The New York Times employed Donald McNeil from 1976 until last Friday.
The Daily Beast reported Jan. 28 that on a 2019 student excursion to Peru, which was sponsored by the Times, “McNeil repeatedly made racist and sexist remarks throughout the trip including, according to two complaints, using the ‘n-word.'”
Here are more details from the report:
[A]t least six students or their parents told the tour company that partnered with the Times that McNeil used racially insensitive or outright racist language while accompanying the participants on the trip, which according to the Times website typically costs nearly $5,500. Two students specifically alleged that the science reporter used the ‘n-word’ and suggested he did not believe in the concept of white privilege; three other participants alleged that McNeil made racist comments and used stereotypes about Black teenagers.
The Beast quoted from student reviews of the trip:
‘Not only did Donald say various racist comments on numerous occasions, but he was also disrespectful to many students during mealtimes and in other settings,’ another wrote in their review.
‘I would change the journalist. He was a racist,’ a third person wrote. ‘He used the ‘N’ word, said horrible things about black teenagers, and said white supremacy doesn’t exist.’
The Times told the Beast their investigation into McNeil “found he had used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language.” As NPR put it, McNeil said he was responding “to a student’s query about the appropriateness of the word in a young friend’s video.” The paper launched an investigation at the time and reprimanded McNeil, according to the Beast.
Dean Baquet, the Times’ first black executive editor, initially reacted to the allegations by defending McNeil’s intentions, telling staff, “I authorized an investigation and concluded his remarks were offensive and that he showed extremely poor judgment, but that it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious.”
McNeil lost his job after staff fought Baquet’s decision. “We have given a prominent platform — a critical beat covering a pandemic disproportionately affecting people of color — to someone who chose to use language that is offensive and unacceptable by any newsroom’s standards,” they wrote in a letter. That push successfully expunged McNeil from his employer of 45 years, which reportedly included his recent pandemic coverage among its submissions for a Pulitzer Prize.
We know nothing about McNeil’s alleged racist and sexist comments, beyond the claim that he repeated the n-word in a discussion about appropriate uses of the word, not in an attempt to slur another race. We know even Baquet, the paper’s first black executive editor, did not consider that a fireable offense, nor did the decision-makers who chose to reprimand McNeil after the incident in 2019.
Legacy newsrooms are more likely to be dominated by overzealous Oberlin College graduates drunk on critical theory than other workplaces, but that’s increasingly less true. This doesn’t stop at Donald McNeil. That’s why suburban voters worry about their own loved ones. The threat is mounting, the crimes can be minor to nonexistent, and the punishments are unjustly harsh.
If McNeil is indeed a bigot, the possibility that he chose to reveal that bigotry on a student trip, rather than sometime over the rest of his 35 years in the newsroom, is very hard to believe. Counterpoint: perhaps McNeil’s previous transgressions were deemed unremarkable by outdated standards.
First, we know close to nothing about his other alleged racist and sexist comments on the trip, so it’s entirely possible the extent of his wrongdoing was repeating the n-word. Second, if those standards involve axing employees of good faith for a snap decision to repeat a slur rather than use an abbreviation, they are not fair.
The Times, of course, sponsors what Glenn Greenwald referred to as the “hall-monitor reporters” by employing journalists like Taylor Lorenz. Greenwald connected her case with McNeil’s in a sharp Substack post this weekend. Lorenz falsely accused someone of using the word “retard” in a discussion on the Clubhouse app. The term had actually been used by someone else who was quoting Reddit users.
It’s like the hall-monitor reporters are trolling kids coming from a doctor’s appointment for tardiness while the school is on fire.
Murky as the term is, don’t cry for the journalists felled by cancel culture. Cry for the cultural precedents their firings strengthen and symbolize. If institutions like the Times continue endorsing these standards, they will put more and more people out of work and smear more and more people as bigots. Most of them won’t have the power of a celebrated legacy reporter.
But what’s a man like Baquet to do? Keep one reporter at the expense of his credibility with staff, his reputation in the industry, and peace in the workplace? The genie is out of the bottle. The patients are running the asylum, and we’re giving them the keys.
All we can do is hope the financial incentives shift so the fourth estate stops whistling past the graveyard, watching the country burn while silencing the fire alarms. The cultural fragmentation brought about technology is challenging the power of legacy media, but the trends aren’t headed in the right direction.