The New York Times’s annual “State of the Times” address is usually an opportunity for top brass to brag about the newspaper’s achievements, of which it had plenty last year.
But in Thursday’s speech, Executive Editor Dean Baquet tried instead to douse a cultural inferno that has been consuming the Times newsroom for two weeks — ever since the public revelation of a star reporter’s racially offensive comments to schoolchildren.
“In our zeal to make a powerful statement about our workplace culture, we ham-handedly said something you rightfully saw as an oversimplification of one of the most difficult issues of our lives,” Baquet told staff, via webcam. “It was a deadline mistake and I regret it.”
By “an oversimplification of one of the most difficult issues of our lives,” Baquet probably meant his efforts to confront anti-Black racism, after reports about what the paper’s white, sexagenarian health reporter Donald McNeil Jr. — famous for his coverage of the coronavirus pandemic — had said to a group of high school students on a trip to Peru in 2019.
McNeil had used a racial epithet, among other things.
“Ham-handed” is a generous description of what followed: a series of managerial convulsions that left nearly everyone unsatisfied and publicly exposed deep divides within the Times newsroom over race and the treatment of Black employees. From an initial HR investigation that led to minimal punishment for McNeil, to his abrupt resignation last week after that investigation became public knowledge and Baquet’s attempts to regulate the use of racist language, the result has been open argument among Times journalists about their newspaper’s relationship to free speech and systemic bigotry.
“This was a tinderbox on top of other racial tinderboxes,” said a former Times employee — one of several past and present staffers who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.
Some Times employees have been happy to do so in public, as have thousands of outsiders watching the fire burn. “It’s hard to imagine how the NYT could have done a more complete and efficient job of botching this situation with Donald McNeil and the racial slurs,” tweeted Bill Grueskin, a Columbia Journalism School professor and former editor at the Wall Street Journal.
The high school excursion that ultimately sank McNeil’s 45-year-long career at the Times was one of the semiregular “student journeys” the newspaper sponsors. In the summer of 2019, a group of high-schoolers flew from Miami to Peru, where they explored the city of Lima and visited a small Indigenous community on the outskirts of Cusco. They learned about women dying for lack of the HPV vaccine, and about some residents’ mistrust of modern medicine.
McNeil joined them in the tour’s second week — an expert guide who would share with the teens his many years of experience covering medicine and disease around the world.
That may have been the Times’s first mistake. “Donald was the wrong guy to send on a trip like that,” a former Times employee who likes McNeil told The Post. He described McNeil as “very honest and principled,” but also “blunt” and sometimes “a little sour.”
In fact, McNeil was something of a legend at the paper: a former copy boy who joined the Times in 1976 and eventually became one of its top science reporters. He was also notoriously outspoken and cantankerous. In 2012, McNeil sent an email excoriating his own publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and other managers for running the Times like a “ghost ship.”
McNeil’s evening lectures to the students were generally received well. But he also got into informal conversations during meals and breaks. Two students on the 2019 trip described his manner as “gruff” and “odd.”
“Right out of the bat he was denigrating the medical traditions of Peru,” one student told The Post. Another described McNeil’s interaction with a local shaman as disrespectful and “cringeworthy.” At one point, the reporter allegedly described nepotism as “affirmative action for white people.”
McNeil made possibly his most offensive remark over lunch with the students outside the ancient city of Ollantaytambo. One of them told a story about a friend who had been reprimanded for using a racial slur. As he asked a follow-up question, McNeil repeated the friend’s offensive words back to the student.
“In asking the question, I used the slur itself,” McNeil would explain much later, after details of the conversation became public.
None of the students present were Black, but many were appalled at the reporter’s casual repetition of one of the most harmful words in the English language. That McNeil had merely quoted the slur, and not directed it at anyone, hardly helped.
“I felt like that trip changed my view of The New York Times,” a student told The Post. “By the end of the trip, we all distanced ourselves from him.”
Several students complained about McNeil in written reviews after the trip, which were passed on to management at the Times. McNeil was called in to meet with union officials and two of his supervisors, including Associate Managing Editor Charlotte Behrendt.
Her boss, Baquet, would later say he was furious at McNeil and expected to fire him before reconsidering. An internal investigation was launched in 2019, but in the end McNeil got off with a reprimand and a note in his personnel file. Few of his co-workers were even aware it had occurred. The following year, the student journeys program was quietly discontinued.
Within a few months, McNeil was the paper’s “go-to guide for understanding the coronavirus,” and a regular guest on popular Times podcasts.
