McNeil, a 45-year veteran of the Times, resigned in the midst of a scandal over his conduct on a Times-sponsored trip to Peru with students in 2019. Among other reported offenses, McNeil had uttered the n-word during a discussion regarding racist language. Upon leaving the paper on Feb. 5, McNeil wrote, “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 judgment. For that I apologize.”
How to couch his regret, as it turns out, was a topic of much infighting between McNeil and his bosses, as he explains in Part Two of the series. On Jan. 28, the Daily Beast pressed McNeil for a comment regarding his conduct on the Peru trip, and his boss, Celia Dugger, alerted him to the urgency of the matter. McNeil didn’t want to heed the Daily Beast’s 3 p.m. deadline. “OK, I won’t talk to anybody. I don’t want to. But why are we even responding? You’ve heard all this before. You know it’s mostly bull[----]. Just ignore them. Or tell them to hold the article until I can respond point by point,” McNeil told Dugger, the Times’ Science editor.
In any case, McNeil dug in and produced a windy explanation of his actions — which the Times PR shop rejected in favor of a brief apology. No dice, responded McNeil. “Please say nothing from me,” he instructed a colleague. Despite the silence from McNeil, the Times did issue a statement, which included this language: “We conducted a thorough investigation and disciplined Donald for statements and language that had been inappropriate and inconsistent with our values. We found he had used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language. In addition, we apologized to the students who had participated in the trip.” In addition to using the n-word, McNeil had drawn complaints for other alleged comments, as this blog has detailed.
The trip took place in the summer of 2019, and McNeil received a reprimand from management that fall. But he carried on with his work, which put him on course to take on the coronavirus pandemic. A worldwide scourge at the heart of his beat, coronavirus elevated his profile via television appearances and spots on the Times franchise podcast “The Daily.” McNeil, now 67, appeared likely to end his career as a star.
When the Daily Beast requested comment, “I was busy working on a covid-19 story and didn’t even notice it,” writes McNeil. “At the time, I was getting more than 500 emails a day, mostly about the virus, and I often didn’t read some until 4 a.m.” Soon enough, however, the gravity of the situation got McNeil’s attention. On Feb. 1, he participated in a call with Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Deputy Managing Editor Carolyn Ryan. McNeil noted that he’d completed his apology, and Baquet suggested that he append a note that he’s leaving the paper.
“You’ve lost the newsroom,” Baquet said, according to McNeil. “A lot of your colleagues are hurt. A lot of them won’t work with you. Thank you for writing the apology. But we’d like you to consider adding to it that you’re leaving.”
This exchange ensued, in McNeil’s retelling:
“WHAT?” I said loudly. “ARE YOU KIDDING? You want me to leave after 40-plus years? Over this? You know this is bullshit. You know you looked into it and I didn’t do the things they said I did, I wasn’t some crazy racist, I was just answering the kids’ questions.”“Donald, you’ve lost the newsroom. People won’t work with you.”“What are you talking about?” I said. “Since when do we get to choose who we work with?”“Donald, you’ve had a great year, you’re still up for a Pulitzer.”“And I’m supposed to what — call in to the ceremony from my retirement home?”Carolyn stepped in: “Donald, there are other complaints that you made people uncomfortable. X, Y and Z.”
McNeil accused Baquet of twisting his arm. “We’re not twisting your arm,” Baquet responded.
“I’m not just quitting like this,” said McNeil.
In a subsequent conversation with Dugger, McNeil said he learned that if he didn’t leave voluntarily, he could lose his status as lead pandemic reporter. “No more big front-page stories. No more appearances on The Daily,” said Dugger, in McNeil’s account. Days later, the Times announced McNeil’s departure. It came at the paper’s “request and urging,” though McNeil’s otherwise expansive recounting doesn’t delve into the considerations that moved him to acquiesce.
In a statement to the Erik Wemple Blog, Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha emailed that “the decision to resign was Donald’s, and we agree it was the correct decision. Our system is based on second chances and progressive discipline, and learning from one’s mistakes. As more recent information about his behavior emerged, it became clear that Donald had not learned from his prior mistakes and could no longer effectively work in our newsroom.” On the broader question of McNeil’s four-part rebuttal, Ha wrote, “We support Donald’s right to have his say.”
One sentence stands out in McNeil’s account: “From the very beginning, I misread the situation. I was blasé about the Beast email. The Times was in full freakout message-control mode,” he writes, admitting his inability to assess the nuclear nature of a reporter having used the n-word in such a casual context.
There’s a lot more, of course. McNeil goes into great length contextualizing and denying other opinions he was alleged to have expressed while in Peru. For instance, he says he never claimed that “racism is over” and never questioned the existence of white supremacy. There’s also a blow-by-blow account of McNeil facing off against Associate Managing Editor Charlotte Behrendt in the disciplinary proceedings that he faced in 2019 after returning from Peru. Example:
Charlotte: “Did you say there’s no such thing as white privilege?”Me: “No. That’s ridiculous. Of course there’s such a thing as white privilege. I used to live in South Africa. The whole country’s all about white privilege.”
Yet the McNeil account contains a comment that explains how he got into trouble in the first place. In his opening chapter, he talks how many people carry prejudices with them. “That includes people I love — my mother once told me she was in love with a Jewish guy before she met my father, but my grandfather was an anti-Semite so she couldn’t marry him. My grandfather wasn’t a brute or an unintelligent man — he was a real estate developer, so presumably he at least sometimes did business with Jews.”
The students on the Peru trip — and many others as well — might have shuddered at that one, too.