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New York Times promises ‘results’ to staff angry about allegations of a reporter’s racist slur

In a letter, management sought to quell a staff rebellion over science reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr.'s behavior on a student trip.

The exterior of New York Times headquarters in Manhattan. (Richard Drew/AP)
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Tempers are once again flaring between staff and management at the New York Times, this time over the publication’s handling of inappropriate comments allegedly made by high-profile science reporter Donald G. McNeil, Jr. during a trip to Peru for high school students in 2019.

In response to a letter from staffers “outraged” because they believe the paper didn’t take the McNeil incident seriously enough, top managers replied late Wednesday that they “largely agree” with staff sentiment and promised to “examine the way we manage behavioral problems among members of the staff,” according to an email obtained by The Washington Post.

“We are determined to learn the right lessons from this incident,” they wrote. “You will see results.”

Last week, following a damning report in the Daily Beast, the Times acknowledged that McNeil “had used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language” during the trip, on which he served as an expert and that managers had investigated and disciplined the writer.

Executive editor Dean Baquet said that he had determined that McNeil’s intentions were not “hateful or malicious” and that the reporter should be “given another chance.”

But that wasn’t enough for more than 150 staffers, who wrote to management on Wednesday saying they “feel disrespected” by McNeil’s actions. “The company has a responsibility to take that experience seriously,” they wrote. They said they want a further investigation of what happened and an apology from McNeil.

In a demonstration of how seriously management is taking the issue, Baquet, publisher A.G. Sulzberger and chief executive Meredith Kopit Levien responded within a few hours saying they have been meeting to discuss the issue.

“Every member of our leadership team has been seized with the urgency of addressing the problems raised in the letter,” the three wrote, adding that they hope to “take concrete actions to improve our workplace culture.”

Baquet and assistant managing editor Carolyn Ryan met with Times journalists on Jan. 29 to discuss their concerns, the Daily Beast reported.

“We understand that when a distressing incident like this arises, people do not want to hear calls to ‘be patient,’” the Times leaders wrote, while also noting that personnel issues involving “legal and union protections” can take time to resolve. "We ourselves are impatient. . . . The three of us have no higher priority than getting this right.”

McNeil struck a more abrupt tone when reached by The Post on Jan. 28. “Don’t believe everything you read,” he replied in an email.

McNeil, an expert on pandemics who had written regularly about the efforts to vaccinate Americans, has not published any work since Jan. 24, according to a review of his author page. Asked about McNeil’s status at the publication, a Times spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

Asked specifically about the Wednesday night letter, the spokesperson said the Times had nothing further to add about the matter.