The public and the vast majority of McNeil’s colleagues did not learn of the Peru situation until late last month, when the Daily Beast published a story with details from the internal investigation. “He showed extremely poor judgment,” Baquet wrote in an email to Times staff hours after the story published. But: “It did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious. I believe that in such cases people should be told they were wrong and given another chance.”
It was the first of several public statements that Baquet would be forced to retreat from.
The story about the Peru trip set off a chain reaction within the Times. The following week, more than 150 employees signed a letter to Times management expressing frustration with the publication’s handling of the situation and calling for McNeil to apologize. McNeil’s bosses became concerned about his apparent recalcitrance in the face of public criticism — particularly after he emailed The Washington Post a five-word comment on the situation: “Don’t believe everything you read.”
A little more than a week after the story’s publication, McNeil was gone from the Times. He wasn’t fired, according to people with knowledge of the decision, but was essentially compelled to resign.
“We feel that this is the right next step,” Baquet wrote in a Feb. 5 memo last week announcing the reporter’s abrupt departure. “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”
McNeil apologized to his colleagues and the students in his own statement. “I am sorry,” he wrote. “I let you all down.”
Neither of the men explained what had changed Baquet’s mind, but Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy suggested it wasn’t simply negative attention. “Often new information or concerns emerge after these cases become public,” she told The Post. At Thursday’s “State of the Times” event, Publisher A.G. Sulzberger made sure to note that employee concerns were considered but that management “did not change course because of them.”
If they thought that was the end of the matter, they were wrong. Bill Baker, a union official with the Times, blamed a “lack of transparency from management as to the entire situation” for leaving employees confused and angry in the wake of McNeil’s departure.
A former Times employee was blunt: “I think this is a catastrophe for The New York Times. I know a lot of people who feel that way.”
One sub-catastrophe: Baquet’s statement that “we do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” with no mention of McNeil’s other behavior on the trip, created an impression that he had lost his job for merely quoting a slur.
A backlash to the backlash against McNeil instantly took shape, and then a backlash against that backlash, as Times employees and other journalists argued openly on social media about McNeil’s fate and the newspaper’s attitude toward racial issues.
“For reporter Donald McNeil to end his long career, apparently as a result of a single word, risks sending a chilling message,” the free-speech organization PEN America said in a statement Saturday. “Mention of the word — for example, in an attempt to clarify how it was used in another context — must not be treated as the equivalent of a racist attack.”
John Eligon, a Times reporter covering race, criticized the PEN America statement for linking McNeil’s dismissal to “public pressure.” He wrote on Twitter: “Legit concerns were raised by Black employees who worked alongside Don.” At the same time, Eligon publicly chastised another Times reporter who had shared the PEN statement. “It’s disheartening that a colleague I’ve worked with and respected would tweet this and speaks to how isolating it is to be Black at a mainstream news org,” he wrote. Eligon did not return calls and messages seeking comment.
Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens wrote an essay linking McNeil’s punishment to a “culture of cancellations, firings, public humiliations and increasingly unforgiving judgments.” After the Times refused to print the column, Stephens emailed it to several colleagues, and it was eventually published in the New York Post. (“We kill columns all the time for all sorts of reasons, and there’s an especially high bar for a piece that could reflect badly on our colleagues,” Times opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury told The Post.)
Baquet tried to clean up his language in Thursday’s speech.
“Of course intent matters when we are talking about language in journalism,” he said. “The author and his purpose also matter, the moment matters. The slur we’ve been discussing is a vile one. I’ve been called it. But it appears in our pages and it will no doubt appear in our pages again.”
But it’s clear he’s not in control of the argument.
“To see people whose work I respect debating this word in some abstract exercise about the consistency of newsroom policy is incredibly revealing,” Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her work on the Times series on slavery, the 1619 Project, wrote on Twitter Thursday.
“Of course journalists should, carefully and thoughtfully, use the word IN PRINT if directly quoting someone or a historic text and the word is deemed necessary for the story,” she wrote. “That is not what happened with Don McNeil.”
McNeil has remained largely silent about the matter. When reached by email, he declined to comment, but expressed concern over the privacy of the students on the trip. But the weekend after his departure became public, he sent a note to some friends and family, which The Post obtained.
“I’ll be fine,” McNeil wrote. “I’m 67, and for some years now, my dream has been to get a pickup truck and an RV and disappear into the Rockies with a fishing rod.”
“I know I’m oddly silent,” he explained, “but it’s because I’m still employed by the Times for a bit while we finish up dreary departure details and I was asked not to discuss the Peru trip until I’m gone. It’s frustrating to leave in the middle of the biggest story of my life, but we all knew my big mouth would get me into trouble one day, didn’t we?”