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Two New York Times journalists at the center of separate controversies leave the company

Science reporter Donald McNeil Jr. leaves after revelations he repeated a racial slur, and audio producer Andy Mills resigns after ‘Caliphate’ fallout.

The New York Times building. (iStock)

Two New York Times journalists who had recently attracted scrutiny for their past conduct — and, in one case, sparked an outcry from staff against management — have left the organization, according to notes sent to the newsroom by top Times editors Friday evening.

High-profile science reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr.'s departure comes after the Daily Beast reported that he had repeated a racial slur during a 2019 trip to Peru for high school students. The Times also confirmed that McNeil, who has been a key reporter covering the coronavirus pandemic, “had used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language." McNeil initially responded to the report by telling The Washington Post, “don’t believe everything you read,” without elaborating.

The other departure is Andy Mills, whose past behavior and employment status came under scrutiny by his colleagues and his peers in the podcasting world after the collapse of “Caliphate,” which he helped produce and host along with star Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi.

Friday’s staff news is the latest example of controversy within the Times newsroom spilling into public view, including the summer resignation of editorial page editor James Bennet — once considered a possible successor to Executive Editor Dean Baquet — after the publication of a controversial op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). In December, the Times removed Callimachi from the terrorism beat and returned the prestigious Peabody award given to “Caliphate” after the Times concluded that the account of the would-be Islamic State terrorist at the center of the podcast could not be substantiated.

This week, staffers sent a letter to management saying they were “outraged" that the company’s previous investigation into McNeil’s comments had not resulted in a more severe punishment and that the company needed to do more. Managers signaled agreement.

“We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent," Baquet and Managing Editor Joseph Kahn wrote to staffers Friday. “We are committed to building a news report and company that reflect our core values of integrity and respect, and will work with urgency to create clearer guidelines and enforcement about conduct in the workplace, including red-line issues on racist language.”

They also shared a note from McNeil, who explained that he had repeated a racial slur in asking a question about the use of the slur. “I should not have done that. Originally, I thought the context in which I used this ugly word could be defended. I now realize that it cannot. It is deeply offensive and hurtful. The fact that I even thought I could defend it itself showed extraordinarily bad judgement. For that I apologize.”

Mills’s departure comes months after the Times revealed the results of its three-month internal review into the veracity of “Caliphate." A few days later, Mills guest-hosted the popular Times podcast “The Daily" — and some Times staffers questioned why Mills retained his role when Callimachi had not. On Twitter, many journalists resurfaced a New York Magazine article that reported on his past behavior as a WNYC employee, in which his new bosses at the Times said they were aware of the past incidents but that Mills had shown genuine remorse and had changed.

And some volunteered other stories from his past, including an incident in which he reportedly poured a beer over a co-worker’s head during a bar gathering and other situations in which he allegedly belittled women. The attention even prompted WNYC to issue a note about how it handled Mills’s employment. “We hate that this happened and we apologize to those we failed,” it read in part.

Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha confirmed that Mills resigned but declined to elaborate. Mills posted a lengthy departure note on his personal website, explaining that he regretted his past behavior.

"As the pressure of this online campaign has grown to encompass some staffers of The Times, it has led to a climate where, even though I still love the mission of this important institution, I feel it is in the best interest of both myself and my team that I leave the company at this time,” he wrote. “I do this with no joy and a heavy heart.”

Baquet and Kahn did not elaborate on the exact circumstances of his departure but noted that “we owe each other a culture of collaboration, collegiality and respect in our workplace.”

“We know this has been a difficult stretch for our audio team,” they wrote.

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