Former NY Times Reporter Donald McNeil Jr. Gives His Side of Story on What Led to Forced Resignation
“A lot of your colleagues are hurt,” McNeil says NYT executive editor Dean Baquet told him. “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.”
We reported last month that veteran New York Times health and science reporter Donald McNeil Jr. “resigned” over resurfaced allegations he used racially offensive and sexist language during a 2019 NYT-sponsored student trip to Peru.
At issue were complaints from students who “specifically alleged that the science reporter used the ‘n-word’ and suggested he did not believe in the concept of white privilege” during the trip, according to a January story from the Daily Beast. “Three other participants alleged that McNeil made racist comments and used stereotypes about Black teenagers,” they also reported.
The Times higher-ups became aware of the claims and conducted a review. In the aftermath, executive editor Dean Baquet decided 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 given to the students and parents who had made the original complaints.
After the Daily Beast’s report went live, over 150 of McNeil’s NYT colleagues banded together and told the powers that be the paper needed to do more. Essentially they wanted to turn what was alleged to have happened into a very embarrassing and teachable public moment for both the Times and the 67-year-old journalist who had become their lead coronavirus reporter. Two days later, Baquet and the NYT’s managing editor Joe Kahn announced McNeil “will be leaving the company,” proclaiming that “we do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”
But once more details emerged over McNeil’s remarks, the NYT again faced backlash. These complaints came from people across the political spectrum, outraged that the paper ended McNeil’s near-50-year career because he said the “n-word” contextually after a student being asked him about its usage.
“Of course intent matters when we’re talking about language and journalism,” Baquet said.
On Monday, McNeil broke his silence to tell his side of the story in a 4-part series on Medium.
His accounting of what happened was lengthy and included many backstories on his history with the paper. Still, parts of it jibe with his public resignation letter (which Baquet included when McNeil’s resignation was announced) and appear to confirm what critics of the Times have said: that McNeil was forced out for being sane.
At times in what he wrote, McNeil appeared embarrassed and ashamed. Then he defended the paper at which he’d spent his entire professional life.
Other times in his Medium posts, McNeil was outraged. He boiled down supposed misunderstandings to him being a seasoned old man of the world judged by young folks in a “woke” environment for simply explaining there were nuances in life. He suggested that not every perceived slight experienced by people of color (and other minorities) could be blamed on “systemic racism” and/or “white privilege,” and the like.
He recalled one of the last conversations he had with Baquet in which, according to McNeil, Baquet asked him to “consider” noting in his apology letter that he was resigning:
“But Donald,” Dean said, “you’ve lost the newsroom. 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.”
“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.”
McNeil told him no initially but ended up agreeing to it.
As to the “controversial” comments made during the trip, here’s how McNeil described them contextually. First, on the use of the “n-word”:
A student asked me: “Do you think one of my classmates should have been suspended for using the N-word in a video from two years ago?”
I said: “Well, wait — what exactly happened on this video? Did she actually call someone “n****r”? Or was she just using it in passing, like quoting the title of a book?”
Her: “She was in 8th grade and she was joking with a friend of hers who was black: She said “well you’re a lazy N” or something like that, and she was Jewish, so her friend said “Well, you’re cheap Jew” or something like that. And then two years later, someone who used to be her friend shared the video.”
Me: “This happened when she was in 8th grade? When she was 12 years old? And she was just goofing around with her friend? And the school suspends her for it two years later? I think that’s ridiculous. Everybody knows 12 year olds do dumb things. They’re kids. Somebody from the school should have talked to her, yes, but suspension? I think that’s insane.”
On the claim he doesn’t believe system racism exists:
Me: “No, I didn’t — but I said it varies. This was during a long discussion of white privilege, crime rates, racism and other issues. The students blamed everything bad that befalls members of minority groups on “the system” or “institutional racism.”
“As I remember the conversation, I said something like: You can’t blame everything on “the system.” Yes, institutional racism exists — but it varies by institution. Racism inside the Los Angeles Police Department is different from racism inside the U.S. Army is different from racism inside The New York Times. You have to look at each case individually: Was it really because of institutional prejudice? Or was it because somebody actually screwed up? That’s why we have courts — they look at each case individually.”
[Charlotte Behrendt, NYT Associate Managing Editor]: “Did you say something about picking up the white mans’ burden?”
Me: “Yes. And a student got upset. But I explained it to her. I was quoting Kipling. I’m not sure the student had ever heard of Kipling.”
Seeing that Baquet did a 180 on context not mattering, it’s unclear what will happen at this point. It sounds like McNeil could have grounds for a lawsuit against the paper, but his Medium posts don’t give off that vibe. He sounds like a guy who wants his reputation back, if not his job:
Although the students liked me in 2018, some of those in 2019 clearly detested me. I do not see why their complaints should have ended my career at the Times two years later. But they did.
And now I’d like to put this behind me. I had hoped to be remembered as a good science reporter whose work saved lives. Not for this.
Though it’s hardly a consolation prize considering his 47-year history with the paper, what McNeil may ultimately end up being remembered for is being the guy who upended cancel culture at the New York Times.
— Stacey Matthews has also written under the pseudonym “Sister Toldjah” and can be reached via Twitter. —DONATE
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