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Opinion What happened with New York Times reporter Donald McNeil?

The entrance to the New York Times building. (iStock)

An earlier version of this post mistakenly stated that double-jeopardy protections didn’t hold sway in private workplaces like the New York Times, and it referred imprecisely to a response from reporter John Eligon. This version has been updated.

The Constitution protects people from being prosecuted twice for the same offense. “Double jeopardy” protections are also written into union contracts at workplaces like the New York Times, to assist employees facing the same complaint for a second time. All the safeguards in the world, however, won’t prevent the allegations from creating a public furor, as now-former reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. discovered on Friday, when he resigned over a controversy that promises to reverberate through the paper’s virtual corridors.

In the summer of 2019, McNeil joined a group of students on a Times-sponsored educational excursion to Peru. In the wake of the trip, the Times received a number of complaints about the longtime science reporter’s conduct. Some of them cited allegedly racist remarks and behavior, including that McNeil had stereotyped African American youths. After an investigation, McNeil received a reprimand in September 2019.

A far more public tribunal considered the same conduct in recent weeks. The Daily Beast revealed McNeil’s 2019 reprimand on Jan. 28, prompting a Times statement that McNeil had “used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language.” Executive Editor Dean Baquet explained, “I authorized an investigation and concluded his remarks were offensive and that he showed extremely poor judgment, but it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious.”

Then Times management pivoted after receiving a letter from 150 Times staffers. That letter, sent on Feb. 3, said, “Our community is outraged and in pain. Despite The Times’s seeming commitment to diversity and inclusion, 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.” It also asserted that since the controversy became public, “current and former employees have suggested that he also has shown bias against people of color in his work and in interactions with colleagues over a period of years.” The letter furnished no specific examples of that, but it requested a “renewed investigation” into the 2019 controversy.

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And the letter prevailed: “We appreciate the spirit in which it was offered and we largely agree with the message,” replied Baquet, Publisher A.G. Sulzberger and chief executive Meredith Kopit Levien that same day. The trio of managers said that they were focused on “getting this right. You will see results.”

Those results surfaced Friday. In an emailed apology, the 67-year-old McNeil explained:

On a 2019 New York Times trip to Peru for high school students, I was asked at dinner by a student whether I thought a classmate of hers should have been suspended for a video she had made as a 12-year-old in which she used a racial slur. To understand what was in the video, I asked if she had called someone else the slur or whether she was rapping or quoting a book title. In asking the question, I used the slur itself.

A Friday email from Baquet and Managing Editor Joseph Kahn announced McNeil’s resignation and laid out the standard: “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”

With those last three words, the Times lost its foothold for criticizing a politician for flip-flopping. In his initial assessment of the McNeil case, Baquet wrote, “It did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious.” Now, suddenly, intent means nothing.

In their memo to staff, Baquet and Kahn didn’t provide an exhaustive account of the circumstances that led to McNeil’s departure. Did other complaints, as referenced in the staffers’ letter, figure into the decision? The Erik Wemple Blog has asked the Times about that dynamic, but the Times isn’t commenting further. Bill Baker, the Times guild unit chair, told the Erik Wemple Blog that he’s unaware of any further complaints about McNeil. (John Eligon, who covers race for the Times, tweeted, “Legit concerns were raised by Black employees who worked alongside Don.” Eligon declined to comment when contacted on Twitter, and later tweeted that the concerns were “that a staff member used the N word AND was alleged to have spoken disparagingly about Black teens. It wasn’t referencing any other allegations of misdeeds by Don.”)

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporter, attended a meeting with editors about the McNeil situation. In an interview, she notes that McNeil’s resignation letter addressed only the dinner conversation in which he apparently used the n-word. Unaddressed, however, are the other allegations that arose from the trip — about stereotyping Black teenagers, for example. And as for McNeil’s conduct in the dinner conversation, Hannah-Jones argues that it “wasn’t necessary to actually say the word.”

We asked Hannah-Jones about the degree the initial assurances of Baquet warrant deference, or whether the Peru trip needs a fresh probe. “I would say both,” she replied. “Clearly it matters that Dean Baquet is a Black man from the South who looked into this and came to the conclusion that he came to. … At the same time, with the information leaked to the Daily Beast, we would still want more information.”

Six students who participated in the trip told the Erik Wemple Blog a consistent story about McNeil’s comportment: He provided expertise about public health and science consistent with what the students had expected. When the structured discussions yielded to informal chatter about other topics, it was a different story. McNeil was brusque and difficult, they said, in keeping with his prickly reputation in the newsroom.

As for specifics:

  • Students largely confirmed in broad outlines McNeil’s account of the n-word fiasco. But they said that he uttered the epithet in a way that they perceived as casual, unnecessary or even gratuitous.
  • In a discussion of cultural appropriation, McNeil scoffed. Though the term applies to people in Western countries adopting fashions or other items from other cultures, McNeil offered the example of people all over the world eating imported Italian tomatoes, according to a student in attendance. What’s the problem with that?
  • Two students reported coming away with troubling impressions of McNeil’s view of white supremacy, with one of them claiming that he said it didn’t exist.
  • Speaking about high incarceration rates of African Americans, McNeil argued that if they engage in criminal activity, that’s on them, and not on an oppressive and racist power structure, recalls a trip participant who said that the comments were “triggering” to the group. The participant, however, said that McNeil’s opinions didn’t disparage African Americans.

A caveat: There were about 20 students on the trip and many conversations. This is not a comprehensive inventory. But the tensions between McNeil and the students — a predominantly White group with progressive sensibilities — led some participants to withdraw from interacting with him as the trip wore on.

McNeil’s resignation caps off a tumultuous final act in a Times career that began 45 years ago. Consider that he went from a reprimand in 2019 to taking center stage in the Times’s 2020 coronavirus coverage, appearances on the popular podcast “The Daily” and the formal submission of his work for a Pulitzer Prize, according to the Daily Beast. “It stinks. He was celebrated and ascendant and doing all these great things and when the issue became a public thing, then all of a sudden, not so much,” says Baker, who would like to see more transparency from the Times.

The legacy of the McNeil controversy will be to blockade intelligent discussion. In December, Hannah-Jones posted a tweet using the n-word in the context of exploring mores regarding the use of the epithet. There was no national controversy because the intent behind the tweet wasn’t vindictive or hurtful; it was journalistic. If intent no longer matters at the Times, however, wasn’t this a problematic posting?

Not in Hannah-Jones’s view. “As far as I know, we haven’t rewritten the employee handbook. I think context matters and I think the very smart people who run the New York Times understand that,” she says.

We asked the Times about how its new guidance would relate to such a tweet, and it responded that it would have no further comment. On Saturday, however, it issued a clarification saying that “the note to staff should not lead anyone to conclude that we will not use difficult language in our news coverage when it’s warranted.” The use of “difficult language” in news coverage, however, requires Times journalists to discuss such matters in editorial settings. So long as the intent-blind standard remains in place, they might just keep their mouths shut.

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