re plugging away on an important story. Peter Baker dropped out of Oberlin College after two years to pursue a career in journalism — something his son doesn’t plan to emulate.

“He’s doing what his father never did — he’s going to classes,” Peter said in an interview. (The younger Baker concedes that he did skip a lecture on Machiavelli to break a story about Tessier-Lavigne.)

Former Post editor R.B. Brenner, a Stanford journalism lecturer who recently left the Daily’s advisory board, said that Baker brought to Stanford a “Washington sophistication” in his understanding of stories that “require a fair number of anonymous sources and there can be quite a level of risk involved.”

It was isolating for a campus newbie to be investigating the university president. Baker said he had a “great, fantastic team” at the Daily, but other outlets weren’t pushing this story forward. “I was really scared, and I felt really alone,” Baker said of the experience.

Sometimes, fellow students would treat him “like a zoo animal,” he said, by walking past his dorm room and pointing out that Baker was the student journalist investigating the president. “I just started at Stanford and I was still trying to find my friends,” Baker said. “It was a little weird when people would interrupt in the middle of class and be like, ‘Oh my god, you’re that kid!’ or come up to me when I’m trying to go to a party.” He gave up on Tinder after one week of swiping, he said, because so many matches commented about his journalism or suggested new reporting targets.

Baker is currently working in Berlin for the summer with the Anti-Corruption Foundation, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s organization, to track down companies evading sanctions to provide Russia with materiel for its war against Ukraine.

Baker, a rising sophomore, has yet to choose a major. “I will probably end up doing some mix of humanities and STEM technology stuff,” he said.

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