The New York Times is once again caught up in a whirlwind of a mess of their own making.

Last week, we reported on how health and science reporter Donald McNeil Jr., a 47-year veteran of the newspaper, had resigned after complaints were made about certain language he used on a 2019 student trip to Peru.

To recap: During the Times-sponsored educational trip, students and parents alleged McNeil used racially offensive and sexist language. Most troubling to the paper were the following complaints, as reported by the Daily Beast last month:

Two students specifically alleged that the science reporter used the “n-word” and suggested he did not believe in the concept of white privilege; three other participants alleged that McNeil made racist comments and used stereotypes about Black teenagers.

After an investigation was done, executive editor Dean Baquet concluded that McNeil’s “remarks were offensive and that he showed extremely poor judgment, but it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious.” McNeil was reportedly reprimanded but left on staff and apologies were made to the students and parents who had made the original complaints.

It was that response that led over 150 of McNeil’s colleagues to pen a nastygram demanding McNeil apologize and the editors do more to turn the situation into a teachable moment. The uproar got so heated that two days later, the paper announced McNeil “will be leaving the company.” In a note to Times staffers last Friday, Baquet and the NYT’s managing editor Joe Kahn proclaimed “we do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”

The “regardless of intent” point was significant, because in his apology letter – which Baquet and Kahn also shared – McNeil revealed the context for his use of the “n-word”:

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 made as a 12-year-old in which she used a racial slur,” McNeil began the letter, which was obtained by The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple. “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 myself.

In other words, McNeil was essentially forced out for using the n-word after being asked about its usage by a student on that 2019 trip.

Nearly a week later, Baquet has reversed course yet again, this time on the “regardless of intent” standard, per the NYT’s media columnist Ben Smith:

Baquet’s reversal happened after a piece NYT columnist Bret Stephens wrote that criticized them for the “regardless of intent” standard was spiked. The New York Post got their hands on a copy of the column (they say it wasn’t Stephens who sent them a copy) and published it in full Thursday. Here are some excerpts:

Journalism as a humanistic enterprise — as opposed to hack work or propaganda — does these things in order to teach both its practitioners and consumers to be thoughtful. There is an elementary difference between citing a word for the purpose of knowledge and understanding and using the same word for the purpose of insult and harm. Lose this distinction, and you also lose the ability to understand the things you are supposed to be educated to oppose.

[…]

We are living in a period of competing moral certitudes, of people who are awfully sure they’re right and fully prepared to be awful about it. Hence the culture of cancellations, firings, public humiliations and increasingly unforgiving judgments. The role of good journalism should be to lead us out of this dark defile. Last week, we went deeper into it.

On a related note, the Washington Post’s media critic Erik Wemple talked to some of the students from that 2019 Peru trip about their complaints, and what he found basically confirmed what critics of the New York Times suspected all along: That McNeil was, in the words of Andrew Sullivan, “fired for being sane”:

While it’s unclear if all of this means the 67-year-old McNeil gets to return to work (assuming he’d want to), what is very clear is that the New York Times has a serious “wokeism in the newsroom” crisis, and they have no one to blame for it but themselves.

— Stacey Matthews has also written under the pseudonym “Sister Toldjah” and can be reached via Twitter. —

 

 
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