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New York Times’s star coronavirus reporter was disciplined for ‘repeating a racist slur’ to students

The publication says it investigated complaints made about longtime health reporter Donald McNeil Jr.'s behavior on a 2019 trip with students

Health reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. has worked for the New York Times since 1976. (Richard Drew/AP)

The New York Times on Thursday said it investigated and “disciplined” the newspaper’s most prominent science and health reporter, Donald McNeil Jr., over inappropriate comments he allegedly made while accompanying students on a trip to Peru in 2019.

In a statement first given to the Daily Beast, the Times acknowledged students complained about McNeil after the trip, which is part of the newspaper’s educational travel program for middle and high school students. McNeil had gone along as an expert.

“We subsequently became aware of complaints by some of the students on the trip concerning certain statements Donald had made during the trip,” a Times spokesperson told The Washington Post, without specifying how much time had passed since the trip. “We conducted a thorough investigation and disciplined Donald for statements and language that had been inappropriate and inconsistent with our values.”

The statement said McNeil “had used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language.” At least two students had accused him of using racist and sexist remarks, including using the n-word, according to the Daily Beast report.

McNeil sounded defiant when reached for comment by The Post on Thursday afternoon. “Don’t believe everything you read,” he said in an email, with no further elaboration.

McNeil has worked for the Times since 1976, specializing in coverage of plagues and pestilences. His coverage of the coronavirus pandemic over the past year raised his profile to new heights, and he has made several appearances on the publication’s popular podcast “The Daily.”

According to the Daily Beast, McNeil’s coverage of the raging pandemic has been submitted for consideration for a Pulitzer Prize.

New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet called McNeil “a determined and ambitious reporter who doesn’t stop till he finds the truth.” Baquet made the statement in September, when the Columbia Journalism School awarded the reporter the 2020 John Chancellor Award.

Baquet addressed the report in a memo to staffers on Thursday night. “When I first heard the story, I was outraged and expected I would fire him,” he said.

While Baquet said that McNeil’s comments were “offensive” and “showed extremely poor judgement,” he determined that McNeil’s intentions were not “hateful or malicious” and that he deserved another chance.

Many journalists expressed shock or anger on social media as news of the complaints circulated Thursday, including some of McNeil’s colleagues. “I’m sorry, but I am just speechless,” business investigations editor David Enrich wrote on Twitter.

In May, a spokeswoman for the Times said that McNeil “went too far” when he said in a television interview that Robert R. Redfield, who was the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “should resign” over the agency’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. “His editors have discussed the issue with him to reiterate that his job is to report the facts and not to offer his own opinions,” the spokeswoman said at the time. "We are confident that his reporting on science and medicine for The Times has been scrupulously fair and accurate.”