Chaos erupted in a Facebook group of former and current New York Times writers, soon after the forced ‘resignation’ of star science writer Donald McNeil Jr. from the paper. As reported by Washington Free Beacon, McNeil’s departure sent shockwaves amongst the Times writers. While some justified his dismissal, others claimed that this sets a ‘troubling precedent’.
NYT hired Donald McNeil Jr. in 1976. Since then, he has won numerous awards for journalism. However, his ouster is taking place two years after the incident which triggered his dismissal took place. He had accompanied high school students on a trip to Peru in 2019. To a question from a student about whether one of her classmates should have been suspended for using the derogatory n-word, he ended up speaking the offending words himself.
An internal Times investigation found his judgment wanting but stopped short of firing him.
However, when the neoliberal news website The Daily Beast published an account of the incident two years after, it kicked up a storm. “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” Dean Baquet, the NYT’s executive editor, told staff in an email. McNeil’s unceremonious departure, coupled with Baquet’s email telling staff that ‘intent doesn’t matter’ when it comes to racist words, caused a perfect storm of bitter debate amongst the Times’s employees.
Washington Free Beacon further quoted Steven Greenhouse, a journalist with New York Times, who questioned the worker solidarity. “And why didn’t the NewsGuild do far more to defend and protect the job of a long-time Times employee, one who at times did tireless, heroic work on behalf of the Guild to help improve pay and conditions for all NYT employees?” he was quoted saying.
NYT crossword columnist Deb Amlen accused Greenhouse of an excessive focus on the “perpetrator,” arguing that he and others should shift their attention to the people McNeil had “harmed.” “Why is it that the focus in discussions like this almost always [is] on ruining the perpetrator’s life, and not those who were harmed by [his actions],” she asked.
This is just the latest racial controversy embroiling the New York Times, which saw a revolt among minority staffers over the summer of 2020 after publishing an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican Senator from Arkansas. Opinion editor James Bennet ultimately lost his job for allowing the op-ed to run.
The NYT executive editor, Dean Baquet’s statement in particular has come under heavy fire. “‘We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent’ might be the most racist statement I’ve ever read,” said Lawrence De Maria, an award-winning crime and finance reporter. “It demeans ALL races.”
The debate also spilled over onto Twitter. NYT reporter Michael Powell, who specializes in free speech issues, sparked backlash from colleagues when he tweeted a statement from the nonprofit literary organization PEN calling McNeil’s ouster “chilling.” NYT reporter John Eligon, who covers racial issues for the Times, responded by accusing him of racism: “You often wonder what your white colleagues who are lovely to your face are actually thinking or saying about you — or people like you — behind your back,” he wrote.
You often wonder what your white colleagues who are lovely to your face are actually thinking or saying about you — or people like you — behind your back.— John Eligon (@jeligon) February 7, 2021
The lack of clear standards has generated frustration internally. “I don’t think anybody feels like we have any clarity about what happened with that incident or other alleged incidents,” one New York Times reporter told the Free Beacon. “[W]e demand transparency of other people, and we don’t have it in our own processes.”
It has also raised questions about who really edits the paper: the NYT executive editor Dean Baquet or the radicals who work for him. “Dean and AG [Sulzberger] make a decision, and then are bullied by a vocal minority into changing their minds,” NYT contributor Robert Worth said in the Facebook group. “This is not the NYT I know.”
The incident is being cited as a perfect example of Cancel Culture, where an innocuous incident from your past is dredged up and presented in the worst possible light, in order to extinguish your present day employment opportunities.
It is definitely difficult to believe that the same Robert McNeil Jr., who won a First Place award from the U.S. National Association of Black Journalists for his work covering the AIDS epidemic in Africa, is also somehow a racist who harbors animosity and ill will towards black people. This obvious contradiction lies smack dab in the middle of this controversy, and we anticipate this won’t be the last controversy to arise out of the New York Times.