Context for the reversal comes from the high-profile departure Friday of longtime science reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. A story last month in the Daily Beast reported that McNeil had drawn a number of complaints stemming from a Times-sponsored educational trip to Peru with students in 2019. One of them pertained to McNeil’s use of the n-word at a dinner during a discussion of racist language. In a memo apprising staffers of McNeil’s resignation, Baquet and Times Managing Editor Joe Kahn included the intent-neutral standard quoted above.
That prompted condemnation within and outside the Times. “How can you actually talk about a word without taking into account, at least to some extent, the speaker’s intention in using the word, in mentioning the word?” asked Randall Kennedy, a Harvard Law professor and author of the book “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,” in an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog. Elsewhere there was talk of a “woke purge” and of management succumbing to a “mob.”
Another perspective came from Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Times. “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 told this blog.
As many critics noted, the Times has occasionally spelled out the n-word in its coverage. In a clarification sent to this blog on Saturday, the Times said that the standard concerning racist language “should not lead anyone to conclude that we will not use difficult language in our news coverage when it’s warranted.” Baquet embraced a similar line of thinking in his remarks on Thursday: “The slur we were discussing this week was a vile one. I have been called it. ... But we shouldn’t ban any words from our journalism if we are going to cover the world as it is,” he said.
The Times is a mammoth news organization of roughly 1,700 journalists. It occupies a singular place in American political discourse. The paper’s personnel decisions, accordingly, draw more scrutiny than those at the average news organization. Last month, for example, there was a public brouhaha over the dismissal of a freelance editor, which worsened when the paper issued a statement on the matter. Interest in the departures of McNeil and Andy Mills — an audio producer on “The Daily” and the ill-fated podcast series “Caliphate” — has been likewise robust.
Several of this blog’s sources have criticized the paper’s handling of these situations, and certainly there have been screw-ups. Yet straddling the line between public transparency and personnel sensitivity at a place like the New York Times is one of the toughest tasks in media. It’s much easier to write about it all